He was the manager at Blockbuster and looked forward to coming to work. He loved his job, in all of its obsolescence. The silver name tag fastened to the breast of his long-sleeve dress shirt, the blue-and-yellow sign in the shape of a giant movie ticket towering above the road. The faded white paint on the windows, BLOCKBUSTER T-SHIRTS AND MORE; the three overnight drop slots, one just inside the door, arrows pointing to the rectangular hole where a small white pillow muffled the plastic thump of the movies. The stains on the store’s peeling facade and the movie posters taped on the inside glass, Jumanji and the Maze Runner sequel being the latest, and the last. The COMING SOON marquee affixed to the board on the wall behind the desk, Black Panther on 5/15, a film the entire town was buzzing about, a new release that would never arrive. And everything else that would either be sold or thrown in the trash: the monogrammed Blockbuster rug; the B-horror movies and Disney movies and TV series that weren’t available on Netflix; the striped corporate counters that smelled like cleaning spray; the giant plush polar bear atop the Coca-Cola cooler; and even the long, blue awning outside that he had no idea what anyone would do with, the awning that had been as ubiquitous to the world as the sunlight was to the summertime in Soldotna, Alaska.
He lived in the country with the wild green river, with the Moose Crossing signs on the roads, where he’d spent much of his life, where he’d rented DVDs to customers for 10 years. He could barely remember a life without Blockbuster. Without laminated cards and late fees and being kind to rewind when he was a kid. Then growing up to be on the other side of the counter at one of the last stores in the world, raising his own three children by letting them hang out there and work on homework and help put movies away in the evening hours after he picked them up from school.
It was the beginning of the summer, the beginning of the tourist season, the salmon season. The land had thawed and turned green. He was 37, living with his parents, at the moment avoiding the reality of what he would have to do next. Justin Trickel unlocked the door before noon on May 13 and began Sunday with the burden of information that he was asked not to broadcast, something that customers would eventually find out in a Facebook post on the Blockbuster Alaska page later that night — that without ceremony, the store was closing for rental business after 23 years. A message from his boss the general manager — “Justin and his crew have done a phenomenal job and will be greatly missed” — thanked everyone on the Kenai peninsula for their years of support, and turned into an online cenotaph of crying emoji and those little floating hearts broken in two: “NO!!! This sucks. … My grandma goes here weekly. … Technology has taken over everything. … the internet is wayyyy to [sic] expensive. … I hate the rental places in IGA and the other store the DVDs are always scratched up! … This is absolutely heart breaking. … This was my favorite thing to do. …”
“I’ll probably end up at Fred Meyer, or Safeway,” he sighed behind the counter, staring at the parking lot.
The hours had been good there. The pay was OK. There wasn’t much stress. The five employees beneath him all seemed to get along, sometimes drank beer and played board games together at each other’s houses after work. If there had ever been anything to complain about it was the parking lot. The shared lot with a Safeway and a Pizza Hut and a Sportsman’s Warehouse where he could see the kayaks glinting through the windows as he stared, and tourists in RVs and trucks blocked the handicap spaces in front of the store; he was always having to ask them to move.
He wasn’t exactly a people person. But he was pretty good at talking about movies. And that was the best part, wasn’t it? What still made Blockbuster better, what had made it essential in such a town and let it live almost a decade beyond its lifespan in the Lower 48 — the promise that on-demand had never been able to fulfill, what neither the Redbox knockoff at neighboring Safeway, or Amazon Prime, or Netflix and its recommendation algorithm had come close to replicating. If a customer was looking for something in particular, they could browse for it there and could share the language of movies with him, and he had seen just about everything — 10 free rentals for employees per week! — and if it was checked out he could suggest something in the same genre, perhaps with the same actress, steer them to the right aisle in maybe BASED ON A TRUE STORY or FAMILY GOLD.
“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 though 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.
It was hard to remember exactly what it had been like to rent a movie. What it felt like on a Friday or Saturday night, hoping all the copies in the NEW RELEASE section weren’t already gone. What it felt like to run into people, the serendipity of movie store as gathering spot, what it felt like to stand around the counter and listen to the banter of the staff, who knew each other’s tastes, and peccadillos. The slogans that were everywhere — MAKE IT A BLOCKBUSTER NIGHT! — on walls and the desks and dangling on string from the overhead tiles. It was hard to remember exactly how bright it was in Blockbuster, and just how big the stores were, and the gray-blue carpeting and that the walls were yellow-dull and they all looked pretty much the same. And that its membership cost nothing at all, that going there and getting a movie didn’t require an entry fee, like the internet. That even the video games had stickers, like it was a corporate mandate to slap them on everything: TO PLAY IS HUMAN. TO REWIND IS DIVINE. That children had a kind of feral autonomy unsupervised in the Family sections of the store. That it was fun to go just to … go, having no idea what to get; that it was OK not to have instant access to the previews of every movie, to make a choice by relying on instinct.
