They were blue and yellow and you could see their signs from far away. At their peak, they averaged nearly 100 per state, and it felt as if there was one on every corner. We joined their ranks. We had their membership cards. We knew their hours.
They were called Blockbuster, and if you are under 20 and reading this, you may not know what I’m talking about. Blockbuster is the American buffalo of the home entertainment world, once mighty, now all but gone.
I thought about this when I read that Blockbuster will soon close two of its remaining three stores, leaving it with one — one? — in all of the United States. From 4,500 stores in this country, from nearly 85,000 employees around the world, to one American outlet. One?
Bend, Oregon. That’s where you’ll have to go to wander the aisles and do what so many of us did in the ’80s and ’90s — “pick up a movie.”
It’s hard to fathom. Sure, many retail business have gone belly up or vanished in mergers. There are no more Marshall Field’s stores, or Filene’s, or W. T. Grants, or Hudson’s. But these were largely regional shopping experiences.
Blockbuster was everywhere. That was the idea. You could be on vacation, on a business trip, visiting your cousins in Duluth, but you found the local Blockbuster and you whipped out your blue and yellow membership card and you drove home with a clunky cassette tape of “Die Hard” or “Back to the Future” or “Terminator” that you popped in your — ahem — VHS player.
And, oh, yeah. After two days, you had to bring it back. Or get fined.
The extinction of a daily experience
Remember that? It was an everyday American conversation:
“Where are you going?”
“To grab some dinner.”
“Stop by Blockbuster and get us a good movie.”
“Where are you going?”
“To grab some dinner.”
“Stop by Blockbuster and take the movies back.”
Pick up. Drop off. It was, for many, a daily experience. Blockbuster made it easy for you, with mailbox-like units that you could deposit your used movies in like letters. You didn’t even have to get out of your car. You pulled up, rolled down your window…
And in writing this, I realize how absolutely ancient that must seem to a teenager.
Yes, kids, just as we used to hunt animals to bring food to the tribe, so, too, did we journey into the snowy night so our families could enjoy another viewing of “Home Alone.”
Now, perhaps you think I’m going to wax nostalgic about the good old days of videos with covers, or endless aisles of “Horror,” “Family,” “Foreign,” or the joy of checking out the “New This Week” display, or the oft-repeated conversations from Anchorage to Miami that began with holding up a particular tape and asking a Blockbuster salesperson, “Is this any good?”
But no. That’s not my point. Shopping methods have changed so much, so fast, that you barely have time to wave goodbye before a drone from Amazon drops a package on your head.
No, what struck me when I read about Blockbuster being down to one store is how vastthose stores used to feel. It was like walking into the New York Public Library. You couldn’t possibly ever watch all those movies, you thought, or even sift through them.
Yet the inventory of a Blockbuster store now seems like an empty fridge. Amazon and iTunes can bring 10 Blockbusters up on your computer screen. Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Showtime, Paramount, National Geographic — they are all in the movie or series business now, providing a lifetime’s worth of choices to sit and watch. You could die of popcorn consumption just trying to keep up.
An investment of our time
So I guess maybe I am being a bit nostalgic, not for a franchise, but for the effort once required to amuse ourselves. I mean, to visit a Blockbuster, we had to get in a car. A car! To think!
Go back even further, before multiplexes, before cable TV, before TV at all, and we used to wait until the local movie house changed its feature — its one feature — to have a new film to watch.
It makes you wonder what we did with all that time. If I took all the hours in my life I’ve spent perusing choices of movies — not watching them, just deciding which ones to watch — I could likely make more films than Spielberg.
One store. You think about all those people who used to stock the shelves, all the hours we put in going up and down the aisles, all the money we spent because we kept “Ghostbusters” four days too long.
One store. I don’t know what the folks in Bend, Oregon, are doing differently. But I kind of want to visit.
I still have some credit on a Blockbuster gift card.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.