Located in Bend, Oregon, the last Blockbuster location on Earth is continuing to compete with Netflix and making changes to weather the COVID-19 pandemic.
The last Blockbuster on Earth remains open for business, despite competition from online services like Netflix and other threats. In a time when online streaming dominates home entertainment, this last Blockbuster store stands alone as a kind of nostalgic curiosity.
From struggling to compete in a changing world to weathering a global pandemic, this final Blockbuster location is taking a gamble with the odds stacked against it. And for now, it’s winning.
For its longtime general manager Sandi Harding, however, maintaining the store is certainly not a picnic. According to VICE, the location’s website now sells location-specific Blockbuster t-shirts, hoodies, hats — and replicas of the old membership card that boast surviving COVID-19 alongside the store.
Stocking the shelves with new releases has itself become an arduous task, as the 20-year-old store has outlived its local DVD distributor. In order to make sure the most popular titles are available for her customers, Harding ventures out to purchase the copies herself.
“The big title for next week is Call of the Wild,” she said. “I usually start out with 30 on DVD, and 12 to 14 Blu-Ray. I’ll go to Walmart, Target, Fred Meyer, every retailer we have here in town, and I’ll only get five or 10 from each one. They don’t like me very much if I come in and just wipe out their shelves.”
Becoming The Last Blockbuster Store
In a world long gone, Blockbuster reigned supreme in the industry of home video rentals. At its peak in 2004, it boasted 60,000 employees and 9,000 stores worldwide. Within a decade of streaming services encroaching, however, its $5.9 billion revenue dramatically dropped to $120 million.
Though the company went bankrupt in 2010 as the world transitioned to at-home services like Netflix, a handful of independent Blockbuster franchises kept the nostalgic dream alive. In July 2018, Blockbuster Alaska declared its two remaining stores were closing. Soon after the last Blockbusters in Australia closed too — leaving only the one in Oregon.
The store now boasts popular memorabilia such as Russel Crowe’s jockstrap from Cinderella Man, which HBO’s John Oliver purchased for $7,000 and donated to the Anchorage location in a futile attempt to save it. Ironically, this in itself has posed a problem for Harding’s surviving store.
“Unfortunately, after I got five or six people in here [in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic], everybody would be converging in the same area,” she said, “everybody wanted to see the John Oliver stuff, or everybody wanted to go to the new release section.”
The Bend, Oregon Blockbuster’s Pandemic Plans
After briefly closing in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Harding has since implemented a crafty curbside service alternative, like many other businesses across the United States. The store closed for a few days in order to reassess its safety measures inside, hired a local artist to paint the curbside window, and reopened to successful visitorship.
“I wasn’t able to keep people apart, and I thought, ‘Well, this isn’t going to work,’” said Harding.
Customers call ahead and pay for their rentals over the phone, with a masked-and-gloved employee handing over their movie choices through the window. As for the DVDs themselves, the last Blockbuster store diligently cleans the cases with Clorox wipes and hands them over in Ziplocks.
While the average 10-15 daily curbside customer tally is “a drop in the bucket” as compared to pre-pandemic figures, Harding has felt a sense of duty to the world. She’s now the lone patron to those who still cherish the tangible experience of browsing for a flick and want to travel somewhere to get it.
“You’re in a tight spot, because part of you is looking at the economics of it and thinking ‘I have to have customers coming and spending money, or my business isn’t going to be viable, but at the same time, I’m like the Blockbuster Mom,” she said.
“These are my kids that work here, the customers are my family and my gosh, I can’t put them at risk either. Your heart is just torn in two different directions.”
So the store closed for a second time, but none of its 12 employees have been laid off or missed a paycheck. The whole staff helped Harding replace all 22,000 DVD labels during that closure, and the business even succeeded in receiving a Paycheck Protection Loan.
After wiping the whole store down and stocking up on masks and gloves, Harding finally opened up her doors to welcome in-store customers again. Some of her most devoted customers even professed how much they appreciated her efforts, personally.
“I had a customer come in and she said, ‘I am so grateful that you reopened, because I couldn’t flip through Netflix one more time,’” said Harding.
As for what these lucky non-streamers have been renting at the Oregon Blockbuster store, well, the selection runs the gamut — though a definite arc in their choices can be observed. Ultimately, it’s the selection of films that are available — one not dictated by algorithms — that seems to be drawing people in the most.
“At first it was Outbreak, Contagion, and any pandemic movie out there, but now it’s pretty much everything,” said Harding. “Someone rented the entire Indiana Jones series, others are getting classics like Somewhere in Time, and I think that’s kind of the beauty of our store.”
“They probably could’ve found the movie they’re looking for [online], but they don’t have to: they can come here, and we’ve got it.”
In terms of Harding’s outlook for the future, one need only look at the determination that’s helped her prevail in the past. She explained that the health of her staff keeps her up at night far more than the sales of her business, which only further testifies to her character. Right now, the plan is to keep surviving.
“We’re still making plans and pushing forward and we’re the last one for a reason,” said Harding. “We don’t go down without a fight. So we’re going to keep fighting for a while.”
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