My Blockbuster

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I can’t believe in the year of our lord 2k16 today I stood in an actual Blockbuster in the state of Alaska. The post, written by Tumblr user margotkim, has been reblogged and commented upon over 185,000 times. It contains four photos, the first depicting the outside of the store under an overcast sky, a single car parked in its lot. The next two show the inside, shelves of DVDs in diminishing perspective, the aisles fittingly empty. They could be evidence of a genuine time warp, a stumble backwards ten years, into an empty yester-world. In the last photo, a young woman with thick glasses stands before a shelf with one hand over her mouth and a bemused half-smile on her face, as if the store had been placed there solely for her nostalgic enjoyment, like a scene from Stranger Things, or, even more recently, from Captain Marvel.

The minds behind Captain Marvel, the latest in the Marvel superhero juggernaut, chose to use a Blockbuster store as the visual cue to its audience that the movie’s action takes place in the ’90s, not only prompting instant recognition, but also instant nostalgia. The hero’s crash-landing through the roof of a Blockbuster plays alongside the film’s crowd-pleasing evocation of ’90s fashion—plaid flannel and a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt—and ’90s music in the soundtrack. In the theater where I saw the film, the crowd reacted to the appearance of Blockbuster with coos of fondness, just as they did when No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” began to play.

The trouble with treating Blockbuster this way, though, is that our memory is so good at recreating the pre-digital world that the seductiveness of the material life it lets us remember—VHS tapes, clunky plastic movie cases, the very act of rewinding—outshines the reality of a corporate ethos that attempted to stifle the very media landscape we enjoy today. I know, because I was there.

It’s been said of my generation that the rapidity of change ushered in by the Digital Age turned us into mourners for our childhood before we’d even left it. I’m a millennial, but I’m not a digital native. I remember the pre-Internet world, and I worked at an actual Blockbuster in the state of Nebraska twelve years ago, the year of our lord 2k7, in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. I applied for the job because I wanted some summer break spending money, and I had fond childhood memories of stalking the aisles hunting for an overlooked gem in the mostly unchanging selection to accompany our weekend pizza and cookie dough binges. As a Blockbuster employee, I got five free rentals a week. During giddily empty summer days, I sat slumped in an armchair in front of my parents’ boxy TV. No smartphone, no Wi-Fi to distract. I watched five movies every week without fail, good or bad.

At a conservative guess, I suppose I watched seventy-five DVDs that summer. Stacked them up on my dresser and brought them down again, cracked open seventy-five plastic cases, slipped seventy-five discs into the DVD player, and pressed them back into their cases seventy-five times. I cannot quantify how many times I unlocked and slipped the plastic antitheft strip from a DVD case for a customer. How many times did I rub a DVD’s spine back and forth over the demagnetizing strip so it wouldn’t set off our alarms? How many times did I bang a faulty barcode scanner against the scratched counter? One summer later, I had my own Netflix subscription and would never set foot in a Blockbuster again.

A weird little building where everyone who wanted cheap entertainment had to cram together and interact: that was Blockbuster. Corporate, though, was a different thing. Corporate was at war.

“At Netflix headquarters, they have a bell,” said the manager who trained me, “and they ring it every time a Blockbuster goes out of business.” She widened her eyes as though expecting us trainees to be as appalled as she was at Netflix’s nerve. To this day, I have no idea if this bell story is real or if it was just a misguided fiction my trainer spun to get us fired up—as though any of us thought working for Blockbuster was some sort of mission. We weren’t out to save the business that was already stumbling, hamstrung by the nascent Netflix. Only three years before, in 2004, Blockbuster LLC had been at full strength. Worldwide, it pulled in revenues upwards of five billion dollars. Confident that it would quash Netflix, Corporate added a DVD-mailer subscription service to the website. On one of my first days at work I was given the task of standing inside the front door to hand out sign-up sheets. “You can order the DVD online, but if you don’t want to wait for your next one, you can just bring it into a store and exchange it!” I had no sales training beyond a few computer modules I endured in one of the cramped back rooms of the store, but luckily for me the Blockbuster online thing sounded pretty good. Several people signed up, earning me some respect in my new manager’s eyes.

