The end of video rental services?
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
Harding noticed the most popular movies customers had requested were Outbreak and Contagion—along with other pandemic-themed films.
Going to the video store to rent movies was a pleasurable form of leisure in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. Then the arrival of streaming movie services—such as Netflix, HBO, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video—was a game-changer. People no longer needed to leave their homes to rent movies. Thus, video stores in North America eventually became obsolete, and thousands of video stores would close.
Notably, one video store franchise that had great success was Blockbuster. During its peak in 2004, Blockbuster had over 9,000 stores worldwide, with over 60,000 people employed. The company had revenues of $5.9 billion and its market value was $5 billion. Unfortunately, the company lost significant revenue in the 2000s and later filed for bankruptcy in 2010—with over $900 million in debt. This led to the closing of a plethora of Blockbuster stores. In March 2019, a Blockbuster location in Perth, Australia closed its doors—leaving the Bend, Oregon store as the last remaining Blockbuster open on the planet.
Sandi Harding is the store manager at the Bend location. She has been with the store since 2004 and has seen the peaks and valleys of the business—especially having to adjust business operations when other Blockbuster stores began closing. Notably, when the pandemic arrived in March 2020, the store closed down for a month before reopening on April 17 with reduced store hours.
Harding says the pandemic has affected their store operations. Only a few customers are allowed into the store at a time with social distancing markers on the floor. Also, there is a curb-side pickup service available. People can call the store to either purchase or rent movies. Staff will wear masks and gloves while sanitizing the movies, and then place them inside a Ziplock bag—before bringing it out to the customer. Interestingly, after the store had reopened, Harding noticed the most popular movies customers had requested were Outbreak and Contagion—along with other pandemic-themed films.
In August 2020, Harding converted the store into an Airbnb. The space was only available for three individual one-night reservations on September 18, 19, and 20. Harding said she wanted to create a nostalgic throwback to the 1990s for customers to enjoy and reminisce about—reliving the experience of watching videos at home. The cost to stay inside the store was only $4 for one night. The rental allowed for a maximum of four people and recommended groups to be from the same household. Customers who stayed overnight were provided with a sofabed, a VCR, a giant television, and free snacks. They were free to watch a pre-selected list of movie titles from the 1990s—or anything else they discovered in the store.
Particularly, Harding recalls a memorable encounter with a recent Airbnb customer, during an appearance on The Kelly Clarkson Show on October 12: “The best part was there was a couple that came in here. And [they] brought their home videos on VHS that they could not watch because they didn’t have a VHS player at home. And they got to spend the evening watching those. And that was probably one of the sweetest things.”
Finally, Harding hopes to continue running the last Blockbuster store on the planet. Despite the pandemic which has posed many challenges, the store remains open—and to the delight of loyal customers. Harding says the store has been steadfast and resilient in lasting for so long. She and her staff have no plans to go anywhere, telling VICE in May 2020: “At first, I think I was more nervous about people getting sick, or if even one person gets sick. I was more concerned with that than the business. The longer it goes on, the more stress there is for everyone, and the more I’m like ‘Oh gosh, can we really sustain this?’ […] But we’re still making plans and pushing forward and we’re the last one for a reason. We don’t go down without a fight. So, we’re going to keep fighting for a while.”