The Last Picture Show

It’s “Bend don’t break” for the final surviving Blockbuster store in the world
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Posted April 9, 2019

There is a Blockbuster movie rental store in Bend, Ore., that wouldn’t have created a blip on the radar 15 years ago, when there were more than 9000 Blockbuster stores around the world.

However, in early 2019, after an Australian Blockbuster store closed its doors, the Bend store became the world’s last operating Blockbuster on the planet.

In its heyday, that Blockbuster name over the door – meant to connote the industry term for a big, successful movie release – had become synonymous with the overall power of big boxes specializing in one merchandise category: shoes, books, toys, consumer electronics, sporting goods, music, office equipment, home products and movies that could be watched at home, on the TV set in the den, with your shoes off and feet up.

But, as someone once said, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

The list is familiar: Toys “R” Us, Barnes & Noble, Borders, RadioShack, CompUSA, Circuit City, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Best Buy, Pier One, Old Navy, Sports Authority, H.H. Gregg, Office Max, Office Depot, Staples, Linens ’N Things, Tower Records, Sam Goody’s, David’s Bridal, Mattress Firm, Brookstone, Payless ShoeSource. They set up shop in big-box strip malls, standing shoulder-to-shoulder against the competition like an army of Transformers.

In most of these strips, as well, was the familiar blue and yellow logo, reminiscent of a movie ticket, mocking the old movie palaces that Blockbuster was grinding into the dust.

The monstrous dinosaurs roaming the earth in the real Jurassic park, 225 million years ago (how time flies!), felt their size made them impenetrable, gobbling up all the smaller reptiles of the era. They never saw “it” coming – whatever “it” actually was (drought, ice, glaciers, massive earthquakes, volcanoes or a nine-mile-wide asteroid).

For the 21st century retail dinosaurs, the “it” wasn’t a nine-mile-wide asteroid but a microchip the size of a fingernail. The “smaller they are” was taking over.

At first, the technological revolution seemed to be all in Blockbuster’s favor. Videocassettes of the 1980s brought popular big-screen movies to the home TV set in a compact, easy-to-use form. (No spooling, no hanging a bed sheet onto the wall, no bright projection light threatening to burn the film or break a circuit.) And how attractive to be able to rent it, library-style, and then return it after it was viewed? Who needed a permanent collection of all six “Police Academy” movies?

Small, independent rental stores began to pop up, becoming popular for a while. But we know what a kiss of death “small, independent” would mean in the retail world. Like most small retailers, indie video stores were limited by their shelf space and access to a supply of the best merchandise (in this case, a well-stocked flow of recent movie releases).

Blockbuster stores were never easy to navigate. What big-box space was? And the signage didn’t always help. What exactly is the difference between an “action movie” and an “adventure movie”? But the stores were bright and well-lit, the aisles wide, the shelves along the wall and the lines easy to access. And when DVD technology replaced VHS technology, Blockbuster seemed to adjust seamlessly.

Not so easy, though, when Netflix emerged in the late ’90s, sending DVDs straight to homes on a subscription basis, and then jumping into the whole online streaming thing, where it was ultimately joined by Apple, Hulu, Disney, HBO and Amazon, as well as dozens of smaller operators.

There was simply no longer any seat at the table for Blockbuster and its archaic late fees and go-to-the-store delivery system. Why would millennials get in their cars and spend an hour browsing the shelves if they didn’t have to? And then return it in two days or pay a fine? What is this, the Middle Ages?

(Personally, I get a headache trying to watch a streaming movie on my computer. But then I’m probably rooted in the Middle Ages, as well.)

So why has this one solitary store in Oregon held on? I suspect that, partly, the last surviving Blockbuster store in the world simply likes being the last surviving Blockbuster store in the world. So do the people of Bend, Ore.

But it’s not just Oregonians. It turns out that people from around the world are making pilgrimages to Bend, creating a pop frenzy – reminiscing, taking selfies and buying merchandise. T-shirts. Coffee mugs. Keychains. Beanies. Stickers. Sometimes, they even rent movies.

“I just wanted to relive my childhood,” one pilgrim told The New York Times. “I wanted to see if I could go in without crying.” He couldn’t.

This store in Bend has magically become a symbol of the same overmatched victim of the times, the same trip to the past that were the very stores wiped out by the big-box phenomenon to begin with.

But retail has always been about “whatever works.” So maybe Sam Goody’s or Tower Records might try trafficking in the same nostalgia. There are said to be vacant big-box locations throughout Oregon. And who wouldn’t want an 8-track album of K.C. and the Sunshine Band? And a T-shirt?

As a journalist, writer, editor and commentator, Steve Kaufman has been watching the store design industry for 20-plus years. He has seen the business cycle through retailtainment, minimalism, category killers, big boxes, pop-ups, custom stores, global roll-outs, international sourcing, interactive kiosks, the emergence of China, the various definitions of “branding” and Amazon.com. He has reported on the rise of brand concept shops, the demise of brand concept shops and the resurgence of brand concept shops. He has been an eyewitness to the reality that nothing stays the same, except the retailer-shopper relationship.