In a headline that’s laughable today, in July 2007 the New York Times declared a “gloomy outlook” for Netflix as it attempted to “ward off an intensifying threat from a rival, Blockbuster.” Netflix sued Blockbuster LLC over patent infringement regarding the DVD mailer service, but Blockbuster Corporate punched back with a countersuit declaring that Netflix’s patent created an illegal monopoly. The two settled out of court—Blockbuster forked over $4.1 million to Netflix. When I worked at my Blockbuster that summer, Corporate changed the terms of the mailer service with almost arbitrary rapidity, like a reeling boxer spitting out senseless threats. First, customers got unlimited in-store exchanges for mailed DVDs. Then they could only get three exchanges a month. No, back to unlimited. Then Corporate raised the price. They’d dug too low to try and gouge Netflix, but after losses they were forced to hike up the subscription fee by a dollar or two. After a while, my manager stopped making me try to sign people up and I was relieved. In 2000, Corporate turned down the opportunity to purchase Netflix for fifty million dollars. In 2010, Blockbuster LLC filed for bankruptcy protection with one billion dollars in debt.

 

Now, almost a decade out, we are distant enough from this messy demise that a golden halo has formed around Blockbuster. The last remaining Blockbuster location in the world has become something of a tourist attraction and even sells t-shirts to that effect. I have watched Blockbuster enter the same realm as the drive-in theater and the diner—simple, folksy social spaces that modern life has eliminated but which we longingly recreate in our entertainment.

As a teenage Blockbuster employee, this would have been absurd to me. Blockbuster was an entity that asked me to step into the line of fire to save it from dying. In this immolating empire, the employees became foot soldiers, tax collectors, police officers. To offset losses from customers who kept DVDs for months or even years, Corporate mandated that we get a credit card on file for each of our customers. They dressed it up as a gift: “No more late fees!” Even at eighteen I knew that people don’t like to give you their credit cards “for our files” when they’re paying a four-dollar rental fee in cash. Remember, this was 2007, before people regularly handed over their personal information in exchange for a game app.

“The only time we would ever use it is for anti-theft purposes. If you keep a movie a certain time past its due date, we just charge you the price of the DVD.” That’s what I was supposed to say. If a customer hadn’t put their card on file with us, a prompt popped up on our POS (Point of Sale or Piece of Shit) computers—hefty, ugly old boxes whose keys made delicious clacks but otherwise offered only an ’80s sci-fi interface: blue pixelated lettering and a black background, always freezing or lagging. In response to my paltry pitch, customers would often interrogate me or berate me, and, one time, a customer even delivered a racist rant about “the black people” being the ones who steal, so “why should white customers be punished, too?”

One of my coworkers whispered to me that if we hit a certain key, we could skip putting in the card number. Every time someone approached my register, I made a rapid judgment. Were they middle-aged or older? Were they frowning? Had they already been rude to me? Had they reacted badly, either with offense or anger, to me informing them that their DVD had subtitles (as was Corporate policy)? Skip. It wasn’t about secretly “fighting the man” by subverting Corporate’s policy. It was about keeping myself from being verbally abused and even physically threatened by customers.

Aside from us trying to get their credit cards on file, customers would become infuriated and blame us, the employees, when they were charged the price of an overdue DVD despite Blockbuster’s “no late fees” racket. One weeknight, it was just me and my shift manager, who we’ll call Jessie, a very small woman in her thirties who was half-computer programmer, half-hippie. A middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap walked in and headed straight for the new release wall.

Jessie leaned over to me and whispered, “That guy’s been stealing.”