The general manager saw this phenomenon in Anchorage, Alaska. At the Blockbuster on Debarr Road, the busiest Blockbuster and the biggest of the three in the state, a store that had peaked years ago at $2 million in annual sales, one of the most popular stores in the country. A store that had thrived years after corporate went bankrupt in 2010. A store that had survived under the ownership of a man in Texas, made its sustenance in renting tons of New Releases, and TV series, and selling candy, and keeping late fees.
For the regular customers, of course, the residents, renting movies there hadn’t really changed; it was a continuous part of life — they dropped them off in the slot by the door, and used laminated cards, and argued about late fees like it was 1997. And tourists came, too, the tourists who dreamed about Alaska; the tourists who got out of their cabs and rental cars and could see the white panorama of the mountains just beyond the Blockbuster Video sign in that strip mall, who took selfies in the parking lot, the tourists who entered and stood inside the store almost breathless in the landscape of alphabetized physical media. The tourists whom Kevin Daymude watched with their mouths hanging open and the edges of their eyes puckering with tears.
“You get these stories … it’s amazing,” he said. “‘I had my first date at Blockbuster!’ Or, ‘I met someone at Blockbuster and married them; we hit it off with the same kind of movies.’”
Kevin was 55. He was not a fan of technology, or Netflix, a word he used like a slur. He’d worked for Blockbuster for 27 years. “I think technology has really hindered us,” he said. “Hindered our social skills. I mean, how many times you see on commercials, You don’t have to leave the comfort of your own home! Well, I’m sorry, I like to leave my home. I don’t want to sit there and do my shopping online.” Kevin was a former college defensive tackle, and he was bald and had huge forearms and he was tan. He wore slender, black-frame glasses, he had a trimmed silver beard, and in a store that was full of sounds — the beeping of the bar code scanners, the Disney movies playing overhead, the phones ringing, the cases snapping — the most memorable was the wheezing of his constant and almost habitual laugh: “Whoo, hahah, hehhehe!” Everything seemed to make him laugh, which made it fun to be in the store. He hated Redbox. Redbox? “It’s a vending machine,” he said. “Hoo-hehh, heah! Think about it.”
“When I have someone come in and say, ‘Kevin, do you know anything about John Wayne?’ and I say, ‘Well, YEAH, I’m a John Wayne fanatic,’ I mean, that happens. All. The. TIME! Hooehee-hah!”
The assistant manager, Danielle Provence, nicknamed Dani, kind of a badass behind the counter, was great at remembering whether the store had certain movies in stock, and rolled her own cigarettes. She was 24 and took classes at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She said to him, “Do you know why the Scarecrow won an Academy Award?”
“Wizard of Oz?” Kevin asked.
“Ha! No … it’s because he was out standing in his field.”
At this Kevin bellowed, took his glasses off, and said, “Shut uuuup, hehahah!”
“That guy who was just [here], he does the cleanest jokes,” she said. “I love that guy. … That’s his thing! He likes clean ones. They’re hilarious.”
“Oh my gosh, go away,” Kevin replied.
This type of interaction at a video store, this type of customer service, was a dying art, and was definitely not enough to keep the business going. That was the painful truth. No matter how many customers knew Dani and Kevin, or called themselves regulars, or came in to rent 15 individual discs of different TV series, time was running out.
“I gotta come and give Kevin hugs,” said Deb Day, 63, a lady wearing a ball cap who rolled up her sleeves to show vivid tattoos of snakes and flowers and birds on her arms. “Why do I come here? … I could probably find everything I ever wanted online. I was on Netflix for a while. I like coming here, though, because I got to know the people. … And so, when you don’t have this” — she waved her tatted arm around the store — “you really start cutting yourself off. I work with a lot of people who are younger than me, and they laugh at me. For being here. … ‘Why am I not streaming?’ and I tell them, I like being able to get in my car, come here, bitching to Kevin.”
The joke about Anchorage was that it was 10 years behind the Lower 48, like that’s how long it took for time to breach the barrier of the mountains. But the store was going to close and the joke about time no longer applied to the situation. The store was wondrous in its nostalgia, though, in its hum of movement and goings-on; so it was easy to feel the arguments skew in support of the past. Netflix, for example, didn’t have a bargain bin or a giant Yoda holding a cane, and it didn’t have Dani, and it didn’t have Kevin, guffawing about how he’d won Yoda in a contest years ago and put it on top of the Monster Energy drink cooler and swore he would sell it only if he could make 10 grand.
