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Should We Be Glad Blockbuster's Gone?

A chat about the cultural significance of late fees and blue boxes
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Spencer Kornhaber:  So the news just broke that Blockbuster is closing all 300 of its remaining, corporately run retail stores. My first reaction was "good riddance," followed by reflexive guilt—all those jobs lost! My brother worked there for a long time! And now I’m just feeling nostalgic sadness. Is that weird?

Eleanor Barkhorn:  I am experiencing some very mixed emotions myself. On the one hand, Blockbuster was an essential institution growing up. What would slumber parties and sick days and summer vacations have been like without the blue boxes?

Also, there was a particular excitement to walking into the store with the movie you wanted to rent in mind, and wondering, "Will it be there? Or will it be all rented out?" I remember waiting WEEKS for Clueless to be available at the Blockbuster near my house.

So, that's the nostalgic sadness part for me.

Kornhaber:  Right, yeah. I have that too. Heading to Blockbuster with middle-school friends and arguing over which Bond movie to rent, etc.

But also there was this unique feeling that came with the type of browsing it encouraged. People lament the death of bookstores as places to hang out, read, have serendipitous encounters and chance finds, and the retail video store was a strange other version of that. You really were judging these things entirely by their covers. I remember being luridly fascinated by all the boxes in the horror section. Fraidy childhood me would never want to watch a slasher, but I particularly remember the Hellraiser cover as a terrifying staple of visits to Blockbuster.

So there's that wistful, we-lose-a-tactile-experience thing with Blockbuster closing. But it was also sort of a terrible place, right?

Barkhorn:  Yes, I agree on the parallels to the bookstore. I enjoyed browsing the "new releases" section, trying to summon the courage to casually pick up an R-rated movie from the shelf and see if my parents would notice.

But yeah, also, a terrible place. Though I obviously have fond memories of Blockbuster, I most strongly associate it with boredom. Going to Blockbuster on a Friday afternoon was an admission I didn't have anything cool to do that night I would sometimes plot my walk back home from Blockbuster to avoid running into people—I didn't want to be seen on a weekend night carrying a blue-and-yellow bag.

Kornhaber:  Haha, loser.

Barkhorn: I’m not alone in this association. There was an episode of Sex and the City where Miranda was going through a dating drought and generally feeling bad about herself. What did she do with all her free time? Go to Blockbuster. “I've been at Blockbuster renting videos. It's tragic,” she whines at one point. “I'm like two rentals away from a free pound a Gummy Bears.” Blockbuster = tragic.

Kornhaber: That's the funny thing with the rise of Netflix, though. It's allowed us to become even bigger homebodies, to hide that we have nothing to do on a Friday night. But it's a cultural badge of normalcy in exactly the same way Blockbuster was, maybe. You still tend to hear people say things like "This may sound lame, but my favorite thing is to curl up with a glass of wine and a show on Netflix" the same way they would say "This may sound lame, but my favorite thing is to curl up with a glass of wine and some Blockbuster rentals," right?

Presented by

Eleanor Barkhorn & Spencer Kornhaber

Eleanor Barkhorn and Spencer Kornhaber are senior associate editors at The Atlantic.

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