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The Last Blockbuster

The other night, in a bit of irony, I watched the movie The Last Blockbuster by renting it on my Apple TV. It was a cute dose of nostalgia, talking about the last remaining store of the once-mighty video rental empire, out in Bend, Oregon.

As I started writing this, I realized I already wrote an article on The Death of Blockbuster last year, and hit pretty much all of my points there. The movie covers all of this, more or less, except they get Kevin Smith, Brian Posehn, and a few others to talk about it. I think they let corporate Blockbuster off a little easy here. People need to remember that Blockbuster was essentially the Amazon of the 90s, and decimated the mom-and-pop stores with their almost monopoly and tight ties with big studios. And if you wanted to rent weirdo disgusting zombie films with a lot of skin (17-year-old me, guilty) you couldn’t find them at Blockbuster.

One other thing that resonated with me is that Bend reminds me vaguely of Longview, Washington. It’s twice as big, but it’s got the same sort of small-town main street feel, with a few loose strands of suburb hanging off of it. They both sit on a river, with lots of evergreens and the mountains in the background. The reason this is nostalgic is that in 96, 97, I was dating a woman who lived in Longview, and every weekend I’d drive into town and we had the same ritual: pick up a pizza from Papa Murphy’s, go to the video store, walk the rows of films, pick out one or two we both like, and maybe one for me. Bend in 2020 distantly reminds me of Longview in 1996, and has the same cozy, sleepy feel to it. The documentary fixates a bit on the celebrity of the shop’s owner, as the last-Blockbuster cred went viral. But in the glimpses of how the family ran the business, it really reminded me of that past era.

I also have this stupid theory I haven’t entirely fleshed out that the total lack of empathy in this country is at least partly related to the death of retail and the lack of personal relationships in media consumption. I love buying all of my music instantly, but I also feel like I was more of a human being when I would interact with a salesperson on a weekly basis in a record store, when I had a relationship with someone that involved not just handing over a credit card, but talking to a human being about my likes and their advice and suggestions. I think with the beginning of the hypermart, consumers developed this lack of empathy and low-level depression from so many choices and so much homogenization and a lack of actual retail sales people. And in a perfect storm, retailers fed directly into it. It was perfect for the retailers because it meant they depended less on expensive human labor, just the line of cashiers at the front of the mega-store (and then they experimented with getting rid of them.) But also consumers felt a need to shop more and fill that hole in their soul. Now we all click endlessly on the Buy it Now button and feel worse and worse. This might be a dumb theory (I remember 30 years ago dealing with asshole customers aplenty) but maybe it’s something I need to pick in my head a bit.

Anyway, you can find the movie’s web site here: https://www.lastblockbustermovie.com. They will sell you the DVD and allegedly will be doing a limited-edition VHS, if you happen to still have a working deck.

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general

The Retail Race to the Bottom

The Borders by my house looks like a food warehouse two years after the apocalypse started.  I went a few weeks ago, when the sign dudes stood on the corner with the “ALL TITLES 40-60% OFF”, hoping to snag an armful of good science fiction, because I’m going through this phase where I’m trying to read everything I “should have” read when I was a kid and too busy poring over Car Craft and trying to figure out if I had to replace the front springs in a ’76 Camaro if I wanted to swap out the 305 for a 454 that I couldn’t afford in the first place.  I found maybe two or three books I wanted, but everything else was already picked clean.  They still had stacks of “destined to be remaindered” books, but I didn’t need to Teach Myself HTML 4 in 30 days, so I ignored all of that shit.

The whole store was so depressing, for some unexplainable reason.  Store designers spend untold sums doing subtle things to layout and placement to hypnotize consumers in optimal ways to buy more stuff or feel more comfortable or set the mood.  You don’t notice it, but if you’ve ever worked in a department store and you’ve spent time after hours during a massive store reset, when pieces are scattered everywhere and the kayfabe has been dropped, you know the deal.  Something didn’t look right, and it wasn’t just the hoarders digging through the out-of-date celebrity cookbooks, looking for a deal.  Half of the entrances were boarded up already, covered with giant vinyl banners advertising the fact that everything but the fillings in the cashier’s teeth had to go.  And something about the lighting, the vacancies in shelves, the massive numbers of books in the wrong place, faces out – it made me feel overwhelmingly depressed that this place would soon be yet another vacant storefront.

I don’t even shop at that Borders; I think I’ve bought a grand total of three books there since I moved to the East Bay in 2009.  I’ve eaten at the neighboring food court quite a bit, so I guess it’s become part of the routine to go there after a falafel or some Afghani food and shuffle through the magazine racks.  But I somehow feel both strange remorse and responsibility for the sinking of this ship.  And it’s not that I miss this Borders as much as it sets off a chain reaction of emotions and memories about all of the other stores that have turned to vapor and vanished in the last decade or two.

