INFINITE IMPROBABILITY: No more Blockbuster nights in Scranton

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First Posted: 4/30/2013

The last brick and mortar Blockbuster in my area just closed, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it.
This company gave birth to the propagation of the video store as much as it contributed to its demise, for starters, and as both a former customer and ex-employee, I see both sides of the love/hate relationship many people had with this company.
On one hand, I miss the days of browsing the video store aisles, reading the back of VHS tapes and DVD cases and hoping the exaggerated descriptions matched what I’d witness on screen later that evening. I miss chatting with the staff about movies and asking for recommendations from a real person. Most of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen were rented first, and my brother and I used to buy many of our video games used from Blockbuster, so the nostalgia factor plays a major role in my perspective.
On the other hand, I also fondly remember just how many “mom and pop” stores there used to be before Blockbuster ruthlessly stomped them all out. These places often carried the movies the big chains wouldn’t (including those found in the back room, though I was too young for those at the time), but they simply couldn’t compete with the walls and walls of copies Blockbuster could order of whatever big movie was released that week. Chains like Hollywood Video and Movie Gallery also tried to take business away from the Big Blue, but they too were no match for the name recognition and sheer number of locations that overwhelmed the little guys.
It was this branding that made the company arrogant and reckless, an attitude I witnessed firsthand when I started working in the Dickson City location in 2003. A marketing scheme called “The End of Late Fees” kicked off in 2005, a new return policy with pages of fine print they knew customers would never bother to read. It was difficult enough getting people to return movies on time, but now they assumed they could keep them out as long as they wanted, unaware that their accounts would be charged the full price of the movie after a week. Once charged, they could bring it back within a month and only pay a measly $1.32 “restocking fee,” but a fee was a fee, and if you were behind a register, you were a blue and yellow target. I said that this was the beginning of the end for Blockbuster, and looking back now, I was right.
Blockbuster changed its return policy every few months since then, and with every tweak came another angry customer eager to blame me for corporate stupidity or their own forgetfulness. As the film “Clerks” so perfectly illustrated, you deal with a lot of infuriating people in retail as it is, but I actually had people threaten my life on more than one occasion over late fees that were their own fault, argue with me over every last penny, and blatantly steal from the store right in front of me. Cops were called, knives were brandished – if I wasn’t answering some ridiculous question or trying to figure out what movie they wanted to see based on the vaguest description possible, I was watching my back as I walked to my car at night.
After the Dickson City location closed, I went on to train in the Wilkes-Barre store for two weeks and manage in the Dunmore and Scranton stores until 2010, so I had a wide variety of experiences. I had terrible bosses and great bosses. I had co-workers I’m still friends with to this day and some I hope to never run into again. I had customers that made my day and others that drove me crazy. I worked my ass off some nights, while I got away with murder during other shifts. I even met a particularly amazing woman at work one day. I spent many of my formative years in those storefronts, and while I appreciated all those free rentals, I can’t help but criticize Blockbuster for not mining its most important asset to stay afloat – its faithful (and often abused) employees.
The company never asked us for our input, and it certainly never listened when we gave it anyway. It just increased our already impossible sales goals and pushed customers away with its fickle policies and utter refusal to adapt to the times. Blockbuster could have purchased Netflix in its infancy, but it couldn’t see the future through the DVDs; it could have jumped on streaming online video long before less experienced businesses did, but they truly believed that overpriced popcorn tubs and monthly movie plans would save them. It obviously didn’t, and I’m thankful I escaped retail when I did. Many other hardworking employees couldn’t, however, and while they search for work in a rough economy, some overpaid CEOs in Texas still have their jobs.
The Scranton store on Meridian Avenue was the last holdout in our area, and with that gone now, the closest location is in Hanover Township, which is a bit far for me to make it a Blockbuster night. But I use Netflix and streaming websites now when I’m not purchasing Blu-rays, so I no longer associate my movie nights with that slogan, and neither will future generations.
It truly is the end of late fees. It’s also the end of a bittersweet era of home entertainment and a chapter in my life that could easily be a movie in itself.
-Rich Howells is a lifelong Marvel Comics collector, wannabe Jedi master, and cult film fan. E-mail him at [email protected]