Usually, we didn’t bother thieves. Tower sensors by the doors beeped and flashed if someone walked out with a DVD that hadn’t been demagnetized behind the counter, but it was only a deterrent. If the alarms ever went off, we just waved people through. It was much more expensive for Corporate to take someone to court for petty theft than to swallow the loss of a few DVDs. This guy must’ve been a serious serial offender for Regional, Corporate’s local arm, to make Jessie aware of him.

“We’ve got him on the store camera,” Jessie went on. “I’m going to go into the back and call Regional to see what they want us to do. Don’t let him out of the store.”

I didn’t have a chance to ask what I, an eighteen-year-old girl, was supposed to do to keep him inside the store if he wanted to leave, but Jessie returned quickly. “Okay, he’s banned. He’s been doing this thing where he’ll keep a movie forever, then when we try to charge him he sneaks them back in the store and puts them on the shelf. He won’t give us his credit card. When he comes up to the counter, I’ll handle him.”

I distinctly remember what movie he wanted to check out: Ghost Rider, coincidentally my very first free rental as an employee. We had an entire shelving unit, floor to ceiling, of Ghost Riders with their covers turned out, dozens of Nicholas Cage and Eva Mendes heads floating inside a mess of orange flame. It was one of our most popular rentals.

When Jessie told the man he was no longer welcome in Blockbuster, his rage was instantaneous in the way that only happens when someone knows they’re guilty. As Jessie calmly explained that he’d been caught on tape, he turned apoplectic. He, a large man, began to scream at tiny Jessie, accusing her and all of Blockbuster of cheating him. I’d never seen someone become so murderously angry at a stranger so quickly. And it was just the two of us, me and Jessie. He hurled the DVD in his hand down at the counter with a force that made the case ricochet. My hand went to the store phone—and rested there, frozen.

A young man standing in line, however, took his cell phone out of his pocket and said, “I’m calling the cops, dude.”

Call them!” the angry man screamed. “Call them!”

“They’re on their way,” the young man said, lifting his phone to his ear with all the blasé disdain I wish I had possessed.

The enraged man swore at him and at us, but then left in a hurry. I turned to the young man in line, who lowered his phone. “Thank you.”

“No problem,” he said. “I didn’t actually call the cops, but I can if you want.”

I looked to Jessie.

“No,” she sighed. “It’s normal.”

 

I was only eighteen. I didn’t know anything. But looking back on it now I’m angry, too. First we were supposed to collect information on our customers, indirectly accusing them of theft. Those who stuffed DVDs under their jackets, though, we were supposed to let go. But those who gamed the system, the ones like Ghost Rider man, we were supposed to confront at our peril. One very basic reason Netflix survived and Blockbuster didn’t? They let people keep things as long as they want. The “no late fees” policy was the single greatest factor in my customer altercations, and over forty states would eventually sue Blockbuster Corporate for false advertising concerning it.

But that was Corporate. Corporate was different from “Blockbuster.” Corporate made our shift managers paw through our purses and flash a thumbs up to the security camera to show that we weren’t stealing before we could leave a shift. Blockbuster, on the other hand, was an ineffable zone that at the time felt like the height of ordinariness but now seems like it could be miniaturized into an art student’s diorama, capturing the gravid moment before the digital revolution reached Middle America.

There was the rainy night a woman in a hoodie sidled up to me and muttered, “Where’s the porn?” We didn’t have a porn section, and it was policy not to carry NC-17 films unless they’d been edited down to an R, but scattered throughout the store like Easter eggs lay essentially softcore porn films: Secretary, or Eyes Wide Shut. But you had to ask us where to find them.

And if you didn’t reveal your lust with your movie choice, you had to reveal your embarrassing taste. A lot of people simply did not care that they were renting shlock, but some people asked us our opinions about a movie that caught their eye. The first time this happened to me, I was honest. Then the customer had to shamefacedly bring the same movie that I’d panned up to my register. “You have to be more political than that,” a coworker told me. “Don’t lie, just describe the movie’s plot. Never say whether or not you liked it unless it’s actually good and they’ve already made up their minds to rent it.”