I used to love malls.  Ask my pal Larry about the overwhelming obsession I had with wandering million-square-foot indoor shopping empires, and he’ll tell you stories of being dragged to College Mall for no reason other than to run the circuit, walking up and down the hallways  and then ending up at Morgenstern’s Books for two hours to ogle over every single World War II book in stock.  (And Morgenstern’s wasn’t even technically in the mall – it was in a strip of stores across the street.)  I found some strange peace in going to any Simon-operated property and wandering past every storefront, from Ayres to Zale’s, looking at mannequins donning bad early 90s attire.  It wasn’t even that I bought anything; I wasn’t like one of these housewife machines that walked out of the clothes stores with a maxed out piece of plastic and two armfuls of boxes.  I’d just get some osmosis-hypnosis effect, listening to the muzak and peoplewatching.

But those bank-issued sixteen-digit hologrammed devils did get shelled when I went to record and book stores.  All through college and my time in Seattle and New York, it was a weekly ritual to take every ounce of disposable income to the media gods, the places that stocked my fix for reading and listening.  In Seattle, I had a two-night-a-week habit locked in at Silver Platters, this CD palace up by Northgate mall.  They had this certificate plan where you got a paper dollar for every title you bought, but if you went in on Tuesday or if you bought certain sale items, they’d give you extra points.  And if you came in on Wednesday, you could turn in your dollars for extra value.  So I’d go both nights, buying armfuls of every Gary Moore or Peter Gabriel import single I could find on Tuesday, and then redeeming these paper coupons for more stuff on Wednesday.  And I’d end up there on weekends anyway, spending my Saturday afternoons cruising all of the other retail outlets nearby.

And I had this routine with the book stores, too.  Every Friday night, I’d end up at the Barnes and Noble in Bellevue, after gorging at the Denny’s there and scribbling in my notebooks for hours.  I’d wander the stacks, pulling books that looked interesting, things I could consume, inhale through the late nights.  I’d end up reading some obscure title in bed late into Friday, knowing I’d been hypnotized too long when I’d hear the sound of the landscaping sprinklers seven stories below my open bay windows going off at 5 AM in the Jet City darkness.

New York helped break me of the mall habit.  There aren’t really malls in Manhattan; the square footage of a single food court could be broken up into a thousand studio apartments renting for two grand a month, so you’re not going to see that shit unless you take a train to Jersey City.  And I did, for a while.  I’d take the N to the Path, and emerge in this bizarro world where people drove cars and parked in outdoor parking lots and shopped at huge Simon-owned palaces of consumerism.  But these trips became less frequent.  Any time I found myself in a strange new (or old) land like St. Petersburg or Pittsburg with keys to a car in hand, I’d visit the old haunts and take a lap or two, get a corn dog on a stick and think about the days when I wore the name tag and listened to the muzak professionally for hours on end, asking people if they needed help with anything.

But then Amazon happened.  I started buying books from them way back; I remember in I think 1996, buying an old book I could not find anywhere else on the history of Indiana University, and it slowly became my go-to place for the things I could not dig up at Elliott Bay Books.  CD Universe entered my ecosystem around then too, and I’d hunt down the rare finds I couldn’t get at Silver Platters.  Amazon went from supplementary purchases to my main outlet for everything, as my go-to media places in New York began the long slide into nothingness.  I dumped serious cash at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square, which used to be on the first floor of where I worked (very dangerous), but is now a Forever 21 clothing store.  I also made the Best Buy pilgrimage every Saturday, when they still sold CDs.  Now, unless it’s Miley Cyrus or Lady Gaga, good luck finding anything there.

So yeah, my purchases, or the trends behind how people like me make purchases, may have killed off the retail stores.  I don’t know; I know I don’t even buy CDs or DVDs anymore, and either get stuff through iTunes or stream it from NetFlix.  I still buy paper books, but I also buy stuff for the Kindle.  So I’m sure the anti-digital luddites can scold me about how it’s my own damn fault that Borders filed Chapter 11.  Except for the part where Borders has lost money every year since 2006, or how they thought back in 2001 it would be genius to hand over their online retail operations to Amazon.com, or how in early 2008 (when about 7 people owned a Kindle) they announced they were so in debt, they were going to sell out to Barnes and Noble, a misstep that plummeted their stock price through the floor.

