Matt Labash appraises a Blockbuster ending.Nov 25, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 11 • By MATT LABASH
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.
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.
Nov 11, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 09 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
Believers in limited government and privatization lost one of their unsung heroes with the death of distinguished economist Ed Clarke on October 10. Clarke conceived of an idea he called revealed demand, a notion that helped make the case for having the market allocate goods and services formerly thought to be the sole province of governments.
Scott Carpenter, 1925-2013 Nov 4, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 08 • By JOSHUA GELERNTER
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union opened the space age by orbiting Sputnik, history’s first artificial satellite. Four months later, the United States launched its own first satellite and began hiring astronauts in the hopes of beating the Soviets to a manned space flight. President Eisenhower wanted his astronauts to be test pilots, and 500 applied. Sixty-nine of them were invited to Washington for interviews, IQ and aptitude tests, and a notoriously thorough set of medical exams.
Joseph Bottum, Der GummibärchenkennerNov 4, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 08 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Herr Riegel’s father vas a candy maker. Was, I mean. Was a candy maker. This morning, over the phone, a friend made some passing reference to German economic policy—speaking, unfortunately, in that exaggerated German accent that used to be a standard of American comedy. You remember? Sgt. Schultz on Hogan’s Heroes, Arte Johnson on Laugh-In. And the trouble is that once that voice gets into your head, it hangs around for days.
Ronald Coase, 1910-2013. Sep 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 04 • By ANDREW B. WILSON
Though I never met the man, I feel a debt of gratitude to Ronald Coase, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who died on Labor Day at age 102. Reading his “Nature of the Firm,” one of the most cited essays in all of economics literature, encouraged me to start my own business.
Jean Bethke Elshtain, 1941-2013 Aug 26, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 47 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Jean Bethke Elshtain may have been the busiest woman many of us had ever met. Shuttling back and forth between her regular teaching appointment at the University of Chicago and her settled home in Tennessee, she wrote and wrote—and wrote and wrote. Essays, talks, books, memos to fellow directors on the almost endless number of boards on which she served. Letters, emailed comments about her friends’ latest work, notes on current theological and political issues: a ceaseless flow of words.
Leonard Garment, 1924-2013Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
It's a thankless job, being a political aide. Your every prerogative and responsibility derives like planetary light from the combustion of your supernova, the Great Man or Woman who has brought you into his (or her!) orbit and whose gravitational field guides and sustains you. The connection isn’t fated to end in disillusion, necessarily. Every once in a while an aide survives to wrest an individual achievement from the years of secondhand glory.
Joseph Bottum on the guy who knew Jim Morrison
Jun 3, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 36 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
I met him once. Well, met in the loosest sense: I was introduced to Ray Manzarek at a Los Angeles restaurant in the 1980s and got to shake his hand. No more than that, but even at the time it felt like an encounter with passing greatness, a brush with the fading mythology of the age, and down through the years, I’ve never forgotten it.
Apr 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 30 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
I cannot claim to have been an intimate of Margaret Thatcher’s. But I can claim to have known her on several levels—as a prime minister from whom I learned to put the “political” back into “political economy,” as a woman who fancied both her whisky and her sweet desserts, and as one who made it possible for me and others to withstand the thuggishness of the pickets attempting to block the introduction of new technology into Britain’s newspaper industry.
Dec 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 14 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
The Scrapbook notes with regret the death last week of Dave Brubeck, the California-born, classically trained pianist whose eponymous quartet—with its infectious melodies and unconventional time signatures—did so much to revitalize jazz in the 1950s and ’60s. Brubeck, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, and drummer Joe Morello are all now gone, leaving only the bass player, 89-year-old Eugene Wright.
5:20 PM, Jun 27, 2012 • By DANIEL HALPER
Jill Hanson, an impressive and successful behind-the-scenes Republican political operative, passed away earlier this month after suffering from throat cancer. A memorial service for Hanson is scheduled in Washington, D.C. for Friday, June 29, at at the Capitol Hill Club, 300 First Street SE, Washington D.C., at 10 a.m.
7:05 PM, Mar 1, 2012 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
I suspect many of Andrew Breitbart's friends thinking today about how they’ll remember Andrew will picture him charging through the lobby of a hotel followed by opponents hoping to trip him up, supporters cheering on the confrontation, or journalists taking it all in. Some will recall seeing him give a speech to hundreds of conservative activists as he did in Michigan last Saturday. Many will remember having drinks or dinner or coffee with Andrew and a large group of people crowded around a tiny bar table or spilling out awkwardly into the aisles of a restaurant.
9:37 AM, Jan 9, 2012 • By ARNOLD STEINBERG
Two weeks ago I spoke with Tony Blankley. He was in the ICU at Sibley Hospital in Washington. He was glad to hear from me. He was cheerful, upbeat, optimistic.