Blockbuster’s last stand: Inside one of the iconic video rental chain’s final U.S. stores

(GeekWire Photo / Tom Krazit)

BEND, Ore. — Perhaps the most striking thing about the last remaining Blockbuster Video store in the lower 48 United States is how instantly familiar it is, despite the decades of technological change that have nearly erased one of the most iconic brands of the 1990s and early 2000s.

About three hours southeast of Portland, I found a piece of American history in this Central Oregon ski-and-beer town of around 90,000 people. I also found the answer to the question: Why would anybody shop at Blockbuster in the age of speedy broadband and streaming movies?

I was inspired to make the trip after learning that I was within driving distance of this increasingly novel location. Bend attracts tourists year ’round to Mount Bachelor and Boneyard Beer, but the area has also enjoyed some notoriety as home to a slowly dwindling cluster of Blockbuster Video stores.

That number is down to one. Last month Sandi Harding, general manager of the Blockbuster operation in Bend, made the decision to close down a storefront about 30 minutes north of Bend, in the town of Redmond, Ore., that wasn’t generating enough revenue to justify its existence.

This Blockbuster outlet in Redmond, Ore., just closed down in March, leaving the Bend store as the only remaining store in the lower 48 United States. (GeekWire Photo / Tom Krazit)

Two other Blockbuster outposts have closed in recent months: one store closer to Portland in Sandy, Ore., and one in Edinburgh, Tx., which isn’t that far from the Mexican border. Now only seven Blockbuster Video stores remain: six in Alaska — and one in Bend.

For some reason, I expected a wave of nostalgia to wash over me as I took the exit from 99 South and drove up to the store, but it turned out to be just a regular aging strip mall, next door to a Papa Murphy’s and a bank at the corner of NE Revere and NE 3rd Street. The location drew a steady stream of customers over a 24-hour period of quite seasonable Oregon weather earlier this month: temperatures in the low 40s amid pouring rain.

Almost every customer I spoke with used Netflix, or rented DVDs from Redbox, but they all expressed a fondness for the personal touch available at a video store staffed by people who actually care about movies, which was not necessarily the reputation enjoyed by Blockbuster during its heyday.

They also liked the kettle corn.

Wow, what a difference

Long before Netflix and chill, Blockbuster was a very popular destination for Generation X on a weekend night, long before broadband internet had made its way across the U.S. If “be kind, rewind” means nothing to you, ask an Old Person.

It was also a huge business. Wayne Huizenga, who died earlier this month at the age of 80, turned a small franchise into an enormous conglomeration that dominated the home movie landscape as VCRs and DVD players became as common as televisions. He sold Blockbuster to Viacom for $8.4 billion in 1994, when it had around 3,600 stores around the world, according to a New York Times report on the deal.

The company’s missteps after that point have been well-chronicled. It expanded its physical footprint dramatically at a time when internet retail operations began to eat away at physical retail, eventually topping out at over 9,000 locations by 2004 with around 80,000 employees.

It turned down the chance to buy an early version of Netflix for $50 million in 2000. It tried to promise “no late fees” in an attempt to keep growing against a surge of interest in Netflix’s business model, only to watch that offer backfire into a class-action lawsuit that cost Blockbuster nearly half a billion dollars.

Blockbuster Entertainment wound up selling to Dish Network in a bankruptcy auction in 2011 for $320 million. Dish immediately began shutting down retail locations and now licenses the name, trademark, and logo to independent video operators like Ken Tisher of Bend.

Blockbuster Video, Bend, Ore. (GeekWire Photo / Tom Krazit)

Tisher operates the remaining Blockbuster Video operation in Bend under the Pacific Video company owned by Tisher and managed by Harding.

“Our owners live right here in Bend, and everyone knows that we are locally owned,” Harding said, drawing a line between the local connection and the relative health of the Bend location.

Most of the people I met at the store lived in Bend, but a few who lived much further outside of town in the remote high desert of Central Oregon said they made it a point to stop at Blockbuster during their forays into town for groceries and supplies.

