Welcome to Different Perspectives, an essay series designed to offer a new, more positive perspective on an entertainer, company or piece of entertainment that fans and viewers may not have considered.
It was announced on November 6, 2013 that DISH Network Corp., had decided to pull the plug on Blockbuster’s retail outlets and DVD mailing service.
The mailing service will finish out in late December. All remaining stores will close by January 2014. This means that more than 300 locations across the United States will cease operations and roughly 2800 employees, who are barely making above minimum wage, will lose their jobs.
Naturally, to some degree, I can understand the reasoning for closing Blockbuster. The place has slowly declined in value over the years and has struggled to come back out on top. But it still stings knowing that many good people will probably lose their jobs right after the holidays. Even worse, they may potentially be forced to close their own store down, an emotional and physically tasking duty that is not very easy when your inventory consists of heavy wooden shelves and thousands of relatively small discs, not to mention a lot of red tape.
Even though the company hasn’t been active in my neck of the woods for several years, I am going to miss Blockbuster.
I grew up renting movies from my corner store. If it weren’t for Blockbuster, I might very well be someone completely different. I wouldn’t have rented EVERY single horror film they had after I saw Scream and suddenly craved more thrills and chills. I might not have fallen in love with James Bond movies, or seen Alien, The Godfather or even Gremlins … at least not during my formative years. I might not have become a writer.
And don’t even get me started on games. My love for Nintendo basically lives and dies by the almighty hand of Blockbuster. Without them, I wouldn’t have played Super Mario 2, Metroid or The Legend of Zelda (among others). When I was young, I opted for video games based on movies, so my parents would purchase titles that weren’t always of the best quality (damn you, LJN!). You can only play the shitty Back to the Future Nintendo games so long before you desire to play something else, something good. And that’s where Blockbuster came in.
In truth, I am going to miss Blockbuster so much, I wish I didn’t have the painful memory of working there.
For five months, I worked at Blockbuster Video. It was the sort of job any teenager who loves movies would want. You get to talk about all kinds of films with customers. You get to point them in the right direction, to a genre or specific title they might not have seen. And you get to rent all the films and games you want … for FREE!
The only problem was, I was a 27-year-old adult, and it was the only job available in my neck of the woods. And worse, the company was already on the decline.
My experiences at Blockbuster were, for lack of better words, fucking terrible. I hated working there. It was a dysfunctional environment right from the start, with corporate constantly changing their strategies in order to find financial footing, and putting needless pressure on simple video store clerks just trying to get by. In the time I worked there, the corporate strategy changed at least four times.
At first, they offered a rather clever $10-a-month, monthly service that gave you half-price rentals, one free new release a week, and unlimited free catalog rentals. Then the service they pushed was some outrageous gimmick (I can’t even recall what it was anymore) that cost close to $30-a-month. I flat-out refused to sell this one to customers as I saw absolutely no value in the service. I was written up for my defiance, despite being the top seller of the $10-a-month service in my store.
Then Blockbuster had the great idea to turn their stores into a tech hub (like Best Buy), complete with TVs, Blu-ray players, satellite dishes and cheap iPod knockoffs for sale. It would have been a great platform … in 1997, when people had money and cared about big box tech. But in 2008, in the midst of a hard-hitting economic recession, no one cared. And worse, Blockbuster just expected employees to be able to sell these products.
Soon, it was no longer about the movies. It was about keeping Blockbuster afloat. They even juggled their rental prices during this time, but those prices rarely went down. In one store I worked at (a rich neighborhood), a rental cost over $8! This was during an era when Redbox was starting to show up, charging only a buck for DVDs.
As Blockbuster’s sales dwindled, employee morale dropped. Hours were cut, people were laid off. There were whispers of store closings in the air. But management received constant pressures to keep things going, and going strong, even though things were getting worse by the day.
I suffer from a debilitating form of tissue gout, which attacks surface skin tissue, rendering it impossible to do even the simplest of tasks when I am suffering from an attack. For anyone unaware, tissue gout troubles about 1 in 20 gout patients. Also, about 1 in 100 gout patients are lucky enough to have both kinds of gout. I have both kinds and sometimes they strike at once. Yay me! It’s an excruciating ordeal and thankfully, through pain management and several years of trail and error with various medications, it is well under control. But it was bad the year I worked at Blockbuster. Really bad.
