The times, they’re a-changin’.
News of the last Blockbuster store in Australia — and the second last in the world — putting up ‘closing down sale’ signs late last week stung.
Lyn and John Borszeky, owners of Blockbuster Morley in Perth, Western Australia, have outlasted numerous challenges, but will shutter their store at the end of the month.
Millennials have killed dozens of industries in the last two decades, from fabric softener to bar soap — but none are as regrettable as the slow, painful demise of the humble video-rental store.
Innovation is great. Fabric softener isn’t necessary, bar soap is just a germ factory and Netflix is $15 a month for more videos than you could watch in a lifetime.
But Reed Hastings isn’t selling 20c gumballs and Stan doesn’t help locals find their lost wallets.
Once upon a time, video-rental chains were a gateway into popular culture. My first experience with Star Trek and the developmentally significant Donkey Kong 64 are owed to the dusty shelves of Blockbuster.
The 10-or-so new release DVDs and a clearly overworked store clerk were the original Twitter trends, contrasted to the blur of content we’re served with these days, which is fed to us by algorithms we can’t see and don’t understand.
Don’t get me wrong. Scratched discs, punitive late fees, the occasional drug front — video rental stores have had their issues.
But I can’t help but feel we’ve lost something here. In Australia, there are only a handful of Civic Video, Video Ezy and independent shops floating around.
Owners concede it’s only a matter of time, as the retail category — which at one time supported over 9,000 Blockbuster stores worldwide — is dying, and the race is on to be the last store standing.
Sandi Harding will become the last Blockbuster owner. From her store in Bend, Oregon in the United States she’s weathered everything the internet and Silicon Valley has thrown at her, even outlasting the Blockbuster franchisor, which went bust years ago.
Television giant Dish Network bought the brand in 2011, but Harding rarely communicates with them, sending occasional emails to one of their accountants.
“I never thought in a million years we’d be the last one,” Harding tells SmartCompany.
Reflecting on the closure of the Perth store, Harding says while she’s traded good-natured barbs with the Borszeky’s in recent years, she feels a kinship with them and recognises how difficult closing stores can be.
“We feel their pain,” Harding, who herself has closed multiple Blockbuster locations over the years, says.
“Someday it will be us … I don’t even see Netflix going in 20 years, things are evolving and changing so fast.”
For NSW local Guirong Wu, owner of the last Civic Video in the state, the Perth closure is regrettable, but not surprising.
“The industry is going down, and most shops are going,” he tells SmartCompany.
Wu is determined to be the last video-rental store standing in Australia, or indeed the world, but doesn’t think he’ll be in the business 20 years from now.
“I just do my best,” he says.
There’s still innovation to be had in the video-rental space though. As the last Blockbuster in the world, Harding has turned her situation into a business opportunity by selling merchandise.
Clothing branded with “last Blockbuster in America” (soon to be the last Blockbuster in the world) and a steady stream of people flocking in from across the country and the world is helping Harding balance the books.
“Blockbuster was so huge, with over 9000 stores, and for it to be down to just us, you do have a bit of pride in that,” she says.
“We have people coming in of all ages. A lot of them come in because of nostalgia, people realise there’s something missed sitting there on your couch flicking through Netflix all day.”
“We have popcorn, IBM monitors … we have the pinball gum machine.”