I remember watching my first rental movie when I was six years old. My aunt owned a video store and we borrowed a VHS copy of Poltergeist. I was sitting on my dad’s lap, and was so terrified I threw my pizza straight up in the air. We had low ceilings, and that pizza left an unholy stain. Every time I saw it I thought of Poltergeist.
In 2004, I was thirty-three years old and looking for a part-time job to help support our young family. My best friend suggested I might like working with her at Blockbuster, and I’ve been here ever since. Back then, there were five Blockbusters in Bend alone. The movie-rental business was at its peak: we were still stocking VHS tapes but DVDs were also coming in, and both were doing well.
When it became clear that DVD was going to kill VHS, I got very excited because those cassettes were so damn big and bulky. I often dropped them on my feet. Even then, I never dreamed I’d end up managing the last store in town, let alone the last store, period.
I’ve always said the best thing about this job is the people. I love chatting to customers and hearing their opinions on movies; but now I’m the manager I have all kinds of other responsibilities, like mountains of paperwork. I’m a bit like an old cop in a Hollywood movie who hates the desk job and longs to go back to the beat.
When someone walks in, you can never guess the movie they’ll choose. I’m constantly surprised by what people will bring up to the counter. Trying to second-guess customers is always a mistake.
The final store closures happened so fast. At the end of 2017, there were seven Blockbusters left in the US, but by early 2019 it was just us and one other store in Perth, Australia, in the world. When they closed in March it was bittersweet. We were happy to be the last store, but sad that we were one step closer to Blockbuster ceasing to exist. They called us from Australia on their last night and wished us all the best. That was very sweet.
Since then, things have been crazy. The local community has been incredibly supportive, and people have come from all over the world to rent movies: we’ve set up close to five thousand new memberships. Maybe 20 per cent of those were one-time users who just wanted the Blockbuster card, but the rest are regulars to varying degrees.
One guy came from Spain; he’d worked for Blockbuster there and when he arrived, he burst into tears. Another family drove from the other side of the US. They wanted to rent a movie so their kids could understand the experience, but their hotel room didn’t have a DVD player, so they had to buy one.
People ask why the last Blockbuster store in the world should be in Bend, Oregon. I think it’s the perfect storm: we’ve got the ideal location on Main Street, in a town geared toward tourism. The bad weather doesn’t hurt, either. Rainy days are great for us.
I’ll be sad to see the end of video stores. I stream things at home and watch Netflix like everyone else, but there’s something special about that shared experience of a family choosing a movie together: physically picking up the films, debating which would be the most fun for everyone.
We have several years left on our lease and, as long as we can continue to pay our staff, we’ll stay open. Becoming the last store has given the business a boost and we’re selling Blockbuster T-shirts, souvenirs and memorabilia. I’ve watched enough movies to realise there’s an end to everything – but hopefully the ending of this story is a long way off.
• As told to Jonathan Thompson