Blockbuster’s Demise; An Elegy To Video Store Culture

After years of clinging to life, Dish Network has announced it will pull the plug on its remaining 300 Blockbuster Video brick-and-mortar locations by early next year, signaling another death knell to the age of home video rental. The once-mighty video juggernaut had more than 9,000 locations at its peak in 2004, a number that significantly plummeted over the past decade.

I worked for Blockbuster as a teenager in New Jersey in the late ’90s. The job had its ups and downs, and some parts that downright sucked, but it was a generally fun time in my life. With the advent of Redbox, a machine not much larger than an ATM performs a service that in my lifetime once took a building, a payroll, a management hierarchy, and two-dozen employees to deliver. Despite the distinct lack of “experience” involved in sauntering up to a machine and pressing a few buttons to make your selection and pay for it, the store model didn’t stand a chance.

While most of us probably haven’t set foot inside a physical video store in a while, those of us of a certain age undoubtedly have a multitude of memories associated with the now almost quaint practice of going out to “rent a video.”

When I was a kid, going to the video store was an event. We’d excitedly pile in the car and chatter the whole trip about which movie or game we wanted to rent. As part of the first generation with the technology to re-watch at home a movie we saw in the theater, we took full advantage of this brave new world of home entertainment. My parents grew up in a cinematic era littered with classics; the start of the James Bond film franchise, “The Graduate,” “Planet of the Apes” and countless others. Once they saw them in the theater, the only way to ever see them again was as a movie of the week on one of the handful of television channels available at the time.

The roots of the “on-demand” home entertainment world we all now live in started with those robust black rectangles called VHS tapes.

Everything about the video store was novel. The different membership cards, how they displayed the boxes and the security mechanisms on the tapes themselves were each unique, seemingly with an endless number of permutations. “Ooh, this place cuts one side of the spine of the display box and puts them in a clear case”; “ooh, this one has the boxes you have to pinch on the sides to release the tape”; “Ohhhh—this place displays their tapes SIDEWAYS?!” were common refrains among my friends and me.

Each trip had something a little different.

Renting video games was always the biggest deal. I lost count of how many times I mowed the lawn, shoveled the driveway or cleaned the gutters for a crack at renting a game of my choice. Who knows how much deeply discounted labor my parents got out of me in those bargains?

On display at the store were always dozens, nay, hundreds of video game boxes. Back in the NES era, about the only way I could get my hands on a new boxed game was at Christmas or birthday time. The standard $50 price tag was too rich for my Pixy Stix-laced blood. So visiting the video store games section was like a trip to Shangri-La. The carefully drawn boxes at eye level, featuring full-color paintings of dragons or knights with swords or race cars. Sure, the actual game graphics never matched up to the box art, but it didn’t matter. I was at the video store, and would be taking one of those puppies home to play with.

Except for possibly the toy store, no trips to a place of retail commerce inspired such joy and happiness for me growing up. Every time was an adventure, and mystery lurked behind every corner. Who knows what untold secrets lived in the back of the store behind a creaky pair of swinging old west saloon-style doors under a conspicuously placed “Adults Only!” sign?

As the last decade-plus of home entertainment has really emphasized the “home,” most Americans now have access to a virtually bottomless library of movies, TV shows, documentaries and adult entertainment literally at their fingertips. Even as an admitted fairly infrequent purchaser of new gadgets, I personally have six different platforms available to me through which I can rent my little heart out. Six platforms, with no effort on my part to accumulate so many choices. Don’t get me wrong. It’s wonderful having the world of video-based entertainment accessible without leaving our couches. But what’s lost are the experiential qualities of obtaining and watching it.

The concept of video “stores” (even the word “video” only lives on as an anachronistic colloquialism these days) took another step into the yawning chasm of obsolescence today. And with it, a place of cherished childhood memories for any kid who ever peeked through a return slot, or had to step on their tippy-toes to put a returned tape up on the counter.

[Photo: Flickr/The Consumerist]