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Ken standing in front of a worn Blockbuster Video sign on building
Reading time: 7 minutes

From the moment I earned my driver’s license, I knew what I wanted my first job to be.

My dad did not. He encouraged me to apply to be a bagger at the local supermarket; not only did a large store always need new hires, but Dad had connections there, and dropping his name would cement me an entry-level position.

But I had no particular interest in bagging groceries. What I knew with certainty at the age of sixteen — and what I wish I hadn’t forgotten as an adult — was I needed a job that I was enthusiastic about, in a field that mattered to me. And one thing I was passionate about was movies.

If I grew up watching too much television, the boob tube couldn’t hold a candle to the silver screen. As a kid, I watched everything Disney produced, from The Rescuers Down Under to The Man from Snowy River. My imagination was exploded by the science fiction of Back to the Future and TRON. I was fascinated by the dark imagery of Robocop and Watership Down. Later, as a teenager, I would go to the theaters almost weekly, grabbing any classmate or relative I could, or going stag, as long as it meant seeing the latest from Hollywood.

This active engagement with cinema would last my entire life and career. As a high-school teacher, I would offer my students a film studies elective, with the principal wishing I was as excited about my tech writing class as I was about movies. As a Computerworld editor, I would interview John Knoll of Industrial Light and Magic about the legacy of TRON. To share my amateur movie reviews, I would build a movie website after teaching myself WordPress — the software that is now my job and my passion. I would even earn my own IMDb entry, having appeared as an extra in such films as Fever Pitch and Disc.

Starring Jimmy Fallon, Drew Barrymore, and Ken Gagne

But that was in the future. As a teenager, I still had to lay the groundwork for all that was to come. And there was only one place in my hometown that would get me there.

Repeat

The signage on the storefront said Empire Video. It was an independent video rental store, and I liked the idea of supporting my local economy. But Empire had just been purchased by Blockbuster Video and had yet to undergo the renovations to suit the corporate branding; in that brief window, some called it the Blockbuster Empire.

Nonetheless, I submitted my job application as soon as I could drive myself to do so. The manager, Jerry, took one look and said I was too young, and I should try again when I’m older.

Six months and one birthday later, I drove to the newly renovated Blockbuster and submitted my second application. But school was still in session, and I didn’t have the availability Jerry needed for me to work various shifts. He said I should try again when I was out of school.

Six weeks later, on the cusp of my last summer vacation before graduating, I applied again. This time, Jerry wanted to know just one thing: “When can you start?”

That’s how I got my first job ever without so much as a single interview. Jerry saw I was singularly interested in his store and that I was persistent in the face of his reasonable objections. He must’ve decided those qualities would make a good Customer Service Representative (CSR).

The requisite blue button-up shirt and khaki slacks matched my school’s uniform; I had everything I needed to start earning $4.75 per hour and five free rentals a week.

Fast forward

One school year, two summers, and many, many movies later, I left Blockbuster in 1997 — just as the video industry was moving from VHS tapes to DVD discs. That transition was the first death knell for the movie-rental industry. For the first few months of their release, new movies on VHS would cost $100 each to purchase, essentially granting large corporations like Blockbuster exclusive rental rights; it was only later that a movie would be discounted to the more consumer-friendly price of $20.

DVDs never had that expensive window; they hit store shelves starting at $20. Customers could just as easily buy and rewatch (or resell) a movie as rent it.

Other tectonic shifts soon emerged: Netflix started mailing DVDs in 1998. Redbox and its self-serve kiosks began popping up in 2004. Netflix launched its streaming service in 2007. The financial crisis of 2007–2008 hit Blockbuster parent company Viacom hard. Blockbuster, a mismanaged juggernaut that was unable to compete, closed all its corporate locations in 2014.

Only fifty-one franchise Blockbuster Video locations remained in operation. That number dwindled until 2018, when only two stores remained: one in Western Australia, one in the United States.

In March 2019, the Australian store closed, leaving only one Blockbuster on the planet. That store remains open today.

A quarter century and three thousand miles from where my movie career began, I found myself at Blockbuster Video in Bend, Oregon.

Rewind

I’d always intended to make a day trip to Bend to visit the last Blockbuster — but when my itinerary changed, I found myself spending five weeks living just a half-mile from the store. I eagerly asked my Airbnb host to ensure my TV would have a DVD player, so I could make full use of this rare opportunity.

When I finally stood before the strip mall that Blockbuster Video anchored, I took a moment to appreciate the view. The blue-and-yellow color scheme, the drop box, the fall foliage — it was like I’d come home.

An angled shot of a Blockbuster Video storefront

When I stepped into the store, a bevy of blue-clad CSRs stood by the door to politely greet me. I responded with excessive enthusiasm: “Hi! I’m so excited to be here! I’ve never been here before!!” I don’t know what I expected in return, but I was clearly more engaged than they were.

It didn’t take me long to realize why: the last Blockbuster is as much a video-rental store as it is a tourist destination. I thought it might be odd if I snapped some photos, but as I wandered the aisles, I noticed I wasn’t the only one doing so. Clearly this Blockbuster attracted as many gawkers as it did patrons.

