Friday, March 4, 2011

Bye Bye Blockbuster

The end is near for Blockbuster, at least for a good chunk of its brick-and-mortar operations around the country. You've probably started seeing the big yellow announcement banners over many of their storefronts over the past few weeks. I walked over to one of the closing stores yesterday, feeling nostalgic, and in the mood to pick over their inventory. Everything was for sale, from the DVDs to the snack foods to the store fixtures.

First, a note to bargain hunters - as with most store closings, the purported markdowns are deceptive. I went into the store primarily interested in their used DVD collection, and found that the bulk of them were priced at $10, or $5 if they didn't have a box. Meanwhile, the average price of a brand new bargain bin title at the local Wal-mart is usually $5-$8. To underline the fact, there were several racks of unopened new discount titles, in the $7-$10 range. Amazingly, the used Blu-rays were all priced a buck or two cheaper than the used DVDs. All the discounted movies could be found online at the usual discount retailers for less. Since most of the racks were still full, and the store was still renting titles, I think it must have been early in the closing process for this location, and prices may come down. Or, they may ship all the unsold inventory to one of the stores that is staying open. I still did some browsing and considered buying a used copy of the Sci-Fi Channel miniseries "The Lost Room" - and then realized that the box I picked up only had the first disc. The second was nowhere to be found.

I don't remember the last time I was in a Blockbuster store before this, but in my college and grad school years I was walking by them almost daily, and rented heaps and heaps of DVDs. The first time I ever did a monthly plan was at Blockbuster - I paid $30 for unlimited rentals for one month, and proceeded to burn through fifty movies, swapping out two at a time every day, at the store in person. (In my defense, this was during the summer, and I had seen maybe five movies in the preceding six months.) I applied to work at one of them once, filling in the application on the little electronic thingy in the back of the store. This was before I learned that you were expected to follow-up on job applications, so of course my efforts were for nada. There were other video stores in my life, of course. There were the dollar-a-night rental places that my parents preferred, and there were the alternative places that organized their titles by director to target serious cinephiles. I would not have become the giant anime nerd I am today if it weren't for the fine proprietors of Wizzywigs in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the day they sold off their VHS rental collection was a sad one for all. But I can't imagine my nascent movie-lover years without Blockbuster.

Sure, Blockbuster has often been viewed as the enemy to smaller video stores, a mainstream behemoth stomping out the scrappy independents. But how could I hate them? They gave me access to so many movies I would have never seen otherwise. The titles that individual stores carried would vary from place to place, but I remember finding so many foreign wonders like "The Five Obstructions," and "Kitchen Stories," and obscure indies like "Bartleby" and "Undertow." I'd hear about these films through "At the Movie" or film websites, but until I got to college and had free run of the video stores, I didn't realize that I could actually rent and watch them like mainstream movies. Blockbuster was absolutely vital in helping me to shape my tastes in film, giving me the opportunity to take home the Swedish apocalypse comedy "Songs from the Second Floor" instead of "Spider-Man." The dollar stores could never match their selection. The cinephile stores usually had wonderful collections of older films, but neglected their new releases.

All that changed with online rentals, of course, and visiting Blockbuster stores became more and more of a drag as time went on. The prices kept going up, being in the stores themselves became tedious, and after a certain point I was a little embarrassed that I had ever wanted to work there. Can you imagine standing at one of those counters all day, listening to the blare of the eternally looping Coming Attractions reel on the overhead television sets? Or having to hawk membership plans and overpriced Twizzlers with every transaction? And once I started getting curious about older films, it was all over. Looking for Kurosawa or Bergman titles? Forget it.

I guess I just outgrew Blockbuster, and from their financial woes it looks like everyone else did too. I did find one great deal while I was at Blockbuster yesterday. They were selling off all the shelf display cards, or "backers," the ones with pictures of the DVD box covers on them to sit on the shelf as a placeholder when a copy has been checked out, twenty cards for a dollar. I grabbed three dollars worth, including cards for the "Millennium" trilogy, "The Maid," "The White Ribbon," "I Am Love," and "Beaches of Agnes." I'll go back again later to see if I can find more rarities, and maybe I'll dig up that second disc of "The Lost Room." Mostly, though, I'll be going for the nostalgia.

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