Monday, February 8, 2010

Last call

I experienced a dead zone at my local Blockbuster last night.

Yes, it's true, my cell phone service was spotty. Which is quite frustrating, considering that I just switched to a supposedly better provider on Friday. Having picked out a handful of contenders for that evening's viewing, I had to stand still in one reliable spot while listing the choices to my wife, instead of walking and talking like I normally would.

But the real dead zone was the store itself. The place was like a carcass getting the meat picked off its bones.

Several times on this blog I've listed my growing concerns about the direction Blockbuster is taking with its business model. Whether that direction is dictated by the changing marketplace or not, it's still been frustrating to me. Well, last night I got my first gut punch of unmistakable evidence. The Blockbuster I've been frequenting the last four years, the one closest to both my new and my old apartments, is officially one of the thousand they announced they'd close back in September. One of the other two I frequent, in a much more remote area near my work, seems likely to be on that list as well, but I haven't been there in a couple weeks to see the signs.

When I got to the store last night to switch out a through-the-mail rental for something unpremeditated, I could tell just from walking up that something was wrong. Only a smattering of titles were still lingering on the new release walls. And there were a lot more people than usual, scavengers among the wreckage.

I guessed right away that this was preparation for closing the store, but it wasn't until walking past a customer talking to an employee that I realized how imminent it was. Hearing a note of surprise in the customer's voice, I then went up to that employee myself and found out the same information he had just learned: Tonight was the last night for rentals. I later learned that the store would be open until Friday, making a futile attempt to sell various posters, previously seen movies and movie candy.

I couldn't figure out why they were already clearing off the new release shelves, because the older release sections seemed to be about as robust as ever. The way I saw it, it would make sense to keep all titles available for rental until the exact moment they pulled the plug. But there were so few on the shelves that I actually went through the entire new release section once without picking anything up. That was in part because I've seen so many movies recently, and in part because we were looking for a very specific kind of movie (undemanding comedy) tonight. But I've never been able to walk through an entire new release section without grabbing something -- until tonight.

I ended up with seven titles -- mostly because none of them were things I had very much confidence in. When it comes to bad choices, it's always better to at least have more of them. It's almost like I was grabbing them randomly, regardless of whether they suited our criteria: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (which I'd already seen), Cold Souls (which I'd already seen), Amelia (which is supposed to be bad), Love Happens (which seemed too much of a sappy chick flick), Bright Star (which seemed a bit too intellectually taxing) and The Brothers Bloom (which might have had the right tone, but we hate the director for having directed Brick).

I didn't want to venture too far into the older releases -- we had dinner quickly approaching the end of its cooking time in the crock pot -- but it was a title that caught my eye in the comedy section that we ended up going with: Nacho Libre. We like Napoleon Dynamite, also directed by Jared Hess, and had been on the verge of seeing Nacho Libre a couple times before. So fate -- and the rapidly diminishing stock at the local Blockbuster -- thrust it into our hands tonight.

I couldn't really figure out why the lines were so long and why there were so many people there. I guess Saturday night is a busy night at Blockbuster, but from what I could tell, the only thing special about tonight was that it was the last night to rent. I didn't notice any specific sales among the picked over books and previously seen videos -- if I had, I might have picked up a bargain or two. But it's not like they have to sell off everything in the store. That merchandise will likely just be returned to corporate, then help buttress the inventory of another store, or be sold or rented online.

Maybe the vultures had just instinctively flocked to this corpse, to recognize the beginning of the end of an era. Maybe that's why I too was instinctively drawn to this Blockbuster tonight -- having even debated with myself whether this store was really closer to our house than the other one.

Because nights like last night are about a lot more than your allegiance to a particular video company. Depending on how few Blockbuster stores remain after the dust settles, I may decide Blockbuster no longer has any advantage over Netflix, and happily switch to Netflix. As long as I can see my movies, it's no skin off my teeth.

No, nights like last night are more about those moments when we notice the systems we're accustomed to changing in a way we can't deny. It was kind of how I felt the last time I was in a Tower Records, or the last time I was in a Circuit City. These pillars of commercial electronics were going by the wayside, which meant that a way of life I'd known all my life was also disappearing. Just as the days of browsing CDs at a music store were coming to an end, now too it seems that the days of renting DVDs from physical locations are numbered. It's not that I won't get past it and move on, just like I always do. But I wouldn't be human, I wouldn't be someone with sentimental ties to my own history, if I didn't stop to mourn it.

As I looked at the eyes of the clerks -- trying to find a balance between their obvious disappointment and their professional obligation to remain friendly -- I felt a little of the death they were experiencing. And knew I would always remember Nacho Libre as the last movie I rented from the Blockbuster at Barrington and National.

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