By Justin Glawe

Blockbuster Video in Bemidji, Minnesota (Credit: All photos by author)

One of the last Blockbuster video stores in the country isn’t selling movies — it’s selling tackle.

DVDs from the Bemidji, Minnesota Blockbuster were moved to Grand Forks, North Dakota a few weeks back, and the Bemidji store is now being rented by two local flea marketers. A store that was once home to the largest video rental chain on the planet has been replaced by what amounts to a better-than-average garage sale. The movies have all been replaced by a thrift store assembly of randomness, including fishing tackle, records, books, cheap dinnerware and tools. The Blockbuster marquee was still on the outside of the building when I stopped by last week, but it was coming down the next day, said Elsa Znajda, one of the two flea marketers selling their wares in the store. The letters are being sold for $75 apiece.

“We’ve had quite a few people coming in looking for movies who end up buying other stuff,” mentioned Elsa.

A sign bragging that the former video store has what Redbox and Netflix don’t is truthful in a way. Unless the two start selling hubcaps and discount bin biographies of Republican presidents, they won’t have anything on this building that on the outside claims to be a video store and on the inside is a combination of flea market and ruin porn.

If you’re looking for the full Blockbuster Video experience — triangular cashiers pen, bubble TVs blaring trailers for easily forgotten films, American cheese yellow and blue decor — Grand Forks is the place to look. Unlike its counterpart in Bemidji, the Grand Forks Blockbuster still has movies. There, a dwindling collection of flicks in sun-faded cases is being perused by bargain hunters. “Everything must go,” a signs reads obviously.

Blockbuster reached the height of its success in 2004 with 60,000 employees, 9,000 stores around the world and $5.9 billion in profits. That same year, the company introduced an online video rental service only to be blown out of the water by the already established Netflix. Ironically, Netflix had pitched the idea of a partnership between the two companies in 2000, only to be “laughed out of the office.” From there, Blockbuster went through a slew of upper management changes, and Netflix went from $1 million in sales in 1998 to $1 billion a decade later.

Dish Network bought Blockbuster for a song in 2011, about a year after the national video chain filed for bankruptcy. Initially, Dish said it would keep up to 600 locations open before — and I’m just guessing here — the company realized that was an insane business decision.

Kass Milne, who has worked at the Grand Forks location for the past two years, said Dish informed his store that they’d be without software updates and IT assistance after January 15; owner Kevin Seager decided in December that would be the last day for this store.

“We’ve had a lot of people, a lot of older people, coming in and saying, basically, ‘that sucks,” Milne said. They don’t have — and don’t want — Internet, Milne explained, and apparently Redbox just doesn’t do it for them. “Some of them were pretty mad.”

It’s difficult to tell if anyone will try to fill the hole left by the demise of Blockbuster. There’s been a lot of hope that the decline of Barnes and Noble and Borders will allow smaller bookstores to thrive, but for entrepreneurs looking to fill the movie rental market, Netflix, Amazon and, to a lesser extent, Redbox present formidable opposition.

What will take much longer to determine is what the loss of Blockbuster will mean, if anything. Today, people still reminisce about childhood trips to the chain.

“You ran into people there on Friday nights renting movies. You fought with your sister over which kids movies to get,” Angela Shogren, 32, said of Blockbuster. Others say the employees behind the counter — proud in their film geekdom — recommended movies that a customer might never have otherwise watched.

“I bonded with one of the clerks at our local franchise over a mutual love of horror movies and traded recommendations,” recalled Kate Egelhof, 29. “I discovered some of my favorites through her. The Internet isn't quite the same.”

Milne, who has a Netflix subscription but still took advantage of free rentals for Blockbuster employees, said he’ll miss not just the interactions with customers, but the random finds on the shelves. “There’s always things you forgot of — older movies, certain actors — that make you remember or want to watch other movies,” he said.

At the Grand Forks store, where I was reading plot descriptions and blurbs, it dawned on me that this was all we had in the age of Blockbuster. We couldn’t Google a film and be instantly supplied with thousands of reviews from both professional and amateur critics. We had word of mouth, the recommendations of video store employees, whatever marketing copy was on the VHS or DVD case, and perhaps the opinion of whoever was standing next to us in the store, looking out of the corner of their eye at the film that had caught ours.

Cruising the aisles of a video store, where (Do you remember?) new releases were organized on the outer walls in alphabetical order and older films could be found by category — this offered us better chances of random finds. Now, with unlimited digital space, Netflix offers us recommendations in the minutia of genre. Blockbuster never had a genre as disturbingly specific as Violent Documentaries About Cats for Ages 8 to 10. If Netflix’s recommendation engine is laser-pointed nanosurgery, then Blockbuster’s wide aisle were chicken soup.

The Grand Forks Blockbuster was pretty picked over by the time I got there. It was mostly filled with the dime novel equivalent of ‘80s and ‘90s throwaway features — movies with actors you vaguely recognize starring in titles you’ve never heard of. The majority of DVDs I looked at were not worth a few dollars and two hours of my time, I decided. But at least I could hold them in my hands and decide for myself.

Justin Glawe is a freelance journalist based in Grand Forks, North Dakota, which he can now say is a hell of a lot better than Williston. Follow him on Twitter: @JustinGlawe

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