The Death of Blockbuster

Here’s an interesting long read over at Retail Dive on the death of Blockbuster Video:

Who Really Killed Blockbuster?

A couple of interesting (to me) takeaways. First, I like that this article gives all the details other than just saying “Netflix, duh” because that’s not what happened. The thing that annoys the hell out of me in death-of-malls or death-of-<store dying this week> is that they always say it’s Amazon, and it almost never is just Amazon. (I.e. venture cap choke-out run by a fervent Ayn Rand acolyte; tax scam by REIT not paying off anymore; etc.)

Like one of the factors the article mentions that most people forget: VHS tapes were damn expensive, and that was partially hidden to the consumer. Yes, you could buy a priced-to-own copy of Wayne’s World for twenty bucks during a certain limited sales cycle. But if you’ve had the good fortune of losing a copy of Apocalypse Now from a rental place, it probably cost you eighty bucks to replace it. They ran this two-tier pricing scheme for decades, and then when DVDs came out, the studios decided to go with low daily prices across the board, plus they flooded the channel at Wal-Mart and Target with cheap five-buck releases and multi-packs of their back catalog. That’s only one of the nails in the coffin, but that’s an interesting one.

The other thing, and this came up in discussion when I posted this article on FB, is that Blockbuster wasn’t that great of a place for customers anyway. There are a lot of folks nostalgic for the Nineties who were born in like 1998 and don’t remember how crappy some of it was, and Blockbuster was a good example. Like they were borderline predatory about their late fees, and good luck if you got sent to their collections department. They drove a lot of mom-and-pop rental places out of business. And their prices weren’t always great, compared to the non-chain places.

One of the things that always bugged me about Blockbuster was their family-friendly video selection. They were big on promoting mediocre big-budget movies and avoiding cult or obscure cinema. And they were incredibly vocal on not carrying anything beyond an R rating, or controversial movies. I went on a semi-boycott of Blockbuster for years because they refused to carry The Last Temptation of Christ. If you wanted obscure, it’s Not at The Block. If you need a copy of Day For Night, forget it. But they’d have plenty of copies of that new Will Smith movie.

Blockbuster was occasionally a necessary evil when I was in a small town. I really loved local rental stores that had obscure stuff, and of course you had to go to one of those places for the best horror movies. The clerks were always cool, the prices were lower, they didn’t give you as much of a hassle about membership, and sometimes you’d find weird stuff. Like there was a video place in downtown Bloomington — I wish I could remember the name. They never recycled out their old stock. Me and Larry used to go every week and find the most bizarre stuff, faded boxes that were completely forgotten. Like I remember never ever being able to find a copy of Johnny Got His Gun (probably because Metallica bought the rights to it and sat on them) and of course they had it. And I remember renting Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile, the (bad) Canadian horror movie loosely based on Ed Gein, and it also had the short documentary Ed Gein: American Maniac slapped on the end of the VHS. It was a weird homemade doc consisting of blurry found footage, narrated by some dude in a basement recording on a Bell and Howell mono tape recorder stolen from an elementary school or something. It was awesome. (And it’s on YouTube!) You’d never, ever find that at Blockbuster.

That puts Blockbuster nostalgia in a weird place for me, much like Barnes and Noble. I’m a bit sad B&N is on the verge of shuttering, but back in the day, they were the chain to hate, because they pushed mom-and-pop stores out of business. (And deep analysis that I’m too lazy to do might show a story that independent booksellers were pushed out by someone else in the 80s/90s, like the rise of Ingram or the changes in book printing after NAFTA, or some damn thing.)

I visited one of the last Blockbusters in Anchorage a year and a half ago. (Yes it was the one with the Gladiator jockstrap. No, it wasn’t there yet when I visited.) It gave me a strange and sad feeling, not specifically because it was Blockbuster, but because it was a video store, period. It was all DVD, but wandering the aisles reminded me of the weekly exercise of going from A to Z on a Friday night to find what I’d watch.

That entire era is gone, replaced with a button on my TV remote that lets me scroll through thousands of titles. But something’s missing, with the lack of the Tarantino-esque clerk telling me what I really need to watch, and the tactile experience of pacing the aisles. We now have great convenience and instant access, but it is at a cost that’s hard to quantify, and it’s definitely felt by those who do remember.

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pre-digital observations

A bunch of thoughts, no particular order:

Try going in your kitchen or bathroom and finding a product with a printed package that doesn’t have a URL on it. Pick up food boxes, condiments, pet food, candy bars, canned drinks, toothpaste… anything. Everything has a web address on it. It’s like an address having a ZIP code now, or a two-letter state abbreviation. If you find some old-timey sign for ethyl gasoline from the 1930s, it might say “Oakland, Calif.” instead of “Oakland, CA 94607.” Now it seems like the URL is the way to date if a package is from the mid-90s or earlier.