In October 2008, I suffered the single worst gout attack of my life. Both wrists and both feet were hit hard and I could not walk, write or barely even move. I recall sitting on my couch, crying for hours because it hurt to even sit. I had to crawl myself into bed, a feat that took nearly a half-hour. I laid there and sobbed, in a pain I would not wish upon my worst enemy. It was blinding and constant, never ceasing to remind me it was there. It felt like dying. Looking back, I have no idea how I survived the ordeal without losing my mind.
In October 2008, I also worked at Blockbuster. I had to work the night I was suffering most, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to go in. I could barely sit, let alone drive a car and stand for eight hours, and the pain had kept up all night. I called my Blockbuster in the morning to tell them I wouldn’t be coming in.
“Well, I don’t know. We don’t have anybody here with you. You’re gonna have to come in.”
“But I literally can’t move,” I said, tears running down my cheeks.
“I’m not working a double shift. And there’s no one to cover you, so you have to come in.” This was my manager speaking, by the way. My superior.
Eventually, I made a few calls to other employees myself. One of them came in and worked for me, though they made me feel like the devil for asking them. Usually, Blockbuster had a “floater” system for just such an occasion. This system allowed for an on-call employee in the event someone got sick. But that system was no longer in place, not all the time anyway.
That’s not a good place to work. Every human being, as a basic right, should be allowed to take a day off if they are sick. It’s not always for that employee. It’s for the safety of everyone else.
Just one week later and it was announced my store would close, the first of many closures for the rental giant that year. I figured I would be laid off, but Blockbuster still wanted me. I was, after all, a great salesman. I also knew both movies and tech. They kept trying to make me a supervisor, even though I begged them just to let me be their “on-site movie guy.” I didn’t want a career at Blockbuster, not now. I just wanted a mindless job to supplement my career as a writer and film critic.
Closing that store was one of the single-worst experiences I have ever had at a job. The corporate offices teased employment with many of the employees, basically saying “if you help us close the store, we’ll keep you on.” It was an awful way to work, and people were going mad with each passing week and no definitive answers about their jobs. Looking back, I should have left then.
During this time, I became close friends with one of the supervisors. She was a kind, thoughtful older lady who had struggled throughout her life. Someone had even tried to kill her once, as part of a gang initiation. They shot at her, point blank range. By some miracle, the bullet missed her completely … not unlike that scene from Pulp Fiction.
Her and I enjoyed talking. We discussed TV and movies. I turned her on to Firefly and Serenity. She turned me on to John Wayne movies. We also talked politics and even dove into controversial issues. She gave me some interesting perspectives to consider about the South. Her family owned a slave-free plantation that was burned to the ground by the North during the Civil War. Her family never recovered. She’s still bitter and untrusting because of it. In some ways, all these years later, that scar has become part of her character.
She worked hard at Blockbuster. She was one of the most organized employees I had ever seen. She was loyal. She cared about her fellow employees just as much as she cared about Blockbuster. But she didn’t know tech, and that’s what Blockbuster was looking for (that week). Management dangled a supervisor position over her head. She needed the money, so she stayed on and closed the store. And when she was finished, they cut her loose.
I ended up moving to a corner store just down the street from my home, though I didn’t like working for Blockbuster anymore, nor did I really want to work there now. I wasn’t a bad employee during that time, but I was certainly cynical and had very little desire to complete tasks with any efficiency. It killed me knowing I was kept on, and this diligent, great employee who truly wanted a career at Blockbuster was fired.
That’s when I got farted on.
It was closing time and a young couple, no older than 25, were the only customers who remained in the store. They strolled through the aisles in search of a DVD. Annoyed by how slow they were moving, even after an announcement ten minutes earlier was made that we were closing, I approached them.
“Just to let you know, we are technically closed now,” I said.
“I don’t care,” the man said flatly. His girlfriend laughed and muttered “Kevin” as she chuckled.
This “Kevin”was pretending to be tough and it was making me nervous. “Well, was there anything in particular that you were looking for?” I asked.
“Nope,” he responded.
“Okay, well, I’ll give you a few more minutes to make a selection.”
I returned to the front counter and checked in returned discs. My fellow employee retreated to the back to finalize our daily numbers and call our district manager. Nearly fifteen minutes went by. It didn’t even seem like this couple was interested in renting a movie. They chatted and laughed as they circled the videos, never once stopping to look at a title. I started to worry that they were casing the place, or I was about to get robbed. I walked over to “Kevin” again.