You can armchair quarterback this one in a million different ways, and the same holds true for any big retail collapse.  Blame it on Wal-Mart, or online sales, or poor holiday seasons, or the cost of gas, but it’s really this perfect storm of different things that makes it too complicated to predict or correct.  I mean, I always bemoan the shuttering of Montgomery Ward, where I did my time as a teenager and did a couple of summer moonlighting stints in college.  Most blame a bad 2000 Christmas season as the reason for their bankruptcy, but there were so many other factors: the debt from their leveraged buyout; the two-front war against discounters and other department stores; the failed attempts at re-marketing themselves; the expense of facelifting a bunch of their stores; the hundred million dollars they threw at IBM to overhaul their computer back-end.  Some even say the problems go back to just after the end of World War II, when the company focused all of its energy into building stores in the heart of metropolis areas and resisted expanding into the suburbs.  But it’s one of those things where you can’t just say “the internet killed it” and leave it at that.  And I think Borders is the same way; I think their mistakes at running a business go back much further than the advent of an e-ink screen or even the HTML shopping cart era.

And there’s all of these other things that have changed since I was in high school that alter the game.  People used to buy stuff from mail-order houses, or from catalogs; then they switched to malls; then big-box stores; then discount stores. Indoor malls have been “de-malled”; outdoor malls have shifted from low-end to boutique and probably back again.  People “don’t read anymore”.  The middle class is gone.  Gas costs as much as uranium did when I was in high school.  Book stores only sell clip-on lights and picture books of cats dressed as movie stars.  Everyone is an obese hoarder that never leaves the house.  Kids keep playing these god damned video games and Angry Pac Bird Mans.  Focus groups and religious nitwits and crowds of “what about the children” whiners have killed off anything more controversial than a loaf of Wonder bread.  All of this is true.  None of this is true.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Things never change.  Things work in cycles.  People never forget failures.  People don’t remember what happened five minutes ago.  I don’t even remember what I was talking about.

I was trying to remember the last time I’ve been to a mall, and I can’t.  We have a “mall” just up the road from us, one of those new urban bullshit outdoor mall things that has apartments in the top tier of it, and an Apple Store and some movie theaters, and a bunch of stores I’d never shop at, and a parking garage that is always a total clusterfuck.  But I can’t think of when I was last in an indoor mall.  I think I went to the Concord Mall during a visit to Indiana in like 2007, and was amazed at how totaled it was, how the old Wards store got cut into three or four pieces and turned into a discount car stereo place and some kind of hillbilly craft store where post-menopausal women buy glitter to paste on their angel centerpieces.  No wait – we had an indoor mall, Tanforan, by our old place in South San Francisco.  It was more or less the no-man’s-land between a Target, Penny’s, and Sears, with a big movie theater, and two floors of places selling clothing I’d never, ever wear.  It’s the kind of mall that made Pierre Moran mall in Elkhart (aka the “other mall”, where “other” means “not white”) look big, and they de-malled Pierre Moran about five years ago.

Must stop writing about this, because every paragraph I write involves about 200 web pages of nostalgic searches for old department store catalogs, and I’ve got other crap to do.

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general

Remember when Best Buy sold CDs?

I go out for lunch maybe once a week, usually on the day of a day game when I want to catch a few innings in the car on my iPhone.  There aren’t many lunch places near work, but there’s a cluster of big-box stores, a sort of mini-mall that was plopped in place a few years ago, and when I’m done eating, I’ll sometimes wander the stores a bit.  One of the stores is a Best Buy, and the other day, I decided I was sick of all my music and I needed a new album. That typically involves going to iTunes and clicking away, but for whatever reason, I decided to go old-school and actually browse the racks at the big blue box store.

I was surprised to see there’s not really a CD section in Best Buy anymore. I mean, there is a token three or four racks, but it used to be that each of the bins would have maybe a row of 30-40 CDs, and there would be side-to-side bins for dozens of feet, and maybe a dozen aisles like that. Now, there were maybe three aisles, and each rack held exactly one CD. We’re talking about maybe as many CDs as the average Flying J truck stop holds, between the CB radios and coolers of pre-made sandwiches and beef jerky. And the selection – we’re talking about only the most popular of the most popular music; the most obscure thing they had there was maybe Guns N’ Roses.  Almost all of the titles were more expensive, although there was a token section of $6.99 albums.  But the selection part is what killed me. It seemed like overnight, they completely collapsed.  It’s like if the Strand went from 18 miles of books to a layout like one of those airport book stores.

I used to spend a lot of time at Best Buy.  In Seattle, I was hooked on Silver Platters, and used to go there twice a week for my CD addiction. In New York, I never fully found an indie place that met my needs like they did. I worked above a Virgin Megastore for almost two years, and while their prices were sometimes spendy, you could sometimes pick up good deals there, and they did have some slightly obscure death metal stuff.  And there was always Tower.  But I somehow always gravitated to Best Buy, maybe because I could also grab DVDs, video games, and ogle the new home theater stuff.

