“If you live to be a hundred, I hope I live to be a hundred minus one day, so I never have to live without you.”
— Winnie the Pooh
I saw him standing there sporting a Blockbuster T-shirt and had to comment. “That’s not a new shirt?” Several people around at the time laughed and all started to make one-liners about Blockbuster video. It was a moment of shared memories of days gone past.
A couple of days later I saw that same man walking down the street in that same T-shirt and was with my son Cameron. Immediately he started telling me how he remembers getting to go to a video store when he was young and buy games or movies.
Saturday nights back in the days of parenting a small child might have had a common theme. Dinner in Jeff, probably often at Tumbleweed, followed by a trip to Blockbuster Video. Pre-Netflix, Hulu, and Sling and for many people even pre-Showtime or HBO, video stores popped up overnight and seemingly on every corner. I remember many mom-and-pop video stores, which we would also frequent. But Blockbuster, oh wistfully Blockbuster, was the real deal for video selection and browsing.
Since my son is now 24 years old, I am not quite sure of the cut-off age for kids who regularly went to video rental stores and kids who remember that like they would a rotary dial phone or an 8-track tape.
The best I can document, the Blockbuster operation began around 1985 and flourished across the country in the 1990s. It peaked in 2004 with 84,300 employees worldwide working in 9,094 stores. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2010. In November 2013, the last remaining 300 company-owned stores were closed. But what a run and what an important impact this company left on American culture for its relatively short lifetime.
In its heyday Blockbuster was a multi-billion dollar industry. Even after new technology, including television on demand, Viacom paid $8.4 billion to purchase Blockbuster. According to Wikipedia, as of September 2019 the only remaining Blockbuster store in the world was open in Bend, Oregon.
I guess we were simple-minded people then. The aesthetic pleasure for me of going to a video store and just browsing movie jackets was somehow a relaxing, therapeutic weekend activity. Cameron would get so excited it was hard to make him sit through a meal. On occasion he would have a friend or two over for the weekend and it was a group activity. If memory serves me correct, his mom and I each would pick up a movie and he would be allowed a combination of two games and/or movies.
Blockbuster opened my eyes as to just how many bad movies were made. While every now and then I picked out a hidden gem, a general rule-of-thumb should have been if I never heard of a movie, there was probably a good reason. I will have to say that the very worst movie I ever paid to watch was a choice between The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes or Howard the Duck. I realize now even in reading the previous sentence that neither choice’s terrible viewing should have come as a surprise. If I were to offer an estimate, I would say between 15 and 20 percent of the movies I paid to rent were films of which I never personally saw the ending.
Blockbuster was an organization that taught me some life skills. I became a much better negotiator thanks to a little thing called late fees. Ironically, for many of the Blockbuster rental years, I made my living in the insurance subrogation and arbitration industry where I spent eight hours each day negotiating settlements between my company and insurance adjusters or plaintiff attorneys. I was pretty good at it.
My profession, however, had not prepared me for the agonizing and long, drawn-out negotiations involving at the time what I felt were unnecessary $5 in late video rental returns with an 18-year old high school dropout, who took the movie rental career way more seriously than I could have ever done. Somehow it seems that a seat full of videos lying next to me on the front seat of my car on the way to work at 7 a.m. Monday weren’t always a sure reminder to put them in the slot at the store.
I negotiated insurance claims in the hundreds of thousands of dollars routinely at my office. I still consider my most successfully negotiated settlement getting $2.50 dropped from a $5 overdue video charge on my account. That kid was a worthy opponent and when his acne dried up I bet he did well in life.
Running my remote cursor up and down and sideways across my large television screen just doesn’t have the same aesthetics for me. As I wistfully remember the thrill of reading two paragraphs on an empty box and trying to decide if it was worth a $2.50 investment, I realize today that it wasn’t really about the film.
It is simply another golden memory of a simple family quality time that cannot be recaptured. Like lightning in a bottle, it was gone way too soon. As Cameron said to me in the car seat that evening after seeing the man in the Blockbuster T-shirt, “Dad, kids today will never know what it is like to go to a Blockbuster video rental store.”
It’s almost enough nostalgia to want to take your kid and visit Bend, Oregon. I would probably never get the movies back by Monday before the late fee deadline.
— Lindon Dodd is a freelance writer who can be reached at email@example.com.