That’s All, Folks! The End of the Blockbuster Era in Alaska

In this March 16, 2018 photo, costumers arrive and leave a Blockbuster video rental store in Bend, Ore. Alaska's last two Blockbuster video stores are calling it quits, leaving just one store in Bend, Ore., open in the U.S. (Ryan Brennecke/The Bulletin via AP)

What’s the major difference between renting a movie at Blockbuster and streaming it on Netflix? As Justin Heckert reports for The Ringer, as the last Blockbuster video stores close in Alaska, people won’t just miss the blissful comfort and simplicity of family movie night. They’ll miss the human interaction that can be the best part of visiting the video store in person: the colorful people, the jokes, the laughs, and the delightful camaraderie of discovering a shared favorite film at the checkout counter.

“People are going to lose the personal touch,” he said. “There are some people who can’t get high-speed internet, and can get only dial-up. Some places that can’t get internet at all. A lot of people don’t have internet here, can’t get it. It’s so far out here, and when [the customers] come in, they get to talk to people — to us.”

He busied himself with tasks that broke up the time, as if he just pretended the store wasn’t closing, maybe it wouldn’t. He opened DVD cases to make sure there was a movie inside, straightened the candy aisle, the popcorn buckets and Snickers bars and Hot Mama pickles and microwavable pork rinds that he would never order again. It would be worst in the coming winters, he knew. When he was working somewhere else, and the residents of Soldotna and Kenai and the little villages were forced by the cold to withdraw from the outside world. When everyone faced the winter with their blankets and Blockbuster movies, the harshest element there being the darkness itself. He didn’t know what people there would do for entertainment. They had always rented movies.

As closing time approached at 10 o’clock, there was a serious question of what might be the last movie ever rented there. Maybe something from the GOLD SECTION, a top seller, a movie like Bridesmaids or Training Day. As Justin went to lock the doors, he let one last customer in. A 28-year-old named Jacklyn Souza, who’d barely made it, who had just gotten off her shift at Don Jose’s Mexican Restaurant, she was almost breathless; she didn’t have Wi-Fi or cable at her house, and this was a ritual for her, and she had rushed in to get a copy of a show she had been bingeing, and at the counter she said “Aaaaah!” when she found out she had a $35.74 late fee. Which she paid. And she had lived there four years, having moved from California because she loved salmon fishing, and the random thing she wanted to watch became the accidental metaphor for something that had long outlived itself: The Big Bang Theory Season 10.

“I’ll tell you one story,” Kevin said. “We had to close the Wasilla store; this little girl, about 7, just cute as a button, she’s just crying. ‘What’s wrong?’ I say. She says, ‘You don’t understand, every Friday, my mommy and I would come out and go to the pizza place.’ … It was called Alaska Pizza Company. They’d order a pizza, come over, get their movies, go home, and have a pizza night every Friday night. And she goes, ‘I don’t have that anymore.’”

t was still better. That’s what the customers said. What the employees said. That was the unofficial slogan of Blockbuster Alaska, and maybe if someone heard that enough, someone from the Lower 48 who’d been streaming movies for years — maybe if they spent some time there, isolated from the horrible internet, they’d get that feeling, too. They’d want to believe it was real. They would go to Blockbuster, for the first time in forever, bidden by nostalgia, to see whether it was still better; better than what they had 4,000 miles back home.

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