I guess it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that the Blockbuster in my neighbourhood is closing its doors for good. Although I was well aware that Blockbuster Inc. had declared bankruptcy in late 2010, someone had assured me that it would only be U.S. stores closing, and that the Canadian chain would remain afloat. I felt a sense of modest pride that perhaps this meant that Canadians were purer, more honest folk; the type of people who didn’t get their TV shows and movies for free through illegal means (cited as one of the reasons for Blockbuster’s failure). In effect, I breathed a sigh of relief.
My attachment to Blockbuster isn’t really to the multinational chain, but more to what its disappearance represents on a social level. What does this mean for those of us who still enjoy living in the dark ages of video sharing? We may have embraced the other modern amenities in our lives, but aren’t ready to commit to renting movies from cyberspace instead of a real store. The weekend “trip to the video store” can’t be matched by flipping through movie titles on a TV or computer screen. Rogers on Demand is a slow, frustrating process, with limited titles, while the reviews of Netflix have been equally dismal.
The great thing about a place like Blockbuster is the options, and the fact that you are kinaesthetically involved in your movie choice. You must leave the comfort of your home and get to the store, whether it is on foot, by bike or by car; once you arrive, you stroll through the aisles, pick up movie boxes, read through synopses and critical acclaims; you debate with your friend, partner or family member, weighing the options…all with that magical hope associated with movies for almost a hundred years. The hope that you have made the right choice, and will be lost in a story that leaves you satisfied, whether you were looking for a laugh or a deeper understanding of the world or yourself. This is what movies can do. And the death of Blockbuster doesn’t mean that movies will no longer do this, but the trip to the video store allows for the anticipation and hope to last for longer. It is less of an immediate gratification, and teaches us patience in our decision-making. It also encourages more interaction with the outside world in a time where face-to-face and even voice-to-voice encounters are dwindling.
I recall a sense of shock when we arrived for a late Saturday night rental of Dexter Season Five, and were greeted with bold, red signs reading “Store Closing Sale!” My first thought was “Why didn’t they tell me?!” I felt personally affronted. Hadn’t I been a loyal customer? How was this happening without my knowledge? Would I be able to watch the rest of the Dexter season without buying it? It would be double the cost! And we had guiltily bootlegged a few episodes when we just couldn’t wait, but had to watch them in parts and often with Swedish subtitles. It didn’t interest me.
I also felt guilty. The week before, I had asked one of the employees if they had a cable to connect my laptop to my TV. It was clear that I was thinking of downloading movies from Itunes, which meant putting Blockbuster out of business. Blockbuster employees are mind readers as well as movie critics. In thinking it, I had made it real.
Walking through the store was a surreal experience. There were about a dozen other customers there, rifling through the movie titles: only this time they weren’t for rent, they were for purchase. Other looters had already been through the rubble, and the title pickings were thinning out. It felt like highway robbery, or some strange estate sale where you feel simultaneously excited at the deal you are getting and guilty for what that deal represents. The feeling of death was in the air.
There was also a sense of camaraderie with the others, a silent understanding. This is the last time we’ll be doing this. There were moments of shared laughter, as couples yelled to each other across the store: “Honey, even the candy is 25% off!” Our laughter was a nod to the ridiculousness of the situation, but also at the nervous feeling that something we had understood as part of our lives for so long had become obsolete. I can see it now: one day, when we have kids, they’ll pick up a Blu-ray and say to me, “Mommy, what is this?”
Perhaps there is a ray of hope here. With the big chains gone, maybe the little man will survive. Those individual video stores with names like Video 99 or Movie Arts Décor will become specialty stores, a tribute to days gone by, the last vestiges of the video rental store era. Or maybe they will merely become dusty museums for future generations to visit with awe.