“How do you know if they’ve already made up their minds?”

“You can tell.”

I later learned that you could. You could also be safely honest with someone who left the store’s perimeter and wandered into the center, into the shelves that housed all movies older than a year. The new releases populated the outer walls. Going to the center aisles meant that you were looking for a good movie, not just a new movie. It depressed all of us how seldom anybody checked out movies that weren’t new releases. I scanned Wild Hogs many more times that summer than I think is good for this country. Now I could watch Wild Hogs every night, and only Netflix’s algorithms would know.

Although I ran into Netflix’s embrace after my summer at Blockbuster and have remained a loyal customer for over a decade, their algorithms never offered me anything as persuasive as my coworker’s movie endorsements. Like me, several members of the staff were drawn to Blockbuster in the first place because they liked films, so they guided me to dozens of gems that teenaged me wouldn’t have even registered. One of my coworkers recommended The Devil’s Backbone, which introduced me to Guillermo del Toro. It’s how I first saw Trainspotting and But I’m a Cheerleader. I’m sure there are at least a dozen movies Netflix’s algorithm has recommended to me that have sat in my queue for the entire time I’ve had Netflix. Is that my failing, my laziness, or is it the failing of a disembodied medium with no one to look me in the face and say, “No, seriously, this movie changed my life”?

The truth is, though, I hated working at Blockbuster. There were the obnoxious customers, and there were also the physical demands. For our entire shift, which was about six hours, we were constantly on our feet. Going home, I’d feel like a middle-aged nurse with no husband or kids to massage my aching insteps. The speaker system would alternate between roughly fifteen less-than-contemporary songs on rotation and promos for upcoming new releases. I ended up memorizing the trailer for Factory Girl and knew exactly when to sing along with the specific portion of Bowie’s “Life on Mars” that it sampled. But all these little things that made up my general hostility toward Blockbuster LLC have now, ten years later, taken on a new light. Watching Captain Marvel in 2019, I too smiled widely when Carol Danvers bemusedly walked through a Blockbuster whose roof she’d just obliterated. I bopped my head when TLC’s “Waterfalls” played underneath a scene. Time has put those lovely nostalgia lenses in front of our eyes, and I am not immune.

These days, I relish telling people that I worked at Blockbuster because I can hold court for a little while as we all remember—God, we had to leave the house! We had to get in a car, go to a store, wander around, and actually pick up our movie with our hands. While in line to check out, we could impulse-buy a bag of microwave popcorn and two-for-one bottles of soda. Our entire bodies were involved, not just our eyeballs. People love Blockbuster. Having worked there lends me an analog authenticity. And that gives me the power, however briefly, to capture my peers’ sentimental imaginations—a strategy which Hollywood now employs, too.

 

One night, a weeknight, it was just me and another shift manager. He’s the only one whose name I actually remember, but I’ll call him Alex. I didn’t like Alex at first. He was a radical leftie—a proud, self-proclaimed college communist—and the aggressive way he expressed his opinions didn’t impress me. He was short and stout, with long hair that sprang out in tight spirals that reminded me of the Babylonian lions. He seemed angry.

But working together at Blockbuster, we became friendly. Besides me, he was the youngest member of the staff, and we had good conversations while we worked. Alex was Corporate’s enemy. It’s not that he wasn’t a good employee. He was knowledgeable and efficient and deserved his promotion to shift manager. But he was the first to recognize the pitfalls and mistakes in Corporate’s orders. Sometimes, when it was just the two of us, he would rant about Corporate’s fundamental greed. I just wanted to get through my shift.

The night in question was stormy, and I knew there was a tornado watch, but this was not unusual for Nebraska in summer. When it began to rain, I was in the midst of restocking the shelves: emptying the return bin, scanning the movies back into the system, replacing their anti-theft plastic, and re-shelving them. I became so familiar with the store that I could stack the returned movies in shelving order and then make my way around the walls in a neat semi-circle.