There wasn’t a Best Buy close to my place in Astoria, but there was one maybe a mile and a half south of me.  The subway didn’t run down there, so my Saturday ritual involved a walk down Steinway to Northern, headphones on, to go blow through part of a paycheck and stock up on digital media.  I’d usually have no shopping list, and would just run through the A-Z, picking out a couple of albums that looked interesting.  I’d do the same with movies, trying to think of a couple of titles that would hold my interest and give me something to do that night.  I’d have to deal with the crowds loitering around on Steinway, and push myself past a bunch of people or take a side street, but the walk gave me a routine.  And halfway between the two places was a Papaya King, so I could get some of their grilled hotdogs and a fruit drink.  (There’s one thing I do miss about New York.)

When the weather wasn’t as good and I didn’t feel like braving the walk, I’d get on a train and head to Chelsea, where they opened a big Best Buy there.  I guess it wasn’t any faster, and maybe the walk on either side of that trip almost added up to the distance from my apartment to Northern, but it got me out of the house and into Manhattan.  And I got a couple of hours of time to read and listen to music on headphones. Plus the subway is heated, and half the damn time my apartment wasn’t, thanks to my shithead landlord.

But here’s the thing: I eventually figured out this wasn’t a routine, it was a psychological problem.  I had this gaping hole in my life, and I tried to fill it by collecting stuff.  And my poison was a 12-centimeter disc of plastic and aluminum.  And I didn’t think anything of it, but I spent a lot of my time and money collecting DVDs and CDs.  And I know, what’s the harm in CDs?  It’s not like I was smoking crack or shooting heroin.  But there is a certain psychic impact on getting locked into a collection like that, and it’s hard to see how nuts you are until you go a couple of years without dropping hundreds of bucks a week on music, or having an entire apartment that’s wall-to-wall CD racks.  I guess a big part of it is you’re always running toward a goal you can never catch.  You’re always buying more music, thinking you’ll get to some mystical state where you have “enough” music, where you’ll always have something to listen to.  But you get to a stage where you have enough CDs that if you actually listened to them all end-to-end, 24 hours a day, it would take you months to finish, yet you are perpetually in a state where you have “nothing” to listen to, and it takes you 20 minutes to leave the house because you can’t pick out a couple of albums to take with you.  (This was pre-iPod, when I did not carry around my entire music collection in my pocket.)

I don’t remember the last DVD I actually bought.  With movies, it’s much more of  a moot point – we have a NetFlix account and a Roku box and a DVR and on demand, so any time I want to watch something, I watch it once, and then that’s it.  I don’t spend $40 on it, watch it once, and then lose that amount of storage space in my apartment forever.  It makes no sense for me to ever buy a DVD.  Even if I really love a movie, I’m not going to watch it more than once or twice a year, so why give up the storage space and money to keep a copy on hand?  I still have a few DVDs, but I put them in binders, which is also a big collector no-no.  Part of the fetish is to have the original packaging, the entire article, and not throw out the cases and keep only the booklets in a binder.  That’s a cardinal sin, but it’s not like I’m going to resell my DVDs, so I don’t care.  In the shelf area that used to hold maybe a dozen DVD boxes, I have three binders that hold maybe a hundred titles.

As far as CDs go, I use iTunes a lot, and the instant gratification there sort of kills going to the store, especially when a $16.99 CD at Best Buy costs you ten bucks online.  Sure, I don’t get the physical case, the printed book, but that’s more collector-ism for you.  There was a time where I thought I NEEDED the physical disc in a rack on the wall, but do I?  I buy songs and albums to listen to them; I don’t buy they to pay some allegiance to a band, to have their entire collection, even if I don’t like some of the songs or albums.

So I went through the racks at the Best Buy, and found a Peter Gabriel album I didn’t have, a collection of covers he did.  I felt bad about buying nothing and leaving, but I also felt bad about buying something.  It felt like dieting for years and then ending up at a McDonald’s and getting the old meal you used to eat five times a week, and then getting sick off of it.  I don’t even have a place to put CDs anymore, and as I opened up the plastic, I realized I’ve probably only listened to a CD in my car maybe twice.  I was firmly in the iTunes camp by the time I got this car in 07, and I’ve only used the iPod connector, and the occasional AM radio scan for traffic or a local ball game.  So it felt weird to listen to the CD, and didn’t compel me to return and buy a hundred more.  Always weird when you realize an era has ended for you.