This Blockbuster had 26 copies of Black Panther, an entire shelf, which made the movie seem even bigger. And Toxic Waste–brand gummy bears. The movies in the Foreign section had all been carefully stickered with the tiny flag of the origin country, a nice personal touch. They had seven seasons of Ice Road Truckers. They had Richard Pryor … Here and Now and Road House 2. They had Critters 3 (with a tiny Leonardo DiCaprio!). They had a whole section of martial arts movies, and a Drama section that had faced the outside window so long — 28 years, in the sun — that all the white people on the covers of the DVDs had been blanched even whiter, so that they had almost disappeared. Many of the rental options had been out of print forever. And they had the most ridiculous item of all, the star of the show, Blockbuster’s last big draw, the item behind a glass case with bright lights shining on its leather, the thing people asked Kevin whether they could touch, and talk about, and take pictures with, the thing the local news had livestreamed on Facebook, that tourists and locals had asked Kevin to wear, that one person had offered him $20 to smell: Blockbuster in Anchorage had Russell Crowe’s used jockstrap from Cinderella Man.
It was slow in Soldotna on the very last day. Not merely because it was Sunday, but it was slow, like there was a drooping heft to the passing of time. The Coca-Cola clock on the wall had stopped, and its arms were frozen in place; and it was light outside throughout the evening, as it was always light in the summer, so there was no reprieve from the gauzy blanket of daytime. And the dreamlike feeling that being there was a long way from being anywhere else, in a town that didn’t even have a bowling alley; Cars was playing on repeat on the overhead TV; the few customers shuffled indecisively in the aisles muttering things to each other that could be heard through the other side of the shelf, like, “Goldie Hawn was great in Death Becomes Her.” The employees called this Slowdotna.
“It’s boring here,” said 21-year-old Bobby Kirsch, who had worked there for two and a half years. “About four years ago. Ashton Kutcher came here. My sister flew down the stairs and said, ‘He’s at Fred Meyer!’ She didn’t touch a stair. He was here fishing. I was working at Subway. … [Blockbuster] will be the best job I ever have. I worked at an oil field, Pollard Wireline, and at Tesoro gas station. There were like 100 people wanting this job. I’ve never had a boss that’s laid-back like Justin.”
Justin Trickel was behind the counter, his dyed-red hair combed back from his forehead, the piercing on his tongue visible inside his mouth every time he opened it to say something. He was kind of a weird dude, who said “Merry Christmas!” as a salutation in May, when someone walked in, or “Good morning!” when it was obviously more like 7 p.m. He did not have a great explanation for this bit of flair, just that this was a little thing that he tried to do to see who was paying attention, and how they would react; and it either made them laugh or led to awkward silence, depending on the situation. And this was another perk of working for a Blockbuster in Alaska: Because of the way the boss operated, the stores had never been stodgy, they’d never been completely uniform, or grim. The stores had always been adaptable to what the managers thought was working, be it reducing prices, stocking more candy, letting staff recommend movies on the wall. The stores were owned by a guy in Texas named Alan Payne, whom Justin had met a few times; Alan was willing to let his managers run their stores without a lot of interference. And he did something that Blockbusters in the Lower 48 hadn’t — stocked the stores with precious copies of many TV series, which were one of their better-renting items.
“I’ve got good news and bad news,” Justin said gravely to a customer who was wearing pajama pants with drawings of elk on them. “The bad news is you have a $15 late fee.”
“No WAY!” the man guffawed, leaning back from where his arms had been resting on the counter.
“The good news is, I’m joking!”
At the end of the parking lot behind the store, a little makeshift Ferris wheel was stationary against the sun. A nearby trailer that advertised Ice was empty. The Golden Wheel carnival had come, and there was an apocalyptic stillness to the empty rides waiting for children to sit in the seats, cigarette butts blowing softly around the parking lot like leaves in the air of the fall. It was not just Justin’s opinion that the store was closing because the economy had been down, because the oil refinery in Nikiski had closed and five local businesses had moved out in the past year alone. Fishing runs were getting smaller. Tourism was up and down. The loss of oil field workers had affected the service industries, and those workers were no longer buying cars, food, and houses. Some customers told him they had to choose between renting a movie and buying groceries. The Blockbuster in Kenai, 11 miles away, where he’d once worked, had closed two years ago, and now Samurai Sam’s Teriyaki Grill had taken its place.
One of the few customers in Soldotna that last day was a 13-year-old named Tovia Owens. She liked books, dogs, the big yard at her house, and the library. She did not so much like movies on demand.
“I like the variety of movies and TV shows here, because you can’t get them other places,” she said. “The library doesn’t have as many of them. We don’t have internet.” Standing beside her were her parents, Jason and Rebecca.
“You can have problems when you’re streaming videos,” Tovia said. “It’ll load slowly. Or it’ll be all catchy. I prefer hard copies of videos. They’re more reliable. And here you can actually have someone else’s opinion on whether or not this is a good movie. You’re not just basing it off what Netflix says.”
“There’s an excitement about renting a movie and not knowing whether it’s going to be good or not,” said Rebecca, a teacher. “With Netflix I’m more inclined to not finish it or see it through, to just stop the movie.”
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.
