If you visited the Blockbuster website in 2009 and clicked on the “about” tab, you’d have discovered the company had 8000 outlets globally and some 400 in Australia. But that wasn’t all. According to the same page Blockbuster was “considered by many to be the most influential force in the Australian video industry.”
A decade later and Blockbuster’s influence has dipped to negligible. The parent company is long gone and they’ve left two orphans behind: one in the US state of Oregon, and the other in the Perth suburb of Morley—which is where I found storeowner Lyn Borszeky and her store-manager Laura amused by the idea they were now custodians of a precious relic.
“I was joking with my friend a few years ago saying imagine if one day we could be one of the last five in the world?” said Laura grinning. “I think because we’re here all the time we didn’t realise how big a deal it was. And then suddenly here we are! It feels a bit like we have pulled a Steven Bradbury. We’re suddenly the last one standing.”
Until December their store was one of two left in Australia, but then Toowoomba Blockbuster went under leaving them alone. “To think there were 8,000 stores and now there’s only two,” says Laura shaking her head. “It’s unbelievable.”
I’d come to Blockbuster to do a shift. Not because I thought I had any particular DVD stacking or recommending skills, but because I wanted to know what it was like working in Australia’s last Blockbuster. So I arrived at 10:30 on a Monday morning, just as the week’s new releases were being delivered.
“This,” declared Lyn “is what the people have been waiting for.” And she plucked a copy of A Star Is Born, from a box and entered the DVD’s details into the system, then made a space on the shelf.
I started the shift by putting on my own special lanyard that Lyn had made me (love), along with a shirt sporting the BB colours. Looking around, the store was both on trend yet nostalgic with original copies of Jurassic Park sitting meters away from fresh copies of Crazy Rich Asians. But what was undeniable was the sense of community.
Lyn has owned video stores with her husband John for over 30 years and says she genuinely cares about keeping the service alive for as long as she can. Laura, the store manager, had similarly worked at Morley for years and grew up obsessively reading movie guides. “It was first time in my life all this movie knowledge was able to be put to good use,” she told me. “My family were gold plate members of our local video shop—as in our names were on the wall—because we there that often.”
As morning became noon it became clear who Blockbuster’s main demographic were: middle-aged people who couldn’t stream or didn’t want to, and film fans who didn’t want an algorithm selecting their entertainment.
I watched these people shuffle into the store and browse without irony, apparently oblivious to the sign on the window proclaiming: you are entering the last Blockbuster in Australia. But Lyn thought the sign wasn’t lost on people, and mentioned that many customers actually travelled several suburbs just to visit.
“Do you know many of the customers by name?” I asked her.
“Yep, I’ll look up regulars without them giving any details. I can also know who’ll bring their rentals back on time and for who we’ll have to wait for. They’re all good people and if someone brings things back a little late, that’s fine. The difference between here and other retail is that you get to see them all the time. You know about them and their families and their lives.”
The staff seemed connected to their customers in ways I didn’t expect. Laura showed me one section where each staff member placed their personal recommendations, and explained that some customers exclusively rented DVDs recommended by specific staff members. One ex-manager’s recommendations were so well liked that he'd resumed doing Monday shifts, just so he could keep up the recommendations.
That’s when I was told had my own little recommendation shelf (you guys!) and that my task was to fill it up. So I got to work skimming spines and scanning genres, looking for the perfect films.
Half an hour later Laura came over and nodded her approval—“ Snakes On a Plane is a good choice,” she told me. “I really enjoyed it. I would call that type of film 'pure entertainment' because wasn’t a good film but it was just so entertaining. And Caddy Shack, I love that.
“When you go for recommendations it’s really easy to pick movies that you think everybody thinks are good,” she said. “But I think it’s much better to go for things that people forget.”
As I stacked shelves, I thought about the disruptive force of Netflix, and how Blockbuster was once the company accused of cannibalisation. As film commentator Nathan Adams wrote: "Blockbuster was once an unstoppable giant whose franchises swept across the country putting mom and pop video stores out of business. Gone were the fragmented, independently owned shops that were often unorganised treasure troves of VHS discoveries.”
And yet from what I saw, the Blockbuster in Morley had embraced the eclectic tastes of their employees without reservation, which had given them a far more diverse range than Netflix. And maybe, I considered, as the curtain fell on video stores, surviving Blockbusters are embracing a new sense of de-corporatised freedom.
This unintended affect is also being felt in Oregon, if their very unedited Twitter account is anything to go by. With Tweets such as the below, you get the sense that the guardians of Blockbuster’s ruins are the same types who once ran “unorganised treasure troves.”
Back at the Morley store, preparation for the Academy Awards was underway and Laura was planning an awards night dinner that would feature custom dishes to represent nominated movies.
“Last year we had Darkest Hour so I did filo cigars to represent Winston Churchill’s cigar. There was also Three Billboards so I made a Molotov cocktail shot. Then for The Post I made Banh Mi cos’ it was set in Vietnam. I even printed out newspaper from when Nixon resigned and wrapped the buns in them!”
The rest of my short shift went quickly as we chatted about movie-themed foods, greeted customers, stacked shelves, and enjoyed the sense of cinematic calm about the store.
The truth is that Australia’s last Blockbuster isn’t all nostalgia, with most of the new releases coming out before they’re available on other platforms, even illegally. And there’s no buffering, no data pack rollovers, no “too many users watching this service at one time.”
Finally I left to go to my actual job feeling kind of sad. Video shops are so awesome and regardless of travel or perceived cost, they offer a magic that’s hard to recreate. And that’ll be especially true once they’re gone.