Early in the 1990s, small towns and bustling urban sprawls had a glut of video stores, but only one sat atop the hierarchy. Even if a town didn’t have a Blockbuster Video, its inhabitants dreamed of the possibilities held beneath its blue and yellow awning. However, it didn't take long before most video stores were closing down, even the omnipresent Blockbuster.
In 2004, there were around 9,000 Blockbusters across the world. Within 10 years, the only Blockbusters left standing were privately owned, and their tenuous grasp on the heyday of video rental was held by the thread of a licensing agreement. Today, only one Blockbuster remains. With the prevalence of digital streaming options that allow viewers to watch whatever they want (or at least whatever's available) with the click of a button, how is it that there’s a Blockbuster still standing? How is the last Blockbuster still open? How does a niche brick-and-mortar operation thrive in a time when streaming has laid waste to the competition?
The Bend, Oregon Blockbuster Offers A Unique In-Store Experience
Aside from renting DVDs and maybe the occasional (rare) VHS, the Bend, OR, Blockbuster acts as the ultimate tourist attraction. In recent years, there have been Blockbuster-themed pop-up shops in cities like Los Angeles and London, but they were either advertisements or a quick hit of nostalgia. The last Blockbuster manages to give visitors the homesick feeling that comes with wire racks and films arranged by genre, while still turning a profit.
Visitors may be stopping by for a photo opportunity, but once they’ve posted to Instagram, the surge of muscle memory from the '90s directs them inside, where they can sign up for a new account or buy a T-shirt. Local customer Simon Birmingham told NBC, “I'm sad, but I'm happy there's a sole survivor. It has been an icon for my life.”
You've likely experienced “decision paralysis,” the overload in your brain that makes you scroll and scroll and scroll through your Netflix queue until you return to the first choice on offer and give up before watching The Office for the 10th time. It’s not something to be ashamed of; it happens to all of us. The human brain isn’t capable of handling infinite (or at least seemingly infinite) possibilities.
The Blockbuster in Bend doesn’t have its selection online, although a search through its Twitter account shows a collection of new movies - indies, popular favorites, things you expect to see in a video store. One photo shows at least seven DVD copies of 2017’s Lady Bird. The selection looks impressive, but it’s not endless. There are enough movies in the last Blockbuster to entice former mallrats into walking the aisles to pick up a movie and set it down when they find something better. But unlike with Netflix (or whichever streaming service you’re using), at some point, visitors have to make a choice and leave.
Renting a movie from the last Blockbuster is something done at the end of a long day at work, or in the middle of a rainy weekend when you want nothing more than to sit inside and watch flick after flick. Video rental stores have always been about more than movies. What Bend’s Blockbuster does that streaming services can’t is give its visitors a chance to speak to an actual person. The last Blockbuster has a full staff that can offer suggestions and help guide curious newbies who have never physically rented a film before. Laura Parker, a customer at the Bend Blockbuster, told KGW8:
Bend is kind of a special place because we really value human interaction. You're on your phone all the time, or on your device or on your computer all the time, and I think that the other experience, it feels more intuitive.
There's A Practical Angle, Too
The ability to rent physical media is only a part of why the last Blockbuster is still up and running. A major factor in the rental store’s longevity is that the greater Bend area is a collection of small communities, many of which don’t have the kind of high-speed internet capabilities that allow for streaming an entire film, let alone binge-watching a season of Stranger Things.
With a three-hour drive through a national park looming over anyone who wants to make a trip to Portland, the next-largest city in the area, it’s clear that Bend is the hub at the center of a deeply loyal local community. While it’s likely that some of Bend’s citizens make it a point to shop - and rent - local, the last Blockbuster also allows people who either don’t have the internet or don’t want to pay outsized streaming fees a chance to see films that would never appear in their local theater.
While nostalgia and the soothing lack of choice may play a hand in keeping the last Blockbuster alive, a major factor in the store’s ongoing operation is the store’s owner, Ken Tisher, who owns part of the building that Blockbuster calls home. This isn’t some Machiavellian attempt to take over Bend; it’s simply what has to be done to keep the Blockbuster going.
Bend's Blockbuster isn't just a place to rent movies or grab a photo opportunity. As the one thriving rental store in the area, it's a place where locals can go to discover something new, or find an old favorite that isn't online. The last Blockbuster is a centerpiece of the community, which makes its local ownership all the more important.