A man with graying hair got out of a yellow cab. He was in the parking lot of Blockbuster in Anchorage, and he said something to the cab driver, and then slowed to take a look at the blue-and-yellow sign on the store’s facade, which long ago had belonged to a Shakey’s Pizza. The cab driver got out of the car, too, made a phone call, leaned against the hood; it was apparent the passenger had asked him to wait there as he went inside. The man with graying hair paused before the FREE POPCORN TUESDAYS poster, visible as he entered through the glass doors. In Anchorage, there were jingle bells above the doors; they rang every time someone entered, and it made the man with graying hair look up for a half-second.
When he stepped into the entryway and onto the Blockbuster rug he had this smile of recognition, which gave himself away; he was a tourist, and it was clear he hadn’t been to a Blockbuster in a very long time. His name was Mike Wahl. He was 64. He was from New Jersey; he had been on a cruise, from Vancouver to Anchorage, with his father and sister, aboard the Star Princess. It was the last day of a weeklong trip. And the whole time he’d been thinking, during this adventure that was so unlike him, where he’d stepped temporarily outside of his comfort zone and jumped into the ocean and kayaked at Glacier Lake and went rock climbing — things he’d never done before — that he not only needed to see Russell Crowe’s jockstrap, but needed to go to Blockbuster for other reasons he couldn’t articulate. He didn’t tell his sister and father that he was doing it, that he was skipping dinner with them, or that he was paying more than $60 for the ride and the cab driver to wait for an unspecified amount of time. He remembered only saying, “I have something to do.”
The jockstrap was a joke, of course, an international joke at this point, one about a store that should’ve already died a long time ago. It wasn’t really why he was there. But he wanted to see it, ever since it had become news, since it became the main reason people who didn’t live in Alaska were aware that Blockbusters still existed there. Since he’d watched HBO in mid-April and John Oliver had purchased the jockstrap from Russell Crowe’s divorce auction for $7,000, and hypothesized Russell Crowe’s balls smelling of lilac and venison. Oliver also bought Crowe’s hood from Robin Hood, and his vest from Les Misérables, and the robe and gym shorts from Cinderella Man, and two producer’s chairs from American Gangster (the other being Denzel Washington’s), which were also in the store: “We got a bunch of pointless Russell Crowe memorabilia, and I can think of no more fitting place for that to reside than an Alaskan Blockbuster,” Oliver had said.
The jockstrap had been in Anchorage for a few weeks already, in its little glass case with the bendy lights illuminating its leather, the back of the strap flossing the ass cheeks of the lower third of a mannequin’s torso. Next to it were the two glass displays for the hood and the vest and the robe and the chairs, and a framed, handwritten letter from Crowe describing each item on Russell Crowe stationery in a kind of illegible script, and signed in cursive, RUSSELL.
The display was roped off with a sign that said PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH, THANK YOU! And it was not unusual what Mike Wahl was doing in front of the display, trying to find someone in the store who would take his picture with his phone, his cab driver pacing around outside and looking at his watch.
“Oh, my gawwhudd,” Kevin had remarked earlier to Dani. “Remember the people we met a few weeks ago? The wedding party? They held the jockstrap. I took it out. They were so excited, laughing, giggling, it was crazy. But we just don’t get it, though, do we?” Dani shook her head. It took Kevin half a day to put the displays together, cursing under his breath. And then even The Hollywood Reporter quoted him about it.
“Dani and I have been around a long time. We don’t get the hype.”
When he returned home to New Jersey, Mike Wahl sounded melancholy, wishing he’d spent a little more time in the store. “Blockbuster was a very positive memory from my 30s, when my kids were growing up,” he said. “We’d hit Blockbuster every weekend; I still have two Blockbuster cards. There hasn’t been a Blockbuster [in New Jersey] in a long time. We’d go down, the kids would look at the movies. … I look back on it now, we got to see these movies, back then you have to think about the technology. This was hot stuff, man. VHS tapes were the going thing. … That was one of the reasons I knew that I had to make it there somehow. I was up at the counter looking for someone to take my picture, but at that counter, even there … you got that feeling. You know, little flashbacks, that kind of thing. All those years ago, the kids would’ve been 5, or 10; that’s why I went back.”
He worked for Blockbuster for 27 years. And he had stories, a whole life of them, and was telling the staff about the beautiful days of the past. Twenty-seven years and “These are my babies,” Kevin told them, his arms crossed, a flicker of sadness in his eyes. “I grew up with these [stores]. It hurts me, when I’m the one who put them together, physically, with the shelves, who moved them and did all this stuff, and then tear them down.” Twenty-seven years and he’d taped a red sign on the front window in the morning that said STORE CLOSING, EVERYTHING ON SALE. Twenty-seven years and he had a story about Blockbuster in the beginning, the lines outside the store, the happy chaos of its arrival, the citywide madness upon its opening in Anchorage in 1990, the year before he started, the store a symbol that the city had arrived; to have a Blockbuster was to feel a little closer to the Lower 48, six years after the first store had opened in Dallas. He had a story about VHS tapes, how hilarious it seemed now that they’d even existed in the first place. It took hours to put BE KIND, REWIND stickers on Jurassic Park, he said, and if any employees thought seven store copies was a lot for Season 7 of Game of Thrones, there had been 124 copies of the first Jurassic Park in Anchorage when it was a New Release.
