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Roll the Credits: The Last Two Blockbusters in Alaska Are Closing Down
Let’s take a trip down memory lane, shall we?
The year is 2000. It’s a Friday night. You and the family pile in the minivan and head down to the local Blockbuster.
There’s an argument over which new release to rent. Your sibling is championing “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” but your vote is for “The Sixth Sense” because you heard there’s a crazy plot twist!
You’re ultimately overruled but snag a box of Sno-Caps in the checkout line to make-up for the loss. On your way out, you’re reminded: “Please be kind, rewind.”
For most of us, these Blockbuster trips are just a fond memory. But for residents of Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska, it was still a Friday night tradition — until last week, that is. Just swap out “The Phantom Menace” with “The Last Jedi” and “The Sixth Sense” with pretty much any other M. Night Shyamalan movie. Other than that, it’s all pretty much the same.
Oh, and take away the rewind reminder, because, you know, DVDs.
Alaskans will soon live in a world without Blockbuster like the rest of us: The remaining two locations in The Last Frontier state have called it quits, leaving a lone store in Bend, Oregon.
The managers of the stores have begun inventory liquidation sales, which last through August.
We visited the Fairbanks Blockbuster before the closure was announced and got a glimpse of what it was like working for the once great video rental company in a world dominated by video streaming.
How Blockbuster Lived On
Kelli Vey, the district manager for the Fairbanks store, has worked at Blockbuster since August 1991. Having been with the company for close to three decades, she remembers the good times, when Blockbuster was the king of video and seemed untouchable.
“There used to be lines of customers, the parking lot was full, there was excitement over new movies coming out like ‘Jurassic Park,’” says Vey. “It was quite a hopping place on a Friday night.”
In its heyday, Blockbuster had over 9,000 stores across the world and was dominating the video-rental game. In 2000, the giant even turned down a chance to buy a little-known streaming service for a mere $50 million. Maybe you’ve heard of it: Netflix.
But over time, streaming became the name of the game and stores started dwindling. By 2010, Blockbuster had filed for bankruptcy, and, three years later, the company announced plans to close all remaining corporate-owned stores.
Despite the corporate shutdown, Blockbuster lived on thanks to franchising. The Alaska stores, owned by Alan Payne, were one of those franchises. Payne says that, at its peak, his portfolio consisted of 17 stores in Alaska and another 25 in Texas.
Vey says their prices were much lower than corporate stores, offering rentals of 59 and 99 cents. These low prices contributed to their continued success.
Blockbuster also lived on in Alaska when others failed because internet is expensive and broadcast reception is often bad in remote areas.
Without reliable or affordable access to streaming services like Netflix or HBO Go, the Fairbanks Blockbuster became a neighborhood staple.
Friday night was still the peak of the week and customers still stood next to rows of candy while waiting to check out — just like in the good ol’ days.
Most of the customers were regulars. Vey knew them by name and asked how their families were doing. She could probably tell you their favorite movies. Some customers even drove upwards of 30 miles on a weekly basis to get movies or TV shows for the week.
“I’ve got a few that come in on a regular basis once or twice a week,” says Vey. “They will be in town, get a stack of movies, and then when they come back in town they’ll swap them out for new ones.”
She also noticed some people stopping in just to snap pictures of a surviving Blockbuster.
But ultimately, selfies in front of the store don’t keep the lights on.
The End of the Road for Blockbuster Alaska
Despite a loyal customer base and a steady stream of business, Blockbuster’s days were numbered.
“Unfortunately, it’s the last piece of an organized exit that has been going on for a couple of years,” says Payne. “The stores have remained profitable through the end, but… we see it declining more in the future and we wanted to [close] when the time was right.”
Payne and Vey agree that there was a steady decline in business since around 2008. The Fairbanks store probably pulled in about 2,000 customers a week, but with high operational costs and average transactions on the low end, it wasn’t viable to renew the lease.
“We always said we would do this as long as it made sense,” says Vey.
The public’s reaction to the news of the closures was swift, with nostalgia-fueled sadness being the general theme. But Payne and Vey’s number one concern is that their customers aren’t just seeing another piece of their childhood disappear. They are also losing a lifestyle ritual.
“Our regular customers were very disappointed; not knowing how they’re going to fill that void is probably the hardest part,” says Vey. “You become a part of these people’s lives, they share so much over the counter and you know them and their family.”
The steady decline and decision to close has prepared both Payne and Vey for the end. Disappointing a lot of people is hard, but Payne feels that he’s ready to move on.
Vey talks fondly about her 27 years at Blockbuster and is looking forward to the next chapter in her life.
Thanks for giving all of us so many awesome memories, Blockbuster! You’ll be missed.
Kaitlyn Blount is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She used to rent The Princess Bride from Blockbuster pretty much every other week.