Be Kind: Requiem For A Blockbuster Video

By  · Published on November 18th, 2013

When the Blockbuster was built down the block from my house, it was a game-changer. Not because it was the first store in our city (we’d been renting movies there and elsewhere for a while), but because it made it that much easier to see movies. The indulgent chore had become a quick bike ride or an even quicker car ride with my folks to the brand new strip mall just beyond our neighborhood. The ritual became wandering through the aisles searching for VHS gold before going next door to Marble Slab for ice cream and a frozen juggling show.

The time-marches-on appropriateness of that memory isn’t lost on me now as I have two Netflix envelopes and a mile-long queue sitting on my physical and digital shelves receptively, and even though it’s only for nostalgia’s sake, it’s still slightly sad to see the blue and yellow brand go. It’s understandable that not many are mourning now. As a matter of practicality, it’s difficult to keep the dirges and funeral pyre flames bursting this long, and as a matter of principle, Blockbuster is still rightfully viewed as the corporate behemoth that pushed moms and pops out of the temporary entertainment business. The thing is, we didn’t have the luxury of a mom and pop video store where I grew up, so that behemoth was the warm bosom where I convinced my mom to rent The Secret of NIMH 3 times before she broke down and bought it, where I blind-acquired Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (as a fan of Holy Grail) which dropped my middle school-aged jaw when I realized what they were singing about, and where I’d hang around for no particular reason throughout high school.

That’s owed wholesale to living in a town that, despite having over 150,000 residents, seemed to have nothing to do for anyone below the AARP age requirement. Our options were the beach, the punk shows, the movies, or Blockbuster.

Plus, there’s a genuine black hole created by losing it. Netflix has streaming locked down, Red Box has become the king of newer releases, but exploring older stuff (even by just a few years) that isn’t available online yet is gone on a large scale. Those lucky enough to have a Vulcan or a Casa Video or a local rental shop or one of the 50 franchise-owned Blockbusters that will stay open will still have that exploratory magic to look forward to, but plenty of communities will be solely at the whims of Netflix’s and Red Box’s stock. Some have snarked at a generation that has grown accustomed to having everything at its fingertips, but I see no reason why complete access to art shouldn’t be the goal, and with Blockbuster locations becoming Halloween costume rental stores, we’re taking a step back in that respect. To put it simply, if I want to see Romancing the Stone right now, right now – I’m out of luck. Or out of $3 on Amazon. Proof that membership had its benefits.

But, yes, Blockbuster had its limitations, too. A few years ago my friend Dave and I landed in the middle of a West Wing marathon, and decided that we wanted to watch it from the Pilot, so we scoured the three closest rental places to his house. None of them had it, so I was forced (forced, I say!) to buy the Collector’s Attaché Case Edition of the complete series from Best Buy (a company I was surprised to learn still exists).

On the other hand, that situation illustrates the store’s evolution from first stop to last resort. Dave and I wanted to watch the first season right then, not wait for a disc from a then-nascent Netflix to arrive in a few days. It was the rare example of Blockbuster letting me down as a final ditch option for immediate gratification (they always seemed to have Three Amigos and Airplane! in stock), but it was also during that middle ground period where Blockbuster was in decline and Netflix (and the dream of what it could ultimately be) was on the rise.

Ian Casselberry at Bloguin shares my last-minute appreciation of the place, and looks to a hypothetical future with a hint of optimism:

“Maybe there’s no going back. Or maybe communities will just have to develop and support independent video stores in the future, where more obscure and classic titles can be found and film aficionados can gather. It’ll have to happen on the local level, in places where those sorts of businesses and producers can establish themselves. Obviously, a video store isn’t the same as a farmers market, but perhaps that level of attention and devotion – and disdain for large corporate chains – will be necessary to keep something like that in business.”

I appreciate that view and even see evidence for it in the bookstore world, but I highly doubt my particular hometown is capable of cultivating that kind of haven. However, Casselberry is also right to point to binge-watching as the 73rd and final nail in the coffin for the chain renter. My mind boggles at the logistics involved in watching all four and a half Breaking Bad seasons in anticipation for the last 8 episodes without Netflix making them available to stream. It’s a recently invented cultural phenomenon that powered its inventor and landed yet another death blow to the old, already sickly behemoth.

It’s now fodder for small business owners looking for a home, but Blockbuster will also remain as a warehouse of personal memories and favorite stories – whether it’s when employee-turned-filmmaker Marcus Dunstan learned the perseverance to keep chasing his directorial dreams by filling his pants or the uncountable times I trotted home with DVDs in one paw and ice cream in the other.

Streaming should absolutely be vaulted to its rightful pedestal as Netflix and Hulu have earned their cultural apotheosis, but every once in a while I get a craving for a specific flick and long for that quick bicycle ride. Or maybe I just miss the ice cream.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.