“Look, I hate to do this, but I’m gonna have to ask you to make a selection, if you want. But we can’t have customers in the store after a certain time.”
That was true. Like many retail outlets, Blockbuster had a safety policy that would get me written up if someone was in the store past closing for too long. It wasn’t really to protect our customers, it was to protect me.
“Kevin” looked over at me and scoffed. He grabbed a random DVD from the shelf and made his way to the checkout counter.
I rung “Kevin” out and followed him to the exit, a standard procedure so we could lock the door behind the last customer. There was an issue with his membership (he owed late fees), but I wasn’t about to say anything and keep him there any longer, so I bypassed them. The whole process was tense, like he was ready to punch me simply for stepping on his time. I remained calm, even though I wanted to pummel this teenage jerk. I kept my hands at the ready in case he wanted to rob the place, or throw down.
As he left the building and sauntered into the glass foyer, he turned to me. “This is what I think of Blockbuster.” And then he farted, all over my blue polo.
What came from that man’s ass was beyond foul. It’s what I imagine a rotting zombie’s gas might smell like. Its foulness was so intense, I gagged when I wrote this. The horribleness of that smell knows no time or space.
I stormed back into the store. I was coughing, sick and filled with rage. I had just been crop dusted by the unholiest of foul gasses, the devil’s brew. My fellow employee came out to see what the commotion was. He foolishly didn’t believe me about the fart. He innocently stepped into the foyer for just one moment. He returned mere seconds later and immediately rushed to the bathroom, his hands over his mouth. As I returned to my work, I could hear the echoes of my fellow employee as he vomited into the toilet.
That man’s fart was beyond awful. I wouldn’t even categorize it as a smell. No, it was … evil. It too, I would not wish upon even my worst enemy.
Needless to say, that was the last night I worked at Blockbuster. I turned in my keys and my yellow badge the very next day. And just three months later, that Blockbuster was closed, replaced by a cheeky bar and grill. I’m glad I didn’t have to close out that store.
Obviously, it wasn’t Blockbuster’s fault that I got farted on. There is no procedure for such a thing on their books. I don’t blame Blockbuster for that incident, and I want that to be clear. Honestly, I don’t hold a grudge at Blockbuster for any of the crap they put their employees through, either. It wasn’t perfect, but they just wanted to stay afloat, and they made some bad decisions along the way.
But that event, and my story, was indicative of where Blockbuster was going — down the shitter. You often hear the term, “I got shit on at work,” but never before was it so literal to me than that incident.
Now, I must say this. My blog is about the nature of positivity in entertainment, and I don’t want to trash Blockbuster while they’re down. I loved going to Blockbuster. I loved renting movies from them. They have shaped, in part, who I am today. At one point, Blockbuster was Hollywood to me. It was where movies, art and new stars found their customers, and we found them.
That said, Blockbuster was a company that, in its twilight years, failed to evolve in the right ways. It was a sinking ship. And in their haste, they often tossed from the boat the very ideas and people who might have been able to keep them afloat.
The ship might not have sunk had they dramatically reduced their prices right at the cusp of the recession. People want their rentals cheap.
They might have survived longer had they stolen the streaming rental business models early on, and did it better. The current state of online rentals is overpriced and limited. They could have dominated that market and shown everyone the way.
They might have survived had they not gone experimental with their ideas and practices. People came to Blockbuster to rent movies, and that should have always taken precedence over any other need.
They might still be around had they kept their diligent, loyal employees.
But I do take solace in knowing that some rental giants are still out there. After I finish writing this essay I’ll be trekking down to my local Family Video (now the largest brick and mortar rental chain) to rent a movie. And later on, in the wee hours of the morning, I will likely sit down, relax and watch a film on Netflix Instant Streaming, a service that only gets better and better each month. Blockbuster could have had both markets, but they stopped focusing on movies and started focusing solely on getting themselves out of debt, often at the customer’s expense.
I love Blockbuster. And it saddens me that they’re gone. It’s also upsetting to know that nearly 3000 people will be out of work by January. The job market has gained some traction, and I hope that everyone finds a new position, and soon.
While my memories of working at Blockbuster may only serve as a reminder to why they are no longer around, I choose to leave you with this … during their heyday, Blockbuster brought Hollywood home. And that was pretty damn great.
Different Perspectives essay series:
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