Sunday, July 22, 2018

Sunday Long Read: The Last Blockbuster

Justin Heckert at The Ringer gives us the last days of the final three Blockbuster Video stores in Alaska, stores that went for eight years after their corporate home collapsed in 2010 after a double hurricane of Redbox and Netflix, in a land where renting videos and DVDs was king of the frontier.

It was hard to remember exactly what it had been like to rent a movie. What it felt like on a Friday or Saturday night, hoping all the copies in the NEW RELEASE section weren’t already gone. What it felt like to run into people, the serendipity of movie store as gathering spot, what it felt like to stand around the counter and listen to the banter of the staff, who knew each other’s tastes, and peccadillos. The slogans that were everywhere — MAKE IT A BLOCKBUSTER NIGHT! — on walls and the desks and dangling on string from the overhead tiles. It was hard to remember exactly how bright it was in Blockbuster, and just how big the stores were, and the gray-blue carpeting and that the walls were yellow-dull and they all looked pretty much the same. And that its membership cost nothing at all, that going there and getting a movie didn’t require an entry fee, like the internet. That even the video games had stickers, like it was a corporate mandate to slap them on everything: TO PLAY IS HUMAN. TO REWIND IS DIVINE. That children had a kind of feral autonomy unsupervised in the Family sections of the store. That it was fun to go just to … go, having no idea what to get; that it was OK not to have instant access to the previews of every movie, to make a choice by relying on instinct.

The general manager saw this phenomenon in Anchorage, Alaska. At the Blockbuster on Debarr Road, the busiest Blockbuster and the biggest of the three in the state, a store that had peaked years ago at $2 million in annual sales, one of the most popular stores in the country. A store that had thrived years after corporate went bankrupt in 2010. A store that had survived under the ownership of a man in Texas, made its sustenance in renting tons of New Releases, and TV series, and selling candy, and keeping late fees.

For the regular customers, of course, the residents, renting movies there hadn’t really changed; it was a continuous part of life — they dropped them off in the slot by the door, and used laminated cards, and argued about late fees like it was 1997. And tourists came, too, the tourists who dreamed about Alaska; the tourists who got out of their cabs and rental cars and could see the white panorama of the mountains just beyond the Blockbuster Video sign in that strip mall, who took selfies in the parking lot, the tourists who entered and stood inside the store almost breathless in the landscape of alphabetized physical media. The tourists whom Kevin Daymude watched with their mouths hanging open and the edges of their eyes puckering with tears.

“You get these stories … it’s amazing,” he said. “‘I had my first date at Blockbuster!’ Or, ‘I met someone at Blockbuster and married them; we hit it off with the same kind of movies.’”

Kevin was 55. He was not a fan of technology, or Netflix, a word he used like a slur. He’d worked for Blockbuster for 27 years. “I think technology has really hindered us,” he said. “Hindered our social skills. I mean, how many times you see on commercials, You don’t have to leave the comfort of your own home! Well, I’m sorry, I like to leave my home. I don’t want to sit there and do my shopping online.” Kevin was a former college defensive tackle, and he was bald and had huge forearms and he was tan. He wore slender, black-frame glasses, he had a trimmed silver beard, and in a store that was full of sounds — the beeping of the bar code scanners, the Disney movies playing overhead, the phones ringing, the cases snapping — the most memorable was the wheezing of his constant and almost habitual laugh: “Whoo, hahah, hehhehe!” Everything seemed to make him laugh, which made it fun to be in the store. He hated Redbox. Redbox? “It’s a vending machine,” he said. “Hoo-hehh, heah! Think about it.”

“When I have someone come in and say, ‘Kevin, do you know anything about John Wayne?’ and I say, ‘Well, YEAH, I’m a John Wayne fanatic,’ I mean, that happens. All. The. TIME! Hooehee-hah!”

The assistant manager, Danielle Provence, nicknamed Dani, kind of a badass behind the counter, was great at remembering whether the store had certain movies in stock, and rolled her own cigarettes. She was 24 and took classes at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She said to him, “Do you know why the Scarecrow won an Academy Award?”

“Wizard of Oz?” Kevin asked.

“Ha! No … it’s because he was out standing in his field.”

At this Kevin bellowed, took his glasses off, and said, “Shut uuuup, hehahah!”

“That guy who was just [here], he does the cleanest jokes,” she said. “I love that guy. … That’s his thing! He likes clean ones. They’re hilarious.”

“Oh my gosh, go away,” Kevin replied.

This type of interaction at a video store, this type of customer service, was a dying art, and was definitely not enough to keep the business going. That was the painful truth. No matter how many customers knew Dani and Kevin, or called themselves regulars, or came in to rent 15 individual discs of different TV series, time was running out.

“I gotta come and give Kevin hugs,” said Deb Day, 63, a lady wearing a ball cap who rolled up her sleeves to show vivid tattoos of snakes and flowers and birds on her arms. “Why do I come here? … I could probably find everything I ever wanted online. I was on Netflix for a while. I like coming here, though, because I got to know the people. … And so, when you don’t have this” — she waved her tatted arm around the store — “you really start cutting yourself off. I work with a lot of people who are younger than me, and they laugh at me. For being here. … ‘Why am I not streaming?’ and I tell them, I like being able to get in my car, come here, bitching to Kevin.”

The joke about Anchorage was that it was 10 years behind the Lower 48, like that’s how long it took for time to breach the barrier of the mountains. But the store was going to close and the joke about time no longer applied to the situation. The store was wondrous in its nostalgia, though, in its hum of movement and goings-on; so it was easy to feel the arguments skew in support of the past. Netflix, for example, didn’t have a bargain bin or a giant Yoda holding a cane, and it didn’t have Dani, and it didn’t have Kevin, guffawing about how he’d won Yoda in a contest years ago and put it on top of the Monster Energy drink cooler and swore he would sell it only if he could make 10 grand.

This Blockbuster had 26 copies of Black Panther, an entire shelf, which made the movie seem even bigger. And Toxic Waste–brand gummy bears. The movies in the Foreign section had all been carefully stickered with the tiny flag of the origin country, a nice personal touch. They had seven seasons of Ice Road Truckers. They had Richard Pryor … Here and Now and Road House 2. They had Critters 3 (with a tiny Leonardo DiCaprio!). They had a whole section of martial arts movies, and a Drama section that had faced the outside window so long — 28 years, in the sun — that all the white people on the covers of the DVDs had been blanched even whiter, so that they had almost disappeared. Many of the rental options had been out of print forever. And they had the most ridiculous item of all, the star of the show, Blockbuster’s last big draw, the item behind a glass case with bright lights shining on its leather, the thing people asked Kevin whether they could touch, and talk about, and take pictures with, the thing the local news had livestreamed on Facebook, that tourists and locals had asked Kevin to wear, that one person had offered him $20 to smell: Blockbuster in Anchorage had Russell Crowe’s used jockstrap from Cinderella Man.

It almost seems like these people were too good to be true, like they were a combination of Northern Exposure and Clerks.  But they ran these stores for year, the lived and breathed movies, and some of them were employed for almost three decades.  My generation grew up at Blockbuster.  Hell, I even worked there one summer twenty years ago.

But it's gone, officially gone.  It's not the end of the business though.  Family Video still has 700 locations across the country, mostly in the Ohio Valley, Midwest and the Carolinas.

Not in Alaska though.

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