The personal touch

There are other locally owned video stores remaining in the U.S.: my wife and I enjoy browsing the racks at Clinton Street Video in SE Portland, looking for that $3 score maintained by staffers who live for movies. But those locations are dwindling as well, and it’s not clear if a generation raised on YouTube knows how to operate a DVD player.

Blockbuster’s Bend location has an advantage over some of those independently owned stores through a partnership with Vobile, a video distribution company based in Silicon Valley with an office in Portland, Harding said. That gives it access to Disney movies, which are popular with families in the area, she said.

After Dish Network shut down thousands of Blockbuster locations, it became much harder for the remaining franchisees to source their DVDs from distributors, given how much smaller the company became and the loss of a central source for cutting deals. Harding actually gets a lot of the videos for the store the old-fashioned way: she goes to a local big-box on Tuesdays and buys dozens of copies of newly released films. (The Shape of Water was flying off the shelves on the Tuesday I visited the Bend store, a few weeks after the Oscars.)

(GeekWire Photo / Tom Krazit)

New releases cost $3.99 for three days, while you get to keep new titles with less demand for a week. Old movies and kids movies are 99 cents, and “old favorites,” or cinematic classics, are $1.99. Redbox, which can be found in thousands of grocery stores around the country (and nine places in or around Bend), charges $1.50 a night for regular DVDs and $2 for Blu-Ray discs.

When I first arrived, there weren’t many people browsing the racks of DVD cases lined along Blockbuster’s trademark yellow walls. But later that Tuesday — new movie day — a steady stream of people pulled into the parking lot to grab a take-and-bake pizza from Papa Murphy’s and a few movies, which sounded pretty good on a cold rainy winter night.

The Bend store is turning a profit, Harding said, as the last remaining outpost in an area that had several Blockbuster locations just a few years ago. “Our owners live right here in Bend, and everyone knows that we are locally owned,” she said.

(GeekWire Photo / Tom Krazit)

But customers interviewed outside the store cited the selection available at Blockbuster as their primary reason for patronizing the store, especially the ones who also used Netflix at home. This squares with my experience, at least when it comes to movies; Netflix has just about every prominent television series from the last decade on its service, but premium movies — especially old classics — are really hard to find.

Cut, print, that’s a wrap?

At a time in which the tech industry is taking a hard look at the value its inventions have brought to society, the simple pleasure of discovery — of making a decision about what to watch where no algorithm played a part — has takers in Bend, at least.

Blockbuster employees Xavier Ordonez (left) and Ryan Rivera. (Photo courtesy Sandi Harding / GeekWire)

Karen Van, who walked out of the store with a selection of Oscar favorites, including The Shape of Water and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, is a Redbox fan but prefers Blockbuster’s selection and pricing; she can hang on to her videos for several days for the same price, while Redbox charges by the night.

We’re obviously talking about a small sample size of the entertainment landscape. Netflix is now worth $100 billion, having added 8.3 million subscribers around the world during the fourth quarter and taking in $3.2 billion in revenue. Redbox has struggled under many of the same pressures brought by the streaming era, but still boasts over 41,500 kiosks in grocery stores and convenience outlets across the country.

(GeekWire Photo / Tom Krazit)

It seems quite unlikely that we’ll see an international movie rental chain with physical retail assets operating at 1990s Blockbuster scale again. But Blockbuster’s unlikely endurance in a small tourist town suggests that there are at least some people who are still interested in entertaining themselves based on what fellow members of their communities find valuable, as opposed to what a bunch of engineers in Silicon Valley thought they might like based on a black box of criteria.

“Everybody jumps on board with the newest greatest thing, and then they start to miss the other stuff,” Harding said, shaking her head at the speed at which modern entertainment has been taken over by faceless recommendation machines designed by people who don’t necessarily appreciate the power of movies to deliver the profound truths that can’t be found in algorithms.

Those algorithms are winning. Still, there’s something to be said for browsing a selection of titles that has in no way been informed by what we watched last week, last month, or last year.