The management recognizes this reality, with a sizable chunk of the store floor dedicated to a display case of Blockbuster and Hollywood memorabilia. Remember Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood and Cinderella Man costumes that John Oliver donated to Blockbuster of Alaska?

They’re here now — everything save for the jock strap.

Everything else about the store is designed to be reminiscent of Blockbuster’s heyday. On my first visit, the store’s many televisions were showing Forrest Gump (1994); on my next visit, it was Adam Sandler’s Waterboy (1998). I wondered if they purposely limited themselves to PG-13 movies from the 1990s. If so, they didn’t have to reach far: the was a full tower of VHS tapes for sale for only $2 each.

A tower of VHS tapes for sale, $2 each

But by far my favorite moment of the experience was checking out. When I approached the counter, I shared with the young clerk that I used to be a Blockbuster employee myself — though by this point, I knew this revelation wouldn’t be impressive. At its height, Blockbuster had 9,000 stores in the United States, employing 84,000 people worldwide; surely other alumni had made their way to Bend by now. Rather, I was mentioning my own history with the clerk’s employer to provide context for my ensuing string of questions: Do you still perform the daily Found On Shelf (FOS) list? (If a rented movie is returned to the shelf without being checked into the system, it can cause unwarranted late fees to accrue; the daily FOS checks for this possibility by looking for overdue movies on the shelves. This Blockbuster looks only for movies that are a week overdue.) Do you still use the same MS-DOS-based point-of-sale (POS) computer interface? (Yes! In fact, they’ve salvaged old computers from other Blockbusters for parts.) Will you rent the store out as an Airbnb again? (Who knows?)

And finally, the question I’d been contemplating for years: is my old account still accessible? When visiting a Blockbuster you’d been to before, you could show a photo ID instead of your Blockbuster card; but when visiting a new Blockbuster, that membership card was essential. When scanned, it would prompt the computer’s dial-up modem to connect to a central database and download the customer’s information. In college, I’d often play the trick of going to a new Blockbuster, being asked for my card, and responding by rattling off my account number, which I’d long ago memorized: by manually inputting it, the mystified clerk would get the same result as if they’d scanned my card.

Would that trick still work, decades later? Where was all that information stored now? With the corporate entity having gone out of business, where would the modem connect to?

I always anticipated the challenge would be technical. It never occurred to me it was instead legal: the central database was considered corporate property, and when Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy, franchisees lost the rights to that information. If my account still existed anywhere, the last Blockbuster on the planet was not permitted to access it.

But the clerk did me the next best thing: when I opened a new account, he asked if, instead of a random account number, I wanted an account number of my choosing. Of course! I recited my eleven digits, and he dutifully wrote them on the laminated card that he then handed me. After all these years, I was again a card-carrying Blockbuster member.

Play

My visit to Blockbuster was nostalgic, but it was also practical: the intervening years hadn’t diminished my love of movies, and the pandemic had given me plenty of time to indulge in that affair. I couldn’t grasp the economics of this store: rentals cost anywhere from $4 for a new Blu Ray for three days, to 99¢ for an old Blu Ray for a week. But I took advantage of this deal during my remaining time in Bend to rent The Truman Show, which I had seen before, and plenty of movies I had not: 28 Days Later, Get On Up, 21 Bridges, Rocky Balboa, Creed, and Creed II.

But my far my favorite rental was of a movie I didn’t realize existed until I saw it on the new release wall: The Last Blockbuster, a documentary about the very store I was standing in. It was funded on Kickstarter two years ago and released just last month in a physical edition exclusive to this Blockbuster; it won’t be available on streaming media until December 15th.

I loved this documentary, which features interviews with Hollywood veterans, from Kevin Smith to Eric Close, though their connection to Blockbuster is not always immediately apparent. However, the true star of the film is store manager Sandi Harding, who keeps the store going through the pandemic (they offer curbside pickup) and through negotiations to continue licensing the Blockbuster name from its current copyright owner, Dish Network. The community she’s created around this store made me realize how the tables had turned: Blockbuster had crowded all the mom-and-pop shops out of the market; now, without corporate backing, the last Blockbuster is a mom-and-pop shop.

Of course, you don’t need to move to Bend to browse aisles of movies; just visit your local library, which has Blu Rays, DVDs, video games, CDs, and, of course, books — all for free.

But Blockbuster is about more than just providing media; it’s an experience and a community. It’s filled with people on both sides of the counter who amateurishly yet unabashedly love movies and want to go somewhere they can share that passion. Movie theaters, even before the pandemic made them defunct, weren’t somewhere you went to talk to complete strangers about movies; and, given the price of tickets, you weren’t likely to pick a movie based on the opinion of whoever was in the ticket booth that day. But at Blockbuster, you establish that rapport, and you discover new movies, and you have an experience you can’t have anywhere in the world but in Bend, Oregon.

Wow. What a difference.

A Blockbuster Video at dusk with outside lights on

Ken Gagne

Digital nomad, Apple II geek, vegetarian, teacher, cyclist, feminist, Automattician.

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Ken's Itinerary

West Linn, OR

Nov 21, 2020 - Dec 26, 2020