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The last Blockbuster: 'I'm proud that we've survived'

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Media captionBlockbuster memories: “Every Friday my parents would let us pick a video”

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Standing unpretentiously in the car park of a petrol station at a busy intersection in Oregon, this Blockbuster is the last one still open in the US.

Over 10 years ago, the Blockbuster chain, known for short-term rentals of films on video cassette and DVD, numbered 9,000 stores around the world. After a decline in the 2000s, the company filed for bankruptcy in the US in 2010.

Tourists take pictures in front of Blockbuster sign

The store in Bend, Oregon, is a franchise and became the last one after two independent locations in Alaska shut down in July.

Sandi Harding, its general manager, describes how her store survives in the era of digital streaming.

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I feel sad and nostalgic to see Blockbuster go. This store has been here since 1992 and I came to work for them in 2004. When I found out this was going to be the last one I felt nervous, not sure of what was going to happen.

The amount of attention has been absolutely crazy. The best stories are about the parents who bring their kids and are like: “This is what we used to do, we used to grab a movie and take it around.” Or the ones talking about how they had their first dates going to Blockbuster.

We’ve had lots of people coming from around the world, like London and Taiwan, and across the country.

Store manager organises some products

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Sandi Harding has worked at the store since 2004

We have a beautiful grass in front of our store and three weeks ago there wasn’t a path to the Blockbuster sign like there’s now – yellow, worn out grass from everybody taking their pictures.

It doesn’t matter what colour of skin, religion or political affiliation, everybody in the world has a happy feeling when they think about Blockbuster and it brings us all together. I think that’s the nostalgia everybody is feeling and they’re trying to hold on to.

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“It brings back all the memories from when I was a kid! Down to the smell of the place. It’s just part of my life. I was renting movies for a dollar and spending time searching the racks for the perfect movie for the best night.”

Erin Sahul, 37, a visitor from Seattle

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The craziness can stay outside of our doors. Once you come here you remember your childhood, your favourite movie or that Friday night when you were trying to get a movie but you couldn’t. Or the popcorn and the candy.

A woman who had managed a Blockbuster store in California came with her family and it was like we were long-lost friends. We didn’t know each other. We were from completely different areas, backgrounds. And it didn’t matter. We had that warm feeling as soon as we saw each other and started talking. We both gave each other hugs and it was like we knew each other for life.

This place opened up as a private business, Pacific Video, and, in 2000, it became Blockbuster. People know us since our early days and they want to keep us open.

My best friend worked here so that’s how I got my job. It was exciting and scary because I didn’t know anything about the movie business. And it was so much fun.

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Customers at Blockbuster

Last Blockbuster in America T-shirt for sale

My husband also worked at a Blockbuster store. My son Ryan, who is 14 years old and now works here, grew up in this store, like my two other sons. So I have lots of good memories.

I Google myself now and pops up “Blockbuster in Bend” and I think “Gosh, I’m more than just Blockbuster! I’m a mum, I have grandkids!”

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Rewinding Blockbuster’s history

  • The company was founded in 1985 in Dallas, Texas, and it was worth billions of dollars at its peak, employing dozens of thousands of people
  • It was so popular across the US that, in 1989, a new store was opening every 17 hours, the Washington Post reported. Its huge stores were mainly located at busy intersections and popular shopping centres
  • The rapid rise of digital services such as Netflix, which launched in 1999, and online retailers, like Amazon, made Blockbuster’s video and DVD business model practically obsolete
  • US television provider Dish Network bought the company in an auction in 2011 and all the corporate-owned stores in the country were closed in 2013. Dozens of private ones that had remained open shut down in the following years
  • Its international operations included some 4,000 stores in the UK, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Brazil and Mexico, among other countries. In the UK, it had 528 stores and 2,000 workers before its troubles began. It shut down in 2013

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I’m trying to keep my head above water. We know it’s our 15 minutes and it isn’t going to last forever so we’ve got to take it. There’s also a documentary that has been filmed here.

All the media hype has actually reminded people that we’re here and we’ve had more customers coming in saying “Hey, we want to support you, we want to keep our last Blockbuster in Bend.” That’s been really wonderful.

Blockbuster sign

This has always been a big movie-renting town and Bend really loves the local.

As you drive around Bend you’ll see signs of “shop local”, “support local”. All the T-shirts, the stickers and everything we’re selling is made in Bend. They want to support us as much as we support the community. It’s the local people coming back that will keep us open.

The elements of a traditional Blockbuster have all been kept: yellow walls, candy machines, even the computer system with its blue screen. And, obviously, the drop box for returns. Every Tuesday, Ms Harding goes to hypermarkets to buy new titles to stock her store that has Blu-rays, DVDs and videos games, old and new. She also said her business had benefited from people tired of being in their homes with smartphones or laptops.

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Customer at Blockbuster

Customers take pictures at the store

But above all it’s about the kids I’ve worked with. You get so many people in their first jobs and the experience of teaching them.

I’m still friends with most of them and you watch them grow up and have children of their own. The fact that I’ve been able to know them and be part of their lives – and they’ve been part of mine – is something I’ll cherish forever.

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“Every Friday I’d come with my parents and they’d let us pick a video. We’d go down the aisles and then negotiate to get snacks. It was a family event. It’s sad and bizarre that’s still here. If I go home I don’t even have a thing to play a DVD on.”

Samuel Bowles, 40, Michigan

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A few years down the road, when this isn’t here anymore, I’ll still have those connections and have barbecues in my house with the kids that worked for me and I can’t imagine those relationships going away. I think that’s the thing I love about this place.

One of the owners told me that as long as we can keep the customers coming in, paying the bills, our employees, we’ll stay open. We’ve got a couple of years left in our lease and a good relationship with our landlord. He’s very supportive of everything we’re doing.

Sign in front of Blockbuster

Visitors' notebook

But I’m a bit nervous that we might close some day too. We have a lot of people saying “Make it into a museum,” which would be a little bit of fun. But the excitement of being the last one and to share it with everyone has been great.

I’m very proud to know that we’ve survived.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

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