Big Empty: On the Demise of Blockbuster

December 31, 2013 | 2 books mentioned 4 2 min read


You’ve probably heard the news, Blockbuster is no more. Honestly, I was surprised by my reaction to it. Not sadness per se, just an empty feeling. I hadn’t been inside a Blockbuster in many years. But when that soothing NPR voice announced the final nail in the coffin, I lost a moment or two staring off into the middle distance, wrapped in some sad or perhaps pathetic moment of nostalgia. I worked at a Blockbuster all the way through high school in the mid-to-late 90s when VHS still ruled the world and going to the video store was a popular activity.

covercoverI remember when my family got our first VCR in the mid-1980s. The first time we entered the florescent-lit jungle of a video store, I was instantly enamored. I zeroed in on Pinocchio and my father picked up Cocoon, or at least something like Cocoon. The mere fact that these memories are still rattling around my head nearly 30 years later must have some significance, right?

A few years later, after my parents divorced and my mom and I were living on our own in a mid-century apartment building, she called in and won a radio giveaway providing a year’s worth of unlimited movie rentals at another now-defunct store. To put it simply, I was in heaven. That summer my attempts to catch up on the entire cinematic canon commenced. Two, three, sometimes four films a day. No sweat.

Eventually my mom remarried and we moved out south, past the Tulsa city limits to a rural land of sod farms and recreational tractor rides. When I was old enough to get a job more interesting than mowing yards, the choices were few but obvious. While my friends toiled away in the greasy haze of fast food restaurants, I would make it a Blockbuster night, every night. Not only did I get paid, I could take home movies every single day. For free.

Sam Peckinpah might not have recognized it, but in our own way we were a wild bunch, the most senior employees usually clocking in at a mere 18 or 19 years old. The time not spent straightening the shelves or restocking the candy racks usually involved things like sitting in the return bin, waiting for customers to walk up, and tossing their videos back out at them when they turned around. You might think such a stupid and juvenile act would get old after a while. It didn’t. These were the days when the Internet was new, cell phones were for stockbrokers, and if you missed a movie in the theater, you had to wait six months or even a year or more to catch up. We don’t have to wait for anything now. I’m not sure that’s an entirely good thing.

A few months ago while my wife and I were in Austin, Texas, we popped into a quirky spot called Vulcan Video that still sells and rents out VHS tapes to the hipster masses of the Lone Star State’s capitol city. Cue The Cranberries music. Bust out the Hypercolor shirts. I felt as if I’d literally stepped back into the 90s. And I loved it. No irony. No shame. I’m not entirely sure why some of us find comfort in obsolete technology and relics of the past. I love the modern world. I embrace technology. I honestly believe that the world of tomorrow will be better than today. But when something that’s been part of my life for a long time goes away, all I want to do is push Rewind.

Photo Credit: Flickr/yapsnaps

is an author and editor. He has written for publications including Publishers Weekly, Poets & Writers and GOOD, among others. His latest book is The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books. Jeff lives with his wife in Oklahoma.


  1. Not sure what point, if any, “Paul” was trying to make. This was a very nice piece. I still have a few VHS movies in a box somewhere and feel the same sense of nolstalgia you do. Thanks for illustrating it better than I could.

  2. This was lovely. Some of my favorite times as a kid were going into the ‘Video Plus’ shop in our town to battle with visiting cousins over whether we would rent Pink Panther films or the current horror flick. I can honestly say I haven’t since gotten the same palpable feeling for watching a film then when we would load up in the car, wander into the video store, finger the boxes, playfully debate the merits of this or that one and end up at home, all six or twelve of us hushed in silence as Peter Sellers or Peter O’Toole popped up on our heavy TV screen in our ugly Arizona living room. Pushing that VHS tape into the player and yelling ‘Everybody, quiet, the the movie is starting” was when I started the affair with films from which I have never waivered.

  3. Our timelines matchup: I too worked in a Blockbuster in the 90s and watched as many VHS movies as I could get my hands on. I feel like I’ve seen every movie made between, say, 1986 and 1996. But also like you, I didn’t really feel anything when I heard that Blockbuster closed. Which is kind of strange given how much I enjoy movies. Thanks for writing this: always good to discover someone else has experienced the same thing in such a visceral way.

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