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When Blockbuster Video filed for bankruptcy in the US in 2010, it left 9,000 empty video stores scattered across America, and set in motion a decline that rippled to Australia. Since then, for reasons most people can guess, Blockbuster Video has become a relic.
In Australia, nearly every capital city has seen its stores shrivel and die. Sydney and Melbourne now have just one each. Perth has two. But Adelaide has five. That's five stores that have somehow survived the internet apocalypse.
I wanted to know how they've done this—and who is still renting DVDs—so I took a tour of Adelaide's last stores as listed on the Blockbuster website. And for good measure, I headed past the shop that used to be my local. Growing up, Blockbuster was a 10-minute drive away up a hill, and built on the edge of a retail complex. Its glass windows were large and if you pulled into the car park during sundown, the whole thing glowed like a firefly at night.
But these days that store is a medical clinic and the windows are blocked out. When I called the Blockbuster at Hallett Cove, they told me they were closing too, even if they were still listed on the site.
Over on Adelaide's east, Blockbuster Firle was thriving. Kent Sumner is the owner and he explained that business keeps going because unlike the US, Australian Blockbusters are mostly franchise-owned, meaning individual stores didn't have to swallow management's bad decisions.
Kent's been in business since they started phasing out Betamax; his first store was a Movie World, not a Blockbuster. He bought into the business at a time when there were 12 stores competing within a three-kilometre radius and now he's the last standing.
"Do you buy your groceries online?" He says when I ask why people still rent movies. "No? Well, there ya go, that's why people still rent movies."
Kent has no plans to close. His customer base is growing, with people coming from further away than ever to search his shelves. His store has a greater section of foreign movies which gives him a niche and Kent does all the buying personally. When someone discovers an actor and is keen to devour their filmography, he's happy to oblige.
It's the same story for Steve Hurnac and his wife Mannie, over in Fairview. They've got over 15,000 people on their member list, with 14,000 titles in the shop and no plans to go anywhere
Their store, with its genre shelving, was the model for every other store in the country at one time. It was a family-decision to get into the business. Now Steve, Mannie, and their two daughters work the place with a third staff member, while their eldest daughter curates their library. It's a perfect job for a collector with a wall of movies at home, Steve says, though sometimes he has to remind her that she can't just buy for her taste.
"Fact is, action movies sell," Steve says. "And we're running a business."
He breaks down his customers into a few rough categories. There are the families looking to keep their kids occupied because renting weeklies is cheaper than spending $100 at the cinema. There are the "touchy-feely" types who come in to dig through a shelf and pull out something special in the same way people walk into record stores and flick through the stacks. There are those who come in on impulse, some who come in for a chat and those who just hate waiting for a movie to buffer.
"We find that a lot of people come to us because they can't get a good connection with the internet," Steve says. "And they don't seem to be satisfied by the selection on Netflix."
While Steve and Kent are going strong, Travis Spencer over at Northgate is thinking of getting out.
Travis started out as a teacher, then became a gardener with Steve, and then a video store owner when he had an opportunity to buy into a Blockbuster 12 years ago. He leapt at the chance to spend his days watching and talking about movies.
"It was my dream job," Travis says.
People, he says, come in because they either want Blu-Ray quality or because they want to talk to another movie buff. Lately though, things have been getting quiet. He's got his regulars, but he's getting bored a lot of the time. It would be a shame if he closed, I say. It would be another step closer to a world without video stores. Quentin Tarantino spent five years working in one, I point out. It helped launched his career.
"You know what?" Travis says. "I reckon I could choreograph a pretty decent movie. If Van Dam worked for me, I could churn out a spectacular martial arts film. I've seen so many now, I know the formula. I'd do it right, take my time with it."
Things don't go so well with Vince, all the way down at Morphett Vale. He and his wife have been in the game longer than anyone else, I'm told, but they've been burned too many times by the fourth estate and don't want to talk to me. He's afraid I'll paint his customers as "dinosaurs."
Nothing I can say changes his mind, even though he's got me pegged wrong. Those who still rent DVDs are no different to those who still love bookshops and record stores. These are my people.
And for the moment at least, Adelaide's Blockbusters are still kicking. The dinosaurs made it past the meteor.
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