As you may have read, the word has come down that Blockbuster, the one-time giant of video and DVD rental, will close the last of its remaining 300 or so company-owned stores. Does that make you nostalgic?
Not me. I always hated Blockbuster. In fact if I’m nostalgic for anything, it’s for what Blockbuster destroyed: The idiosyncratic, independent video-rental shops of the 1980s and 1990s. I associate Blockbuster almost completely with the general rise of chain culture that’s slain interesting little businesses across a huge variety of retail categories — but even in that context, Blockbuster was special.
And by special, I mean particularly bad. Yes, of course, I acquiesced to Blockbuster membership at some point, but if I ever enjoyed visiting one of its locations, that memory has left the building. Even on a physical level, they were consistently unpleasant: The garish lighting, the tacky uniforms, the conspicuous front-of-store space devoted to jumbo Kit Kats and overpriced popcorn.
And while Blockbuster offered the illusion of massive choice, in practice what it really stood out for was an incredible number of copies of whatever Tom Cruise movie had gone to video that Friday night. Those and other new releases lined the walls; the interior aisles offered just enough variety to ensure difficulty in reaching a consensus — and possibly even sparking a bitter, hushed-whisper argument — if more than one person was involved. But it never offered any genuine rarity or true surprise.
The bottom line is there was never anything fun about going to Blockbuster. It was the DMV of VHS culture.
And as with those indie shops — which in fairness would eventually have been done in by the same forces that eventually undermined Blockbuster, namely the infinite-choice alternatives enabled by the Web — I’ll cop to a certain degree of nostalgia for the VHS. But that’s largely because it made possible the under-the-radar, hand-to-hand distribution of otherwise un-seeable films. And it’s not like you were ever going to find a copy of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story at Blockbuster.
Obviously I’m sorry about everyone who is losing a job because of the inevitable decision for Blockbuster to close its stores — and I wish all the best to the handful of independent franchisees who will carry on. But on a related note, I suspect that what I will mostly remember Blockbuster for is its spectacularly uncreative response to competition. (Blockbuster By Mail, its copycat reaction to Netflix, is also shutting down.) The brand may live on in other ways, but it will certainly persist as a negative business school case study for decades to come. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s a perfectly suitable ending.