There was a time when Blockbuster Video was a villain in the imagination of movie-lovers. Founded in Dallas in 1985, the company was a corporate leviathan in its heyday, the sort of monstrosity that blithely swallowed up competitors. In Austin, where an independent video store culture reigned, stores like I Luv Video would give you a free membership if you traded in your card from a chain like Blockbuster or Hollywood Video. The chains were evil, we knew, because they lined their shelves with endless copies of Austin Powers in Goldmember and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, driving the stores that carried the independent or lesser-known titles out of business. When the company opened its store on the Drag in Austin in the early 2000s, I signed up for a card just to destroy it in front of the clerks at the hip local shops. There was a war over the soul of home video going on, and Blockbuster was the enemy.
Today, in the end times of video stores, that battle seems ridiculous. Blockbuster declared bankruptcy in 2013, and the news that it closed its final store in Texas—one of just eight remaining in the U.S., six of which are in Alaska (the other is in Bend, Oregon)—over the weekend was mostly met with a reaction of, “Wow, there was still a Blockbuster Video somewhere?”
There was. It was in Edinburg, on Sugar Road, less than ten miles from Freeze Frame Super Video, the independent store in Pharr where I worked as a teenager. That store wasn’t hip like I Luv Video or Vulcan in Austin; it was just a place that was owned by a local family. They couldn’t afford to blanket the walls with hundreds of copies of every new release, so the offerings were more diverse by necessity, and older titles remained on the shelves to keep up the inventory. People rented videos that may not have been their first choice for the night just because that’s what was in stock. You might have gone in to check out a Mission Impossible movie and come out with a classic like The Day of the Jackal, or followed a left-field recommendation from a clerk with indie tastes and been introduced to a director like Jim Jarmusch—but that wasn’t really the point. It was more like a happy accident.
Even a store like Freeze Frame Super Video, which wasn’t opened with the intention of cultivating cinephiles, gave viewers—and teenage clerks—the freedom to develop our own eclectic tastes. Instead of corporate video loops, we were able to pick a movie out from the collection to watch while we worked; I had an inside joke with myself where I would put on the movie Blue Streak, with Martin Lawrence and Luke Wilson, over and over again, three or four times per shift. Independent video stores attracted weirdos, and we got to be weird in them. It gave us a place to understand our tastes as a form of self-expression. The blue polo shirts and khakis of Blockbuster felt downright oppressive by comparison.
At a certain point in the 2010s, there were more Vulcan and I Luv Video locations than Blockbusters in Austin, but Blockbuster’s slow demise hasn’t felt like a victory. The independent video stores survived, but they didn’t vanquish Blockbuster by giving customers expertise, taste, and a sense of coolness instead of just movies-as-commodity. They didn’t conquer it at all; independent store have just managed to survive (so far) the apocalypse that came from Netflix and Redbox.
They were equipped to, at least in the short term, in ways that Blockbuster was not. Blockbuster built its business model on stocking the shelves with endless copies of the biggest new releases. But the footprint of a Blockbuster store was big. The average Blockbuster was 5,700 square feet, and DVDs are tiny. Redbox packed most of the practical functionality of the video store chain into a vending machine, and then dropped 40,000 of them across the country—roughly ten times as many locations as Blockbuster ever had. Both companies were slim on older and independent titles, but Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and the like offered those. Blockbuster died, ultimately, because it was an overpriced and inefficient way to get current hits onto the TV screens of people who wanted to watch them right away.
Still, while Blockbuster may be all but gone, the video store isn’t dead. Those that remain tend to get by either by curating films for artisanal video snobs—think of the Austin stores that still remain, or the recently-announced video store opening up inside a forthcoming North Carolina Alamo Drafthouse location—or as outposts in small towns offering a more personal and social rental experience than you’ll get at Redbox. If you’re in Stephenville, you can stop by the Redbox kiosk at the Dollar General, or you can rent from Mike at Videos and More; if you’re in Sulphur Springs or Denison, the Family Video location can offer a human touch that Netflix can’t.
But these stores are on notice, too. Dallas’s Premiere Video, which promoted independent and foreign films, closed in May of 2017. Vulcan moved from its North Central location in Austin down to a cheaper spot in South Austin in December. Family Video, with 90 percent of its stores in rural areas in North and Central Texas, fills a niche that may ultimately be met by expanded broadband. (The chain’s owner, Keith Hoogland, told Forbes last year that the company’s long-term prospects are ultimately more as a real estate company than as a video chain: it buys property in rural locations, puts video stores there, and uses the revenue while the business model is viable to pay off the mortgages.)
As Blockbuster goes, so will the rest of the video stores. But while they’re still with us, what they offer should be celebrated. Walking into a video store is a fundamentally different experience from online options. The posters on the walls make the tiny images on the Netflix menu seem downright ephemeral by comparison, and the tangible experience of holding a box in your hands while deciding what to rent gives the choice a heft beyond clicking around aimlessly. They make one of the most solitary things a person can do—watching a movie at home on a Friday night—into a social experience, and the person at the counter can probably sell you a box of candy or a bag of microwave popcorn, too. The algorithm that Netflix uses to anticipate your taste is a sophisticated piece of proprietary technology, but it’s nothing compared to someone who can say, “Oh, man, if you like that, you’ve gotta watch this” and hand you a movie that you didn’t know would become your new favorite.
Video stores offered rare entry-level jobs to creative folks who cared a lot about movies, but whose only qualification to work in the industry was enthusiasm. (Sean O’Neal, editor-in-chief of the pop culture website the A.V. Club, rented videos to customers at Vulcan Video; so did Okkervil River frontman and filmmaker Will Sheff.) They gave sarcastic teens a chance to watch movies like Blue Streak over and over again, an exercise in endurance that nonetheless taught me a great deal about story structure just through sheer repetition. I’m not the only one who benefited from an experience like that—luminaries of 1990s indie cinema like Quentin Tarantino, Nicole Holofcener, and Kevin Smith did their early writing behind the register at local shops in the video store’s pre-Blockbuster heyday.
More broadly, the nature of a video store represents a different way of thinking about, and watching, movies. It takes more time to pick one out, and more care to assess its merits. If a movie on Netflix is bad, it’s easy enough to stop it and pick a different one. That’s convenient, but it also leads to being impatient, to treating movies more like commodities than like art. Even bad art—yes, even Blue Streak—deserve more than the immediate judgment and rush to gratification that the digital world provides. And even Blockbuster, for all of its faults, made renting movies more of an event than picking one off of Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, or the zillion other services that have supplanted it almost everywhere except Alaska. I won’t miss Blockbuster, exactly—I appreciate the convenience of Netflix, and I’m lucky enough to live somewhere with local options if I want the best parts of the video store experience—but as the chain from Dallas leaves Texas for good, it’s worth a moment to pause and consider what its passing means.