Should We Be Glad Blockbuster's Gone?

A chat about the cultural significance of late fees and blue boxes


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?

Barkhorn: Yes, totally.

Kornhaber: Of course with Netflix, you can watch even more embarrassing things, more easily, and in greater quantities, without anyone else knowing.

Which speaks to the main reason I felt "good riddance." Blockbuster, though obviously innovative and successful as a business for a long time, could make for a crappy consumer experience, no? It had a lot of pain points. Late fees! Having that little laminated card! Rewinding! Scratched DVDs and broken tapes!

There's also the fact that it was The Man, crowding out weird, independent video stores and dictating what was and wasn't available for the majority of Americans to watch. The are a lot of fond depictions of video stores in pop culture: Michel Gondry made a whole movie about how magical they could be, and Parks & Recreation even sent up video-store mythology in a recent episode. But those portrayals were almost always of the small, quirky shops. Not Blockbuster.

Now, though, that tension is almost entirely gone. No one thinks of Netflix as The Man, even though it's probably been just as deadly to little retail outlets.

Barkhorn: You see that evolution in bookstores, too. First Barnes and Noble is The Man for crowding out the indie bookstores, and Amazon comes along and threatens Barnes and Noble, and suddenly B&N is the victim

Now that the dust is settling on the whole bookstore revolution, some are arguing that indie bookstores are doing fine, and Amazon is doing great... but the big-box stores are the losers. I don't get the sense that's the case with video stores, though. Netflix seems to have killed both the indies and the big-boxes.

Kornhaber: Yeah, and again, there's little social handwringing about that. Probably because Netflix is a scarily perfect entertainment machine that no one would root against ... which now, thinking about it, heightens my nostalgia for Blockbuster.

The selection may have been patchy, and the employees may have been trying to always push candy-bar-and-popcorn packages on you, and the late fees may have been stressful, and the lighting may have been offensive, but all of those frictional things reminded that the entertainment we consume actually is a product—one that usually took a lot of effort and money and thought to make. Increasingly, now, we think about entertainment more like a utility, like air or water.

Barkhorn: Absolutely. Even the act of rewinding was a reminder that entertainment is tangible—even fragile. Someone's going to watch this after you, so you better take care of it.

Kornhaber: Yeah. It’s interesting to think about Blockbuster as something built on the idea of sharing. You were sharing those videos with strangers, but also, per our associations between Blockbuster and sleepovers, you often consumed the videos with others. You can still do that with Netflix, but generally it’s a more solitary thing—it’s enabling us to follow our individual interests, alone, more than ever. That’s cool, but also, obviously, sad. So I guess it’s ok to feel as ambivalent about streaming’s rise as it is to feel about Blockbuster’s demise.