Twenty-seven years and it was May 14 and he was wearing a custom Blockbuster Alaska: The Last Frontier T-shirt that stretched across his stomach, an idea he’d come up with himself, helping to oversee his 12th closing in the past six years, the bittersweet laughter pouring out of him in heavy fits and coughs. Kevin had worked his way up to general manager after managing the stores in Anchorage, and he was at almost every store closing telling the employees how it would go, and he was telling the staff in this closing store on the day after it had closed for rental business, helping them prep before opening again for the sale in the morning, about customers accidentally putting peanut butter in VCRs, “Hehah-hehh!,” 27 years and now it was almost over, and now there was a little rain outside, a few puddles in the parking lot, customers coming up to the doors and trying to open them and then seeing the CLOSED sign Scotch-taped to the door, and turning forlornly back to their cars; and the T-shirt was stretched over his stomach as he ate pizza, the pizza he’d bought the staff stacked in boxes near the stacked towers of movies and the group of employees who mostly hadn’t even been born when he first started. Like Jessica Lester, who was 22, Blockbuster being her first job that “wasn’t a housecleaning job. The internet sucks here,” she said. She was wearing a Blockbuster fleece vest. “It’s not really available. People say they like coming here. I feel super bad for everyone in town. … All the family-owned stores here have closed. … I have Netflix. There’s so much more stuff here. You can walk down an aisle and find a movie. You don’t see people online.”
Kevin had driven by himself down to Soldotna for the closing, 147 miles in his Chevy Avalanche, one of the prettiest drives in the world, the Listerine river cutting past him and the spine of the mountains in and out of fog, The Moose 96.3 the only station flickering to life in the radio static. It was the smallest Blockbuster store in the country at one time, 3,000 square feet crammed with a regular-sized store’s inventory, successful with the oil workers and the fishermen and the restaurant workers and tourists and the entire Kenai peninsula, at the corner of that grimy parking lot with the OPEN sign flashing lazily, letter by letter.
“It will be a madhouse” tomorrow, he told the staff. He told them they wouldn’t believe it, that people would cry.
The staff members were using Magic Markers to draw horizontal lines on the DVDs as a show of pricing, $15 per TV series — like Alf, or My Name Is Earl — across the board.
“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.’”
It 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 away, back home.
Enough time there, and they would get a different kind of feeling, too. A feeling after four days, six days, and at the end of nearly two weeks, standing in the line of endless sunlight, with the faded movies, in the long aisles, hours watching people carry bags of relics back and forth from their cars. Hearing people say it was their only option — pretty much the only option they’d had. The Blockbuster DVD cases that had cracks on the plastic and ancient crumbs embedded between the covering and the case itself, splotchy with stains from who knows when. The locations in Soldotna and Anchorage with windows that needed scrubbing and carpets that needed cleaning, where the ceiling tiles were stained, and the counters were scratched, and the credit card machine in Anchorage was on the fritz, and the computer monitors were, like, a decade old; the stores anchored in strip malls that had been half-abandoned and could’ve been anywhere that begged hardly any description, like in the suburbs of Atlanta; the prosperity sucked out of them at some point long in the past.
Alan Payne, the owner of the Alaska stores, knew the end was coming. He had a date in mind, in July, and described the closure of the last three stores, what the end would be like, as personal. He had kept his stores alive under the Blockbuster name since 2000 — and when Dish Network closed its final stores in 2014, it ceased all franchise support, and he worked out a license agreement that paid them a lower fee for the use of the name. The stores were successful years after corporate went bankrupt in the Lower 48, years after he saw the promise of growing DVD business in the largest state in the country. Eight stores in 1993 became 17 in 2002 under his direction. Two in Wasilla, six in Anchorage, three in Fairbanks, two in Juneau, one in Kenai, one in Soldotna, one in Kodiak, one in Ketchikan. Expensive internet and limited access to movies in these small towns had been some of the main reasons the stores remained alive. Along with a huge catalog of movies, in some stores up to 15,000 DVDs, many out of print and unavailable online, priced inexpensively to rent. “If we’d have run things the way Blockbuster corporate did, we’d have gone out of business around the same time,” he said. He was so fascinated by what he’d learned, from his managers, from the customers, from watching Blockbuster corporate operate from very far away. He knew as well as anyone the story of its rise and its actions in its later years in the mid-2000s, when Netflix had inflagrated its monopoly, that Blockbuster had a chance to buy Netflix, for a veritable steal, and didn’t; that the End of Late Fees, which his stores didn’t do, had essentially been a death blow, from which the company never recovered.