I remember about the time when Coke cans started putting their URL on the cans. I started a Coca-Cola fan web site in 1994, and was getting more traffic than their site for a brief period. It really pissed me off when they started a site, started putting it on every can or bottle. Pissed me off more that it was “Netscape enhanced” and didn’t work for shit on a text browser. It wasn’t a site for information; it was for pretty pictures and layout that took forever to load on a slow modem. Now, cocacola dot com redirects to coca-cola dot com, and that is a site picker with a big world map and all the regional sites. All the information there is either for shareholders, or trying to convince you that you can be healthy and drink 6000 calories a day.

My site was something at bronze.ucs.indiana.edu/~jkonrath I think. It’s long gone. Bronze was a VAX machine. The machine is long gone; VAX machines themselves are long gone, for the most part, unless you work at some insane bank that could not transition away from them. Hell, UCS is gone now, part of some crazy merger/renaming thing twenty years ago.

I don’t think a civilian could register a hostname back then. I don’t remember how it was done before the late nineties, but I registered rumored with Network Solutions on 11/16/98. I remember it not being cheap, something like a hundred bucks a year. This was when they pretty much had a monopoly on it. There’s no way I could have paid that back in college.

Speaking of putting hostnames on things, I knew a guy who had his email address on the back of his car. This was in like 1990, way before that made any sense. I worked with him, and he was this funny Malaysian grad student who I’ll call K for plausible deniability. He drove some old beast of a seventies car, like a Monte Carlo or something, and had “k___@copper.ucs.indiana.edu” across the back of his trunk, in stick-on letters, the kind you would use to put your name on a mailbox. I have no idea why. He wasn’t running a business, in a band, anything like that. He just thought it looked cool, I guess.

I had to get checks printed in 1992 or 1993 – this was back when people still used paper checks, and to get new ones printed, you looked through a Parade magazine in a Saturday newspaper, and there would be an ad for a place that would print your checks on a design with an American flag or some kittens or Peanuts characters or whatever else. I picked this design that was a bunch of colorful geometric shapes – do a google image search of “90s graphics” and that’s basically what I got printed.

Anyway, I remember I called the 800 number to place the order over the phone. (No internet order form, no web site.) My name and address were three lines, the phone number was the fourth, but the check had five lines, so you could put a business name or something on it. I told the lady on the phone I wanted my email address. She had no idea what that meant. I then told her, my email address was jkonrath@bronze.ucs.indiana.edu, and I wanted that on my check. It was like I was speaking Klingon. I had to slowly spell out  jkonrath@bronze.ucs.indiana.edu over and over, jkonrath@bronze.ucs.indiana.edu, jkonrath@bronze.ucs.indiana.edu, jkonrath  at symbol bronze period ucs period indiana period edu. The whole transaction took twenty, thirty minutes.

I got the checks a month later, and the printer completely butchered it. Like I think they left out the @ and put two spaces after each period, so it was just a jumble of incoherent words with no meaning. And only 4% of the population knew what an email address was. I should have thrown the checks in the garbage and ordered new ones, but that would have taken another month, and more importantly, another twenty dollars. So I used the checks, until I moved to Seattle and got new accounts. And every time I wrote a check, which was often back then, the cashier would ask “what the hell is that?”

Also, I think those new checks I got in 1995? Had the bank’s URL on them.

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KONCAST Episode 7: Andrea Donderi

http://koncast.libsyn.com/episode-7-andrea-donderi

In this episode, I talk to long-time friend Andrea Donderi, a recent graduate of The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

We discuss: the IU support center; the early web; knowledge bases and creating content; Jorn Barger and the invention of the blog; Gopher versus the WWW; the ChiNet BBS and other internet BBSes; social networks before social networks; hoarding old email; identifying as a writer; learning how to capture life as a writer; the Stanford Stegner Fellowship program; the Warren Wilson MFA program; how a low-residency program works; Victor LaValle and David Shields as teachers; the one fellow graduate student/actor who has been in everybody’s MFA program and shall not be named; Zeroville by Steve Erickson; the inevitable UFO discussion; the government keeping secrets in the desert versus the internet; Don Donderi; and is an MFA worth it?

Links from this episode:

– Andrea’s blog: http://loosestrife.dreamwidth.org

– Jon Konrath: http://www.rumored.com

– The Warren Wilson MFA program: http://www.wwcmfa.org

– Don Donderi’s site: http://www.ufoets.com

– Zeroville by Steve Erickson: http://amzn.to/2eEMTFW

– The UFO documentary I couldn’t remember was Mirage Men: http://www.miragemen.com

 

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