Blockbuster video stores: A fan reminisces

It’s a Friday night, about 6 p.m., any year during the 1990s.

“Mom!” I’d shout, racing to the door the instant she returned home from work. “We need to go to Blockbuster.”

Time was of the essence. If we arrived at the video store past 7, we’d have no shot of scoring one of the three copies of the week’s hottest new release. And then I’d be forced to trudge to the front counter, pleading with the clerk to check the return box to see if a spare “Free Willy” VHS was hiding in plain sight.

Thus went the routine for me as a girl growing up in Boston, where the highlight of every weekend was renting Blockbuster flicks to watch during sleepovers with my friends.

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So news this week that Blockbuster was shuttering its remaining 300 stores made me surprisingly emotional. Yes, the chain was often seen as lacking the diversity of titles and staff expertise prized by true film fans. Its financial struggles have also made headlines for years; it’s long seemed inevitable that the company would someday close its doors. And sure, I haven’t been to a Blockbuster location in maybe a decade.

But so many of my fondest teenage memories--and, indeed, a love of movies--took root in that childhood Blockbuster store, located in a strip mall about 15 minutes from my house. Like most Blockbusters, this location didn’t boast a particularly fancy interior -- the cheap rug was stained from kids tracking in snow; the lighting, clearly, fluorescent. But this was of little consequence to me as I raced toward the new release section, scanning the alphabetized shelves for my coveted selection o’ the week.

Sure, it seemed like there were 20 copies of “Titanic” in stock, what with all of those beautiful Leonardo DiCaprio-covered VHS boxes tempting me from afar. But so often you’d pick up a movie only to realize the actual tape had already been rented by someone whose mom took them to Blockbuster at 5 p.m. Then I’d sulk, and rent “Space Jam” instead.

Even if “Titanic” was available, there were still complications. As the most popular movie of 1997, “Titanic” came at a cost -- far more to rent for the weekend than, say, the far older “Pretty Woman.” If I went home with “Titanic,” mom wouldn’t swing for “That Thing You Do!” as well. And I certainly wasn’t going to be able to see “Anne of Green Gables” for the zillionth time, because that was a series, and that meant three more titles to pay for.

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When my mom was paying for the rentals -- and the subsequent late fees that inevitably followed -- I had to weigh my options. But in high school, a whole new world opened up: I got my own Blockbuster card. If I wanted to binge-watch three films in a weekend, I could. The clerk rarely checked to see if I was old enough to take home an R-rated title. (Finally, “Cruel Intentions”!) Choosing between M&Ms or Sour Patch Kids? Please. I’d take them both, plus some microwave popcorn.

Choosing a movie was also now a communal experience. At the beginning of every weekend, my friends and I would jump in my O.G. Prius -- Britney Spears blaring, obv -- as we debated what to take home that evening. “10 Things I Hate About You, “She’s All That,” “Bring It On”? The possibilities were overwhelming, though any film starring an actor who had recently appeared on the cover on YM had an obvious advantage.

It was important to select a diverse slate -- most often, a classic (think “Beaches”), a comedy (“American Pie”) and something where a young beautiful person died (“A Walk to Remember,” or “Here on Earth.”). We’d spend a good hour perusing the aisles, reading the plot descriptions on the back of the plastic-encased boxes -- all we had to go on in a time before IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes. Then, with a half-dozen titles in hand, we’d approach the register, taking another painstaking 15 minutes to whittle our pile down to three winners.

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Only years later as a box office reporter have I come to realize that the majority of the films we so loved barely made a dent at the multiplex. While it probably shouldn’t be surprising to me that a tearjerker starring Leelee Sobieski and Chris Klein didn’t bring in the big bucks, in a way -- it kind of is. Because every movie my BFFs and I plucked from the shelves was instantly imbued with a sense of importance.

Before I wax too poetic, let me state for the record that these days, I’m hard-pressed to leave my house on Friday night. The convenience of Netflix suits me just fine. But what I miss about that weekly Blockbuster jaunt isn’t so much the fun of the excursion itself as it is how the store made me feel about movies.

At Blockbuster, so much time and effort went into picking the best movie. If you didn’t ultimately like your selection, you couldn’t just stop it midway and flip to another option in your digital queue. Renting a movie forced you to give it a real shot, often because you were enjoying the movie with friends -- not alone with the glow of a computer screen, fighting insomnia.

So R.I.P., Blockbuster. And I’m sorry I never returned that copy of “A Knight’s Tale.” After Heath Ledger died, I just couldn’t bear to part with it.


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