Sometime around 7 p.m. it got dark, darker than it should’ve been. Floor-to-ceiling windows made up the entire front wall of the store, and I saw the glass of one of those windows warp inward from the wind. At that moment the power went out. Alex swore loudly, and in the dark he called out, “Sorry, could you all just bring any movies you have up to the front? We can’t rent to you with the power out, and you’ll have to leave the store.”

The customers grumbled on their way out, as though Alex had kicked them out in a fit of pique rather than a weather emergency. Once they were gone, I asked him, “Should we go to the back?” The depressing employee break room, stock room, and bathroom had no windows.

“Nah,” Alex said. “There’re no sirens; we’re fine.”

I thought that standing behind the counter, right by the wall of windows, was a bad idea even if the tornado sirens hadn’t begun, but I didn’t want to appear cowardly.

“We’ll wait a bit for the power to come back on,” Alex said, “but if it doesn’t come on in fifteen minutes, I’ll call Regional.” He hoisted himself up into a cross-legged seat on top of the counter. I mirrored his nonchalant position.

“So what do we do if the power doesn’t come back on?” I asked. “Do we get to go home?”

Alex scoffed. “We’ll see.”

After fifteen minutes passed, Alex went into the back to get his cell phone and call Regional. He returned shortly, fuming.

“We stay with the store,” he said.

“Really? We can’t sell anything.”

“Yep,” Alex said, spitefully knocking over one of the countertop promo displays. “Want to hear some bullshit?” He climbed back up on top of the counter beside me. “When I did my manager training, they teach you all these policies for emergencies. When the power goes out, we’re supposed to stay and protect the store. Like, from looters.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yeah. Guess what the policy is for a terrorist attack?”

I said nothing, amazed.

“Yeah,” Alex said. “Like I’m going to stay and protect your shitty DVDs and candy and not go be with my family. The four horsemen of the apocalypse could come down and we’d be told to stay with the store.”

I can’t verify anything Alex said. Corporate overlords demanding that their employees protect their product instead of protecting themselves would fit right into Alex’s worldview. But he sounded earnest, and there was no reason for him to lie.

One financier, who’d muscled his way onto Blockbuster LLC’s board in 2005, later called it “the worst investment I ever made.” Mismanagement and an inability to compete with the new online medium finally bled out the monster. But, perhaps inevitably, Blockbuster has transformed from the poster brand for the passé into the symbol of that seductive fiction, “a simpler time.” One Blockbuster store still exists in the United States. In the year of our Lord 2k19, you could brave a frozen wilderness to “a land far beyond the Internet” and find your way to it, as one webcomic depicts. But why would you want to? The late fees, the small selection, the miserable employees in their terrible khaki pants and blue polos. It only works in memoriam. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe I don’t need to be annoyed that a shitty retail job I had in college has been transformed into a collective, emblematic depository for my generation’s longing for a time before—well, all this. Maybe I need to embrace the nostalgic buzz and let Blockbuster become to the Millennial consumer as the typewriter is to the hipster poet. It’s not as though I have a say in it anyway.

“So what do we do now?” I asked Alex.

“We just wait,” he said, “until the lights come back on or until Regional calls and tells us we can leave.” The POS computers, I realized only when they were dead, usually let off a low hum, and the absence of that hum created a ringing silence. The mounted TVs that normally blared movie trailers and music videos now stared blank. Alex and I sat in the dark, waiting to hear from Regional.

***

Rumpus original art by Mark Armstrong.


Colleen Morrissey is an author, scholar, and teacher from Omaha, Nebraska. She achieved her BA at the University of Iowa, her MA at the University of Kansas, and recently completed her PhD in English at the Ohio State University. She currently teaches at the Columbus College of Art and Design. She was awarded an O. Henry Prize in 2014 and has been a Best American Short Stories Notable. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Southeast Review, Cincinnati Review, and others; her creative nonfiction has appeared in Confrontation; and her poetry has appeared in Parcel and Blue Island Review. More from this author →