I was at the beach in Los Angeles this summer when I saw a unicorn.
My friend and I were driving to dinner when I looked out the window and made the sighting, instinctively withdrawing my iPhone from my pocket to snap a picture with the speed of a pistol at a duel. It was, live and in living color, an actual brick and mortar Blockbuster store.
That the video rental franchise had, over the course of the last decade, rapidly become extinct should come as no surprise. The rise of video on-demand, online streaming, and online rental rendered the mission of the retailer entirely useless, and the product it was peddling was always shamefully overpriced. Yet with the news Wednesday that Blockbuster is shuttering the last of its 300 U.S. stores, it’s an occasion to remember whatever that nostalgic, kind-of-magical thing was about the store that, when I saw it oh-so-briefly while cruising an L.A. boulevard, my heart fluttered as if I had seen a mystical creature.
The thing is, growing up in the ‘90s, a trip to Blockbuster was a trip to a fantasy land. Sure, to an obvious extent it was because lining the walls were VHS-shaped tickets to animated oceans with singing crabs, amusement parks where dinosaurs roam, and galaxies far, far away. But also because, and it’s especially true taken in context of the at-your-fingertips-on-any-number-of-screens accessibility of movies now, the act of watching a movie at that time was an Event.
There was an entire process to it. First there was the incessant nagging, until dad finally wore down and agreed to pile the minivan with the family for a trip to the Blockbuster on the strip mall. Why the need to nag? Because dad was signing himself up for an excursion of at least an hour as my siblings and I roamed the labyrinth of cassettes, pacing back and forth in the same aisles dozens of times while arguing over whether Tower of Terror was going to be too scary, if we should rent The Big Green for a fourth time, or if we should just go the safe route and grab the Olsen twins’ latest, It Takes Two. (Steve Guttenberg really had a run there for a minute, didn’t he?)
The checkout line snaked around a delectable assortment of snacks and candy. We’d always lobby to purchase the Blockbuster brand popcorn, which would pop in the microwave in a movie theater-style bucket. It tasted like dirt covered in oil, but it was in a bucket! How cool!
By the time we convinced the cashier to ring us up even though we forgot our Blockbuster card (because we always forgot our Blockbuster card—it’s still buried at the bottom of the glove compartment in our old Toyota), so much time had passed that our mom started to worry at home that something had happened and my brothers, sister, and I had argued so much about the movie choice that we weren’t speaking anymore. The whimsy of the whole excursion had all-but evaporated. We couldn't wait to do it again the next week.
There was so much wrong with the way Blockbuster operated. Charging what escalated to $6 or more, at times, to rent a movie for 24 hours is ridiculous, but my dad never really minded it because movie tickets were about the same amount and carting our whole family of six to the cinema would’ve run six times that amount. There was also no cinephilic romanticism about Blockbuster, the way there was about independent local video stores, where a scruffy old movie buff would ask you a series of questions and guide you like some telepathic wizard to the perfect obscure film that would, inevitably, change your life. Once I asked our local Blockbuster clerk for a movie recommendation and he just said, “Bruce Willis.”
And there was the way it’s model—it’s so much cheaper to rent a movie than buy it!—fooled us all. Did my family rent Jumanji nine times? Sure. Would purchasing an actual copy of Jumanji have been cheaper than renting it twice? Yep. Did we end up having to buy the Mandy Moore rom-com Chasing Liberty because we forgot to return it and the late fees became too much? We did. Did we ever actually watch Chasing Liberty? We sure didn’t.
But there was something great about the hunt anyway, even if that hunt took you to that movie where the singer of “Candy” played the First Daughter of the United States looking for love. When you went to Blockbuster and chose a movie, you committed to it. You held the VHS (or, later, the DVD) in your hand. You read the back. You chose a film and you were forced to watch it, because this wasn’t Netflix and you couldn’t change your mind for free and press play on something different. You paid to rent it so you were going to watch it.
Did you choose that movie just because you liked the way Drew Barrymore looked on the cover (cough, Home Fries)? Well, you made your bed and had to lie in it. Cave to pressure and finally decide to watch The English Patient because “it won the Oscar and Susan said it is just so beautiful”? Sorry, dude. Tough break. On the flip side, you may have walked past a movie with an absurd title like Surf Ninjas, decided to watch it, and imminently realized you had just made the best spontaneous decision of your life.
I may have been able to pay for an entire semester of college with the money I spent on late fees at Blockbuster, but I wouldn’t trade a cent of it. I also realize that, as a Netflix addict and early on-demand adopter, I’m a guilty accomplice in the demise of the stores I’m paying such heartfelt homage to here. But rest assured that when I sign on to my Netflix account tonight, it’s going to be hard to resist the urge to stream Chasing Liberty.
Blockbuster, never forget.