He wanted to write a book about it all, about the Blockbuster story from the “store perspective,” what it had been like, and about what people who said Blockbuster was still better were trying to express. The reason all those Blockbuster Alaska T-shirts that Kevin had created were being ordered by the hundreds, and sent to Scotland, Brazil, Canada, Australia, and Ireland; the reason Alan OK’d Blockbuster keychains; because of what Alan called it, what he couldn’t ever quite explain. “I don’t know what the word for it is; everyone longs for it, but everyone stopped doing it,” he said. And he was talking about the contradiction between what people said they loved — DVDs, the store, the customer service, the memories — and the realities of where they were spending money. “I don’t think people consciously said, ‘I don’t want to go to Blockbuster anymore.’ … Everyone’s gone on to other ways of entertaining themselves. We hear this every time we close a store: ‘We love it; we’re sad.’ All they remember is some fondness for coming to the store. Not why they haven’t been coming as much. Well, now they can’t go anymore.”
The Alaska Blockbusters had had what he described as negative same-store sales since the 2008 recession; gradual erosion of customer traffic and declining profits pushed him and his managers to find ways to improve the stores’ performance, like lowering prices, or using the money from the closing sales of one store to bolster the others. He had been very particular about where to place stores in Alaska: near shopping areas in parking lots, which people frequented more than once a week. And Alan knew the prices of the DVDs had to be as low as he could get them while still running a profitable business, which is something, he said, that Blockbuster corporate never understood. He had managers who listened to customers’ complaints. And he let the managers have autonomy within a certain framework. Alan lived in Austin, and said that at the end of the store’s run in Alaska, the clientele was simply older; there weren’t as many families frequenting the store. That in the entertainment industry they had used the term eyeball time, and that there wasn’t as much of it anymore — that they weren’t fighting Facebook in Alaska 12 years ago, or Twitter, or Instagram, and that now it was more apparent than it had ever been to a video rental owner that there were only 24 hours in a day.
“It wasn’t an accident,” he said. “We lasted longer because of the way we operated the stores. … There was a common theme within Blockbuster corporate that we were doing so well because of the uniqueness of Alaska. I’m not saying that’s not part of why it worked, but it’s only a small part of the story.
“To me the most fascinating part of [this business]: It went from nothing to an integral part of American culture over the course of five or six years,” he said. “It lasted 10 to 15, and started dying. And when it started dying, it didn’t take long. You know over half of the country was in a video store every month in a period of about six or seven hours on Friday and Saturday night.”
Justin Trickel unlocked the store at noon. It was Tuesday, May 15, and for a while, there was no one out there in the rain. Just the parking lot, and the traffic beyond the ticket-shaped sign, and the view to the Safeway, and the McDonald’s, and the still Ferris wheel, and the occasional grumble of a hated RV. At 11:43, a line began to take shape in front of the door, seven people sort of unsure of themselves, wondering whether it was real, looking forlorn, muttering to each other about how they heard — from the Blockbuster Alaska Facebook post, or a neighbor’s phone call, or the local paper, the Peninsula Clarion, which ran a story about Blockbuster closing on the front page. And then a few more people, and then there were around 50, and then any of the employees inside who had prepped the merchandise started wondering how they all were going to fit when that number doubled.
“I literally cried when I saw this,” said Wendy Amend, who was waiting, and had come in when Justin opened the doors, who had almost floated inside and paused to take it in, and then dispersed with the mob, the flood, many of the customers headed in the same direction, toward Game of Thrones. And she was in line a few minutes later with three giant bags full of DVDs that she set on the counter. She was 32, purchasing all eight seasons of McLeod’s Daughters. “It’s so depressing, it’s losing a family member,” she said. “I don’t have internet. No Netflix. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
The store’s three registers were open for the sale, and in front of each, the pace for the attendant scanning movies doubled, and tripled, into a clacking and beeping sort of rhythm, unclipping the security bits from the DVDs, stacking them, scanning them — the whole store countertop like a balanced Jenga tower of movies. And the lines separated from the registers and went back and redoubled through all the rows of the store, people with boxes full, baskets full, their arms full, holding as many movies as they could carry without toppling. People holding lists of movies on pieces of paper and scratching off titles, people consoling each other, making plans for the winter, making plans to see each other and trade; that if this was really happening they’d have to borrow each other’s purchases, and someone asked, Is everything really for sale?
Everything was for sale. A guy bought two candy stands to put in his garage. The Blockbuster rug sold. The local owner of a used video game store called Zeroes Trading of Alaska bought all of the shelves in the store. John and Nan Clonan came back two separate times during the day, and each time they bought boxfuls of DVDs that they were going to put in their basement, for more than $1,000 — “We usually don’t buy that many movies,” John said — and they bought Caddyshack and Some Like It Hot and The Grapes of Wrath, dropping so much that one of the employees joked they could open their own store, and Kevin gave them the store’s stuffed Caddyshack groundhog for free, which was missing the batteries that made it dance, and he gave them the Coca-Cola clock on the wall.
