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The Secret in the Old VCR Tapes

There must be something on these old cassettes. As long as I don't know, I can't get rid of them.

Elizabeth Crane began her writing and editing career penning business profiles and case studies for print magazines. After a long and varied freelance career, she joined All Things D as a copy editor and came to Vox in the Recode acquisition.

On a use-it-or-lose-it pass through my tiny San Francisco house, I dumped files, donated books and mercilessly thinned my closet. When I came across two oversized videocassette tapes that had survived 30 years of previous purges, I weighed them in my hands and wiped the dust off the edges. By all rights, they should have been trashed long ago. I had never owned a machine they would fit into; each cartridge, in its black plastic snap-shut cover, has the approximate dimensions of a hardback book, not a paperback-sized VCR tape cassette.

As long as I don’t know what’s on these tapes, I can’t get rid of them.

There must be something on these tapes. I wouldn’t have saved them in the first place if they weren’t somehow relevant to my life. As long as I don’t know, I can’t get rid of them.

Except maybe I do know what is on there. One tape might show me being interviewed on a news program. In my memory, I am wearing a navy-blue V-neck sweater and talking excitedly about the Academic Decathlon I am participating in. I am 17, a senior in high school, just like my son is now. The other tape may or may not contain footage of my father doing something involving his job as a marine biologist. My father died after a long illness the same year my son was born. I have a photograph of him in my room, and a framed piece of correspondence (on which he drew a hug). Maybe on the tape he is talking about teaching, or about a fish that lights up. I don’t have a visual in my head, just a vague recollection that this unlabeled tape contains the only footage I have of my dad.

Maybe the decades on my shelf — all those years of heating and cooling, humidity and dirt — had permanently damaged them. Tape is a fragile medium. Did the machine to play these tapes still exist somewhere? If I waited any longer, would my chance to recover the contents be lost? Thinking about all the media machines I had purchased and ditched — a phonograph, a cassette deck, a VCR, God help me a laser disc player — I did not feel all that confident that the technology to retrieve my digital memories would be around forever.

I had read Walt Mossberg’s review of a Web service called PeggyBank*. It sounded like a good idea — send them your old media in whatever format it happens to be in, and they send you back digital files you could watch on your computer.

I contacted the company and received a cheery reply. “Your memories will be professionally transferred to a format that will keep them safe and easy to see today and for many days to come,” a PeggyBank rep informed me in email. “Once we complete your order, we will notify you by email. We’re honored you chose PeggyBank to preserve your memories and can’t wait to get started.”

I paid up, and promptly forgot all about it.

Nine months later, I came across the receipt and wondered what had happened. I had sent this company my precious tapes. Had they lost them? Gone out of business? Ditched my memories and skipped town with the cash? I shot a terse and, frankly, annoyed email to the folks at PeggyBank. Where were my files?

Nine months in Internet years is practically a lifetime.

PeggyBank, it turned out, was “under new management.”

My tapes were safe, the company assured me. The backlog of physical data waiting to be transferred had pushed the time frame for getting my files to me out to a year. Or longer.

So much for the instant gratification economy. I hadn’t said, “I want it now,” but I had assumed I would get it within a few weeks, maybe a month. Nine months in Internet years is practically a lifetime. The only footage I might have of my dad, and I had sent it to the most inefficient and possibly incompetent company available. I should have left the tapes on the shelf.


A year after I sent in the tapes, the doorbell rang. My UPS delivery guy was there with a package from, of all places, PeggyBank. There they were, my big fat cassettes in their cheap black covers. Included in the box were instructions on how to access the digital account where my converted files now lived. At last! I sent the request email exactly the way the instructions specified, and waited for directions pointing me to a Dropbox account. I got the standard “we have received your email” response, and then nothing.


I wanted to bombard them with emails and phone calls, but apparently they had been hit with this tactic in the past. Their automated reply to all emails expressly stated: Sending multiple emails will reset your position in the support queue to the end of the line. So I sat on my hands and reset the countdown clock.

Giving Thanks

On Thanksgiving eve, it was a year and a half since I’d sent in the tapes. I took a chance and wrote to PeggyBank. “It is the season of goodwill! Of thankfulness and giving! Please may I have my Dropbox link?” It worked. I got a prompt reply with a link to two Dropbox files. Yippee! I clicked through and found that these files were from two VCR tapes I had included with the two larger tapes. I inquired where the other footage was, and got this in response:

“I apologize for not being more clear. The oversized tapes are a format that we do not support. I apologize for the inconvenience, and will be happy to assist you in any way I can.”

I wrote back to express my shock and dissatisfaction, but that happy-to-assist-you attitude turned out to be a front. The next email I received made that plain: “Thank you very much for contacting us and your continued patience. Unfortunately … PeggyBank has been forced to close our doors.” The email went on to outline exactly how little help I would be receiving from them.

I suppose I should have seen this coming. I’ve watched enough dot-com companies come and go. Startups big and small rise up and try to make a business, but only some of them survive. PeggyBank joins Webvan and Clinkle on the dustheap of Internet history, and the tapes are back to moldering away on my bookshelf. In the years since Walt reviewed PeggyBank, the transfer of tapes and films to digital files has been taken over by the big boys: You can get standard tapes digitized at Walgreens.

* Full disclosure: I was a copy editor at AllThingsD, so I had to read that review; I am now a copy editor at Re/code.

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