Monday, August 20, 2018

Requiem for the video store, part 4: Blockbuster

...Pick up. Drop off. It was, for many, a daily experience. Blockbuster made it easy for you, with mailbox-like units that you could deposit your used movies in like letters. You didn’t even have to get out of your car. You pulled up, rolled down your window…
And in writing this, I realize how absolutely ancient that must seem to a teenager.

It's true, there was a time, not that long ago, when Blockbuster Video stores were as ubiquitous as Starbucks cafes. Hard to believe that time has passed, but how can you compete with online streaming? Still, I never thought the day would come when BB would generate not only nostalgia, but sympathy.

BB as the underdog, the analog lone wolf struggling to survive in a digital wilderness? Under other circumstances, I might be more  sympathetic. Fact is, though, my history within video retail gives me a different perspective, because for many years, BB was the enemy.

I worked at three independent video stores from 1996-2003 (plus a six-month stretch at Tower Records in 1995, where I split time in the video and music departments), and one thing the customers at each indie had in common was their gratitude we weren't BB.

I'd hear it all the time. Maybe it was  because it was New York City, and we tend to get indie and foreign films before most places (and for a longer time), but I dealt with customers who demanded more than just mainstream Hollywood cinema — and BB didn't supply it as much or as often as we did.

That made a big difference in all three indie stores in which I worked, though in the end, BB won out through sheer strength in numbers. When I worked at the Third Avenue store, a BB opened on Second Avenue, on the same block as us, but I don't remember feeling seriously threatened. I believed we could compete with them, in large part, because so many of our customers hated BB and wanted nothing to do with them.

Oh, yeah, that's another thing: BB, like other national chain businesses, set up shop in locations where their (smaller) competition, like us, was already established, so that they could be top dog in time. They could afford to wait, too. Funny how none of the articles I've seen about the last BB standing mention little details like that.

And y'know, props to the Bend, Oregon BB for keeping their doors open this long and surviving in the age of Netflix, but as someone who actively worked against them for eight years, I can't forget the old days that easy. One day, sooner rather than later, the last Blockbuster Video will die, too... but the end will come far, far too late for me.

part 1
part 2
part 3


  1. It started with the neighbourhood Blockbuster. Gavin's favourite place. He would head straight to the kids/animated section. He would fix things. Tom and Jerry does not belong in the middle of the Thomas the Tank Engine tapes. As he sat on the floor, sorting, a young clerk came by to give him a hard time when I explained that Gavin was autistic. "Oh" he said. "He has to do that. Have fun, buddy."

    Gavin eventually knew the location of all Blockbusters and independent stores he could reach across the city by transit. He would drag Garry all over the place, and never forgot what he borrowed from where, and when it was due. Whenever Garry argued such a point, he would always discover that Gavin was correct.

    I never envisioned a time when video show hopping wouldn't be a part of Gavin's life.

  2. Awesome story. Thanks.

    I'd probably feel differently about BB if I never worked in video rental. I liked recording movies off of the TV as a kid. Those I could keep. Renting videos was never something I considered until I reached college age.

  3. My fondest memory of Video rental stores, and I am talking about going back to a time where they had to rent VCRs because nobody had then yet, was the immigrant population that ran them. For some reason almost every store in my area was run by a recent immigrant family who did a great job, but still had not quite connected with the area. The stores would have names like "Home Box-Video" and "Cina-rent."
    It was my first experience seeing a family trying to assimilate and it earned my respect.

  4. Nice story. I preferred recording movies off of TV as a kid, so I didn't frequent video stores much. I vaguely recall knowing that VCRs could be rented, but we always had our own.


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