“This is devastating,” said Sarah Holland, 39, whose son, John, worked at the store. John hadn’t been there much the night before, because he’d been working on a piece of music for his high school band, an arrangement of the opening song of Skyrim, for which he played percussion. She had taken her daughter out of school to be there for the sale, so she would remember Blockbuster. “We don’t have internet enough to stream well,” Sarah said. “We have buffer issues. We’ll use neighbor’s internet. And borrow DVDs. We’ll go on Facebook and ask friends to borrow. For new shows, for this winter, when there’s nothing, it’ll suuuuck.”
Justin was walking around asking people whether they needed any help, asking them how they were doing. He seemed sapped of the harmless desire to randomly tell them Merry Christmas. Some of them were crying, “Please, keep in touch. Don’t leave. Don’t close!” He could only respond in the measured tone of a very tired manager, “We’re not happy about it. The decision came from above us. We don’t have a choice in the matter.”
He thought there was still a way. He’d lost sleep about it. He had insomnia, anyway, and so he was up a lot, playing video games, sometimes just thinking, stewing, about how he might be able to try to get the money to buy the store himself. But he didn’t have the money. And he didn’t even know where he was going to work. And at 3 a.m., when he couldn’t sleep, he heard the echo of the customer who told him, “We’ll probably buy movies at Walmart now. What else can we do?,” and knew that he didn’t have an answer. He still saw himself walking out of the store the night it closed, with the sky finally leaning toward dusk, and he replayed taking the flimsy piece of paper and putting it on the door, attaching it, “We regret to tell you …” and felt like crying himself.
The store made a little more than $31,000 on that first day of the sale, the biggest number an Alaska Blockbuster had ever made in one day after closing. The sale dragged on in Soldotna another month, but traffic dwindled. He turned in his keys as manager on the afternoon of June 30, handed five copies over to the landlord; Justin was the last person to ever leave the store and lock it behind him. And he left it with the awning rolled up and taken down and the shelves hauled out and the imprints like scars on the carpeting, he and Kevin lingering in the parking lot with a big U-Haul trailer full of the stuff that hadn’t sold. The staff took pictures. He tried not to sit in his truck and think about it for too long. Later that same day he would go to the hospital with a bad infection in his right big toe. When he got out, a few days later, part of his toe gone, he was happy to learn a couple of the employees had found jobs, at Fred Meyer, and one at a builder’s supply. He eventually wanted to see them, and never wanted to lose touch. He had driven back by the store, but only a couple of times. He saw a day crew patching some of the scuffs on the now-unmarked facade of the building where the posters had been, and it was hard to look at it, maybe not the building itself, but where the tall Blockbuster sign used to be, the sign that was totally gone.
There was another store. The third store, the last store. The most beautiful store, the store farthest from anywhere else. If someone wanted to rent a movie there they would need to go almost half the length of the state, and if they chose to drive, they would ride seven hours on Highway 3. They would leave Anchorage, leave the wrinkled bosom of its mountains and water, and they would almost wreck when seeing a mama moose and its baby on the side of the road. The baby moose on the ground, the mama moose protecting it, cars stopping and pulling over along the side of the highway and people getting out to take pictures, one even making the front page of the Anchorage Daily News. They would see Denali, through the dirty glaze of a windshield, in both a halo of light and somewhere behind the rain. They would see rivers and seagulls and crows and an endless forest partly burned to bone. They would see Wasilla in the dreary morning and the “world-famous” Wal Mikes junk store, full of rusted license plates and pocket knives and bear heads and posters for Willie Nelson’s Alaska concert in February 1983. They’d see cabins, and bulldozers, and hitchhikers, and then the mirage of the mountains would all of a sudden recede. They’d be in the hills, then, and the sky would open, and beneath it, Sitka spruce trees; they would be in Fairbanks, the city of the Northern Lights, the city where people still panned for gold. And not far off the highway on College Road they would blink back sleep, rub their eyes, and be in the parking lot of an abandoned Sam’s Club under the pink ribbon of midnight, under a lone sign with a yellow-and-blue glow, at Kelli Vey’s Blockbuster, the Blockbuster at the last frontier.
And inside the glass doors the silent squeaking of a store closing for the evening, the whisk of someone sweeping the walkway, the clicking of DVDs taken out of the drop box and onto the counter, the clatter of one of the two employees in the back last-minute straightening a row with My Little Pony. Luke Kaledin, a 26-year-old, who would say, “How do you beat this job? This is a once-in-a-lifetime job. I’m like an elevator operator.”
Kelli Vey had a once-in-a-lifetime job. She would have it only until the end of August, though, when she would turn in her key. She was the manager of the Blockbuster in Fairbanks. And she was behind a register at the long front counter the next morning. Over her shoulder through the front window it was bright outside and the road was busy and she wore a red striped button-up shirt, a watch with a leather band, and a gold name tag fastened above her left pocket and a silver necklace in the shape of Alaska. Her hair was trimmed short, and her fingernails were glittery pink and aqua green on every other finger.
