I recently watched a documentary on Netflix called The Last Blockbuster. It’s about the last remaining Blockbuster video store in Bend, OR. It also takes a look at how the once-powerful chain that had 9,000 video stores collapsed.
Watching this documentary brought back memories about when I was high school and first started renting videos. Back then, it was VHS and Beta, which were these big, clunky video tapes. At the beginning of the video era, video stores were tiny and drab with crumpled-up movie posters in the window. The videos were crammed on the shelves like library books, with no covers on them, so you picked them by the stickers on the side of the video case. Most of time you went in knowing what you wanted, and if they didn’t have it, the person behind the counter would try to convince you to rent another movie they thought you would like.
A video could only be rented for a night, so you had to rush home to watch it and bring it back the next day to avoid a late fee and the embarrassment of bringing it back late. It was not uncommon that if you had a video, especially if it was a new release, for an angry video store owner to call you and remind you to bring back Good Morning, Vietnam, since they probably only had two copies of it.
At the time, video stores were all mom-and-pop businesses, so you’d always know the owner, which sucked when you forgot to rewind a video or turned one in late. It was hard not to take things personally. But, after all, most of the people who rented videos in my neighborhood were irresponsible suburban teenagers, so it makes sense that they treated us like spoiled kids.
A lot of that changed when Blockbuster came on the scene.
I remember when the first Blockbuster video store opened near me. The store was big and bright with its blue and yellow colors. It stayed open late. It had a huge selection — not only of movies, but also old TV shows, documentaries, and stand-up specials. They carried tons of copies of new releases.
They had the videos displayed so you could read the front and back cover, and because of this, you could get lost in Blockbuster. It was the Bermuda Triangle of video stores.
Yes, it was corporate, but back then there was something refreshing about that, because when I went in there, I felt like an adult. But more than that, for someone like me who always wanted to be in show business, there was something about a Blockbuster that made me feel closer to it. It was like Hollywood had set up a branch office in the suburbs.
I was learning how to binge watch before it was a thing. I would rarely leave with less than three videos — let’s say Rain Man, 12 episodes of the first season of “The Andy Griffith Show,” and a Beatles documentary. You could do this because, for the most part, you did not have to bring them back the next day. When I got home, I never knew what I wanted to start with and would end up staying up ’til 4 in the morning watching my videos.
It wasn’t until after watching The Last Blockbuster that I realized that renting movies wasn’t just a big deal for me, but it was a big part of many people’s growing up.
The last time I rented a video from a video store had to be about ten years ago, when I was first dating my wife, Lauren. I had resisted getting Netflix because I resist change. There was one video store left in Evanston.
People in Evanston like causes and there was no better cause than supporting the last independent video store in town. I loved going in there, even though the vibe was they were going to close any day, and they could close without warning. The big guy behind the counter thought I was famous because I had two lines in Public Enemies, and I think he looked my up in IMDB, which I have to admit, was pretty cool.
When I went in there, we talked about movies, how the store was doing and other famous people who had come in over the years. (Bill Murray, Tim Kazurinsky and Chris Stolte from “Chicago Fire.”)
The Big Guy knew movies, and not in a nerd way. He was more practical than pretentious. Like a friend who had similar tastes in movies that I trusted.
Those conversations were always enlightening and inspired me to watch things I might have normally overlooked, and it always felt like we were two “show people” talking about “the industry” we loved, though I was slightly more famous and never held it over him.
Watching that documentary really made me feel sad that video stores are no longer. Today, you don’t have to make as much of effort to watch a movie. I can watch anything I want at the click of a button, and I never have to rush out to the store to get something back on time, but I also miss the human connection, even over the power of movies.
Blockbuster, I miss you.