"Blockbuster" and missing the community of video stores

Sure, streaming is great, but choosing a store video was a social event, an act of reaching out and connecting

By Alison Stine

Staff Writer

Published November 6, 2022 11:00AM (EST)

Melissa Fumero as Eliza and Randall Park as Timmy in "Blockbuster" (Ricardo Hubbs/Netflix)
Melissa Fumero as Eliza and Randall Park as Timmy in "Blockbuster" (Ricardo Hubbs/Netflix)

The entire time I lived in New York, I aspired to impress the video store clerks.

Specifically the clerks at Kim's Video and Music, a retail store in the East Village since 1986, sharing space with a former dry cleaning business, which eventually expanded into five locations. I remember the shelves, the basement, the hand-lettered signs, the staircase lined with old band posters. I especially remember the disdain of the clerk when I naively rented "Failure to Launch," a forgettable Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew McConaughey rom-com.

And I remember the day I did it, the moment (there was only one) when I brought something up to the counter that impressed — or at least surprised — the notoriously snobby clerks of Kim's. The video was 1992's Christian Bale musical "Newsies." And the response from the clerk? "Wow, I haven't thought about this in years," he told me, before remarking on its quality and swearing he would do a re-watch himself.

I was befriended by Taylor Negron, developed a seltzer addiction, ran into Martin Short repeatedly and pretended to be cool about it. But that may have been my proudest New York moment. And it's one that can never be repeated. Kim's closed. Premiere Video in my hometown closed. The video store in your hometown probably closed too. With them went a history of people who like to talk about film. There went the neighborhood of video stores. There went something we used to do together, a community found in the aisles.

Netflix's new comedy "Blockbuster" taps into nostalgia with its eponymous blue and yellow video store setting. Though opinions on social media differ as to whether the large cast of the show reflects the often-skeleton crewed Blockbusters people know and remember, it does bring back the ritual. On Fridays, after school or work, but before it grew too late, we would haunt the aisles, searching. It would take forever to pick something out, especially if you were with someone. If that someone was new, a fledging relationship, there would be the hesitation of wanting to impress them with your selection, perhaps choosing something from the Criterion Collection over the popcorn film you really wanted.

There was the moment of truth: reaching behind the case to see if the film was actually available, or if someone had gotten to it first.

There was the moment of truth: reaching behind the case to see if the film was actually available, or if someone had gotten to it first. Video stores were a great equalizer. You ran into everyone there. You could covertly check out someone's viewing tastes, as you might peer over a neighbor's cart in the grocery store. But a video store is also the kind of place where, by returning there Friday after Friday, you grew to know the employees, and they you.

newspaper once described the assistant manager of my local video store, Isaac Slater, as having the "knowledge of an art house director." He would set aside horror for me. We had long conversations about Hammer films. When I was late returning a video, he called because he was worried; it wasn't like me. I once witnessed him reassure a customer over the phone about the Robert Pattison rom-com "Remember Me," which she had had overdue for 9 days and which he swore to her was excellent. When he hung up, the other cashier said he had "totally lied." "She felt so bad about it being overdue," Isaac said. "She wanted to know it was worth it."

Compare this camaraderie to streaming a video, which you do in bed on your ancient laptop, in your pajamas and alone.

Compare this camaraderie to streaming a video, which you do in bed on your ancient laptop, in your pajamas and alone. There's no pressure to finish, no impetus to rewind. No one's going to ask you about it, or if you want the sequel. You're not going to compare notes the next morning with someone who has a knowledge of film, someone who might recommend another film, knowing your tastes, knowing you.

BlockbusterMelissa Fumero as Eliza, Randall Park as Timmy and Stephanie Izsak as Lena in "Blockbuster" (Courtesy of Netflix)Video stores were libraries but with membership fees. What might you discover, roaming the aisles? I first watched "The Hunger" because of a video store, "Legend," "The Lair of the White Worm." Friends not out at home were able to have safe access to queer media like "The L Word," "When Night is Falling" and "Kissing Jessica Stein." My hometown video store had a large kids' section, where for free you could pick out a movie or show for the young ones if you rented an additional video.

And yes, perhaps it wasn't the greatest business model. The video store in my college town had a free area with slightly damaged tapes. This is how I first saw "Breakfast at Tiffany's." The last few moments, when Holly Golightly finds her cat and gets kissed in the rain, were entirely static. 

BlockbusterMelissa Fumero as Eliza in "Blockbuster" (Ricardo Hubbs/Netflix)In "The Last Blockbuster," a documentary, also on Netflix, about the real last store standing (which happens to be in Bend, Oregon), Tom Casey, former CFO of Blockbuster Video says, "Do I miss renting from a physical store? No. Absolutely not. I don't think anybody does." Actor Adam Brody wonders in the documentary how long until companies stop making DVDs at all.

But there is still a need for DVDs, especially at libraries. Not everyone has the internet at home, particularly at high enough speeds for streaming, including the elderly and people living on lower incomes or in remote, rural areas.

And perhaps the isolation of the pandemic taught us we need any social interaction, even if it's only a clerk at the video store asking us how we liked the latest Debra Granik or suggesting to check out Ti West. When I was a new single mom, sometimes Isaac was the only adult I talked to on a Friday, certainly the only one who knew my artistic tastes, or what my comfort watch was. In "Blockbuster," manager Timmy (Randall Park) says the video store is "the only place that's ever felt like home."

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Kim's re-opened inside an Alamo Drafthouse. The Blockbuster in Bend is still hanging on — hosting overnight guests, video game championships and viewing parties. It's not just nostalgia. It's community we miss, being together with a shared love of a type of art. Be kind. Rewind—not just those tapes but time. And take us back.  

By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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Blockbuster Commentary Community Film Netflix Streaming Tv Video Video Stores