November 10, 2013

GORDON | R.I.P. Blockbuster

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Nestled between a Ponderosa Steakhouse and the self-advertised “Best liquor store in Cortland” stands a Blockbuster. The familiar blue-and-yellow façade of the video rental chain beckoned as I pulled my car into the empty parking lot. I’d been told this was the last operating Blockbuster in the area. I’d been told wrong. The front doors were locked. Cardboard boxes and loose wires dangled from the ceiling inside.  A sign telling you to call David Yaman Realty Service hung in the window.

The last time I’d seen the insides of a functioning Blockbuster was in 12th grade English class. We were watching the version of Hamlet where Ethan Hawke recites the “To be or not to be” soliloquy while pacing the generic VHS-laden aisles of America’s most prominent video rental company. Why was the Prince of Denmark in a Blockbuster?  I hadn’t a clue. Perhaps Ophelia put in a request for a cheery rom-com.

In retrospect, Hamlet and Blockbuster are fitting companions: both filled with errors, villains and ultimately death. Dish Network announced last Thursday that it would be closing all the remaining corporately owned Blockbusters, sending the once proud franchise of oversized Twizzler boxes to the fate of the Dodo and Collegetown’s Green Café.  To die, to sleep, no more.

This is not necessarily an occasion to mourn.  Firstly, late fees are no fun. Secondly, for more than two decades Blockbuster followed the Wal-Mart model of unremorseful market domination — putting the sweet Mom and surly but loveable Pop video rental store (probably called Video Barn or Hut or Palace) out of business.

Blockbuster ceased being relevant years ago, its storefronts becoming as infrequent as punctuation in a Cormac McCarthy novel. Once upon a time, there were 9,000 Blockbusters in America. A new one was being built every 72 hours. Then the times, as they tend to do, started changing. Netflix became a thing. So did Redbox to an extent. Instead of leaving home to retrieve movies, movies started coming to our homes through mail delivery and direct streaming.

Examining the future landscape of the market, Blockbuster’s decision-makers demonstrated a level of vision on par with Piggy’s from Lord of the Flies. Like beleaguered Kodak and the rise of digital photography, Blockbuster viewed the ascent of streaming as a passing fad. Now the notion of video rental stores is widely obsolete, their continued existence only legitimized as clever fronts for laundering drug money.

Yet, there are some reasons to “pour some out” for the once great symbol of Americana.  Living through any death, even the justified death of an antiquated entertainment behemoth, inevitably makes one feel nostalgic, which conversely makes one feel old. We haven’t experienced as many institutional deaths in our lives as our parents. Older generations have seen many a company (as well as country or two) come and go, so the impact of adding Blockbuster to the corporate obituaries might feel more significant to us. Maybe it’s because experiencing death is a sign of aging. Our generation now has another bygone relic for our kids to one day ask us about in a curious tone. “What were the Bush years like? Seattle had a basketball team? What was Blockbuster? Wait, you once had hair, Daddy?”

Back outside the Cortland Blockbuster, I peer through the glass once more. I see the familiar blue banners lapping the walls with text proclaiming the additions of New Releases! And Instant Classics! I sighed and returned to my car, never to see the inside of a Blockbuster again.

The loss of another physical place for communal gathering is sad. Back in its heyday, Blockbuster was the place you were most likely to run into someone you knew. I remember running into my 8th grade crush at our local Blockbuster one Friday night. She was holding Air Bud: Golden Receiver. My heart swooned. I asked her out. She said she’d let me know. I’m still waiting to hear back.

But the point is, our serendipitous interaction gave me the window to ask her out. Technology, though it may be more convenient, leads us to live more insular lives, diminishing the need to physically go to the mall, the library or ever change out of our bathrobes. This diminishes the opportunities for random run-ins, fateful bump-intos and chance encounters. The world, inside and outside of Cornell can be a big scary place at times. There is something comforting about communal gathering spaces and something is lost when we lose them. Blockbuster was once one of these spaces, and now it is gone. Good night sweet prince of late fees. At least I will miss you.