The store was hers, from its windows to its carpet, a reflection of her own interests and organizational skill, and a small testament to her boss, in Texas, who had given her the freedom to run it how she wanted. When the company had the money she had the carpets shampooed, so they’d held up through the years, made the store look almost new. She bought energy-efficient overhead lights that cast the store in a softer glow, and she had traveled to candy expos in Chicago, and her store had the highest percentage of confection sales of any of the Blockbuster stores in the entire country, and the whole wall at the far end of the store had an art deco pattern of colorful squares, and she had a huge Pucker Powder kiosk by the checkout, and they recycled their movie cases, and when her staff members cleaned the counters, they did it with microfiber cloths.
She had worked for Blockbuster as long as Kevin, since 1991. The last month of the store’s existence would be her 27th anniversary. Her son had grown up there with her, Andrew, and now he worked there with her as assistant manager, adjusting his glasses beside her at the register. He was 23. “Working here prepared me [for what’s next],” he said. And Kelli wanted her son, and the other employees, to do this thing, which they called a Kelli thing: Instead of handing the movies to the customers directly over the counter, the employees would take the movies, walk all the way around the counter and meet the customer by the door, where the counter ended, and personally hand the customer the movies and shake their hand. This was something Kelli had seen at Nordstrom. “If they don’t do it, they’ll get a glare,” she said. “I’m constantly tightening screws here. I do feel like this is my store. … But business started slowing. It started declining in 2010. The last three or four years, business has been down 10, 20 percent; depends on what titles come out.”
It was a mining town, and a university town, and a military town. The closure of the Sam’s Club had put a horrible dent in business. The other truth was, “People spend their time differently than they used to 15 years ago,” she said. “People don’t gather as a family like they used to. People come in, each of them have their own movies. Fifteen years ago, they picked a movie and sat in front of one TV. They did things as a unit. … Facebook takes a lot of people’s time.”
She had a side job, as a stylist for the online clothing brand Cabi. So she was always at strangers’ houses, providing a type of personal customer service that had been a signature of her time as manager of Blockbuster, talking to them, helping them buy clothing, enhancing their experience, even sometimes telling them about her other, more amazing job. “Even just going into a department store to buy clothes is kind of a dying thing, right?” she said.
“Some of my Cabi customers say to me Blockbuster didn’t keep up with the times, and I say, Wait a minute. We’re still around and relevant. We listened all along the way to what customers wanted. Alan would hire outside people to do surveys and make customer calls. And say, you know, ‘What do you like and what do you not like? Can we improve?’ We’d sit down and listen as a management team. We have 99 cent movies for five days. We give them options.”
She shook her head. “You live in a town that has something … and people don’t realize what you have. People who live here don’t realize that. You don’t realize how much you like something until it’s gone.”
Kelli decided she didn’t need to keep the store’s closing a secret from the regular customers, and could tell them that Fairbanks was closing in mid-July, as Anchorage was closing, that it would eventually be a reality, that there would be no more Blockbusters in Alaska, that the only one left would be the one, strangely, in Bend, Oregon. The regular customers needed to prepare.
And so she told them a few days before the public announcement online, on a Tuesday, New Release day. She wanted them to hear it from her. She had spent the last few months watching people take pictures in the parking lot in front of the sign as though they’d seen a ghost in the summer; and when they came in she had talked to the tourists about what it was like 20 years ago, when they were younger and coming into the stores, when the stores were everywhere, when the stores were vibrant, and she watched them look around, and she loved seeing it, the people from North Carolina and California and the memories they brought to her inside and the real place of joy the store seemed to have become because of it, the moms and dads, their grown kids, talking to her, and when she told people it was ending, they were not only heartbroken, but, as she said to one customer, Bill, I just want to let you know … instead of you hearing it from someone else … instead of on social media … and he just stood there. He walked out of the store, and came back in.
In May, she had been at the counter, when a regular customer named Terra Sipple was talking with her, the normal banter of asking her about what was coming out in the next month, Terra standing in line with her little girl, Mona Lisa. Terra said her dad was a pioneer. She was from Kansas City. She moved to Fairbanks to take care of him. She had lived there for 10 years. Someone brought up the store closing in Soldotna. No, she told Kelli, she never wanted to imagine there being no Blockbusters. The world would be horrible without the kids coming around the counter and handing her the bag, like at Nordstrom.
And then Kelli told her, last week. Terra, 53, was returning a movie, and then she was in shock. She did not believe it. She thought it was a joke. Weeks earlier, she had said to Kelli, almost as a plea, “I need Blockbuster,” and they both had agreed, their hands on the counter by a stack of membership forms. Then Terra had said, “They can’t take Blockbuster! God, don’t take Blockbuster from Alaska.”
Justin Heckert is a writer living in Charleston, South Carolina. This is his first story for The Ringer.