Entertainment

The World's Last Blockbuster Remains Open, Pandemic and Netflix Be Damned

"I had a customer come in and she said, 'I am so grateful that you reopened, because I couldn't flip through Netflix one more time.'"

by Jelisa Castrodale
May 12 2020, 4:33pm

Photo courtesy of Blockbuster

On its website, the world's last Blockbuster Video store sells its own made-in-Oregon merch, with T-shirts, hoodies, and foam trucker hats all printed with the almost-extinct chain's torn ticket logo. It also offers laminated replicas of its once-ubiquitous membership cards, and a bumper sticker that says "I SURVIVED ALONG WITH THE LAST BLOCKBUSTER" in already distressed capital letters.

A few months ago, that might've sounded less defiant, less accomplished, less 'Fuck yeah, we're still here,' but that was before buying tater tots required drawing complicated schematics of the supermarket; before we started bartering with our neighbors, your sourdough starter for my coffee-filter face masks; and before we ever dreamed we'd be nostalgic for pressing elevator buttons with our bare fingertips.

It's been just over a year since the World's Last Blockbuster became, you know, exactly that. After the Blockbuster stores in Alaska locked their doors, and the one in Perth, Australia collected its last late fee and turned its lights off, the 20-year-old Bend, Oregon location became the only Blockbuster left on the planet.

The store hasn't just outlasted its contemporaries, survived the threats of streaming services and an ongoing international pandemic, it's also recently stretched its lifespan past that of its local DVD distributor. Now, when Blockbuster's longtime general manager Sandi Harding wants to add new releases to the store's shelves, she has to go out and buy them herself.

"The big title for next week is Call of the Wild," she told VICE. "I usually start out with 30 [copies] on DVD, and 12 to 14 Blu-Ray. I'll go to Walmart, Target, Fred Meyer, every retailer we have here in town, and I'll only get five or 10 from each one. They don't like me very much if I come in and just wipe out their shelves, so I try to be conscientious of that, and make sure that I leave movies for their regular customers as well."

Every week, Harding will be out socially distancing her way through big box retailers for new releases, because she knows that's what her customers want. And in the early days of this crisis, when most of us were still trying to understand what a stay-at-home order meant, Harding was still trying to take care of her DVD-rental regulars. "Unfortunately, after I got five or six people in here, everybody would be converging in the same area, everybody wanted to see the John Oliver stuff, or everybody wanted to go to the new release section," she said. "I wasn't able to keep people apart, and I thought 'Well, this isn't going to work.'"

After closing for a few days to regroup, the store reopened with curbside service, which it had never offered before. Those who were jonesing for a particular Blu-Ray would call the store, pay for their rental over the phone, and when they rolled up, a masked-and-gloved Blockbuster worker would clean the DVD case with Clorox wipes, put it in a Ziplock bag, and take it to their car.

Harding said that the store had 10-15 curbside customers a day—"a drop in the bucket" compared to its typical pre-pandemic rentals—which wasn't enough to sustain the business, or to justify the potential risks. "You're in a tight spot, because part of you is looking at the economics of it and thinking 'I have to have customers coming and spending money, or my business isn't going to be viable, but at the same time, I'm like the Blockbuster Mom," she said. "These are my kids that work here, the customers are my family and, my gosh, I can't put them at risk either. Your heart is just torn in two different directions."

The store closed for a second time, but Harding said that owners Ken and Debbie Tisher continued to pay everyone on-staff, and none of its dozen-plus employees were laid off. (The store also successfully applied for and received a Paycheck Protection Loan). And because Harding must be extraordinarily fun to work with (or extraordinarily persuasive), some college-aged staff members joined her during that temporary closure to do a full inventory of the store's 22,000 DVD collection, and for a multi-day project that involved replacing the labels on all 22,000 DVD cases.

They also started taping social distancing markers and directional arrows on the floors, DIY-ing their own Clorox wipes out of heavy-duty shop towels, and stocking up masks and gloves. At that point, Harding decided that she felt comfortable enough with their safety measures to open the doors to 10 people at a time. "I had a customer come in and she said, 'I am so grateful that you reopened, because I couldn't flip through Netflix one more time,'" she said.

The store hasn't really slowed down since, although people have started renting less-terrifying movies. "At first it was Outbreak, Contagion, and any pandemic movie out there, but now it's pretty much everything," she said. "Someone rented the entire Indiana Jones series, others are getting classics like Somewhere in Time, and I think that's kind of the beauty of our store. They probably could've found the movie they're looking for [on a streaming service], but they don't have to: they can come here, and we've got it."

Despite the store's near-legendary survival instincts and two decades of outwitting, outplaying, and outlasting both its contemporaries and its own parent company, it did briefly consider that it might not make it through a goddamn pandemic too. "At first, I think I was more nervous about people getting sick, or if even one person gets sick. I was more concerned with that than the business," Harding said.

"The longer it goes on, the more stress there is for everyone, and the more I'm like 'Oh gosh, can we really sustain this? [...] But we're still making plans and pushing forward and we're the last one for a reason. We don't go down without a fight. So we're going to keep fighting for a while."