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Blockbuster, 1985-2013

Matt Labash appraises a Blockbuster ending.

Nov 25, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 11 • By MATT LABASH
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Though four decades shy of being an octogenarian myself, I’m starting to know how they feel. For at the hurtling speed of change these days, even a casual observer of the scene is unwittingly turned into a perpetual obituarist, forever marking the loss of old friends. So it was again last week, when news broke that Blockbuster was shuttering all of its bricks-and-mortar video stores. 

jori bolton

jori bolton

The company is down to 300 outlets from its 9,000-store zenith; a new store used to open every 24 hours. Blockbuster’s announcement was doubly cruel, since many reacted with, “You mean they aren’t already dead?” Indeed, if you were one of the lonely holdouts who found yourself in a Blockbuster franchise—clerks often outnumbering patrons in the latter days—the ritual had become like visiting a favorite uncle with advanced dementia. You told yourself you were happy to see the shell of him that was left, but averted your gaze as he tried to comb his hair with a spoon. 

 Like most complicated relationships, mine with Blockbuster has been love-hate. Mostly hate. I hated their store colors—the shock blue-and-yellow that made it look like the old Los Angeles Rams locker room, the latter likely smelling better. I hated their usurious overdue fees, and that in a nod to commerce they turned half the store into a toy emporium for nagging brats, making it easier to find a Hello Kitty carry-along dollhouse than it was to find The Godfather: Part II. I hated that they crushed the mom-and-pops, much as Netflix later crushed them. I hated that your average Blockbuster clerk, a minimum-wage slave in sad, sagging khakis, had abysmal taste. (“Uh, have you seen Scooby Doo 2—Monsters Unleashed? Awesome!”) He always seemed more interested in tending his seeping problem skin or his pot dealer on line two than he did in checking you out with dispatch. 

 And yet, Blockbuster was an integral part of my life for a quarter-century. It was the place you’d go when you wanted to spend more time with your family. (“Hey, kids, let’s make it a Blockbuster night!”) Or, a place you’d say you were going when you needed to get away from them. It was an appointment, a destination. An actual location that occupied physical space. 

Though I’m no corporate tea-leaf reader, when four Blockbusters disappeared seemingly overnight in my neck of the woods two years ago, I figured I’d better make the switch to Netflix. Their selection dwarfs Blockbuster’s, though I’ll probably see only a fraction of the 600 or so films in my queue before death, as a result of my ever-diminishing attention span. (Thanks, Internet.) I have a hybrid plan, enabling me to stream films. Though I must rely on mailers too, since most of Netflix’s new releases only come on DVD. With all this new convenience, what was once a five-minute car-ride for an impulse rental at Blockbuster can now take up to five days of mail turnaround time, putting me in mind of the Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, who noted, “Progress is man’s ability to complicate simplicity.” 

After the announcement was made last week, I hopped in the car, for old time’s sake, to go see the only Blockbuster left in our region—over an hour away from my house in another state. In a past-prime strip mall, all the old memories came flooding back: the water-damaged drop ceiling, the embarrassing “staff picks” (today’s selection was Furry Vengeance), the 33 extraneous copies of White House Down, the rows of candy and microwave popcorn badly outnumbering the forlorn “Dramas.”

Standing by the anime section, a man watching over his 5-year-old son, Logan, tells me his kid loves to physically handle the boxes and make his pick. It’s more tactile and satisfying than doing it on a screen or from a Redbox machine. As this is Blockbuster’s last day of rentals before they begin their eight-week liquidation, a middle-aged man named James, cradling a dozen DVDs, tells me he has a lot of bootlegging to do before he has to revert to illegal downloading. “It ain’t like it used to be,” he says wistfully. 

Standing with James, I realize I’m probably not just visiting the last Blockbuster, but quite possibly, the last video store I’ll ever stand in. A few short years ago, video stores were everywhere. Now, just like that, they’re not. I should point out that Blockbuster isn’t completely going away. The company, or what’s left of it, will still exist as “Internet-only.” 

 Not, increasingly, unlike the rest of us. 

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