- The last Blockbuster in the world is in Bend, Oregon, employing 14 workers and still letting costumers rent videos the old fashioned way.
- The coronavirus pandemic has limited store visitors, raising questions of survivability.
- But they’re still operating, offering curbside delivery and following social distancing protocols.
- The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and the owners don’t expect the store to shutter anytime soon.
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On March 31, 2019, the Blockbuster video store located inside a retail strip mall in Bend, Oregon, officially earned bragging rights as the last surviving Blockbuster on the planet, after the only other remaining location in Western Australia shuttered.
In its heyday, the once ubiquitous yellow-and-blue video-rental chain empire operated 9,094 stores around the world, employing more than 84,000 people. Today, one store with 14 employees and a computer that can only be rebooted with a floppy disk remains.
Bend Blockbuster’s survival is nothing short of miraculous. Rather than attempt to compete with the corporate giant, Ken and Debbie Tisher, owners of the then-Pacific Video store, adopted the “If you can’t beat them, join them” attitude and converted their mom and pop video business into a Blockbuster franchise in 2000. A decade later, when Blockbuster went belly up and filed for bankruptcy, leaving Dish Network to acquire its remaining assets in an auction, The Tishers opted to remain a franchise. Year after year, as technology reshaped the way people watched movies, other locations began to close their doors until one day last spring, Bend Blockbuster became the last store standing.
With no corporate entity in existence to provide branded goods and supplies, Bend Blockbuster has no choice but to fend for themselves and get creative. They hand-make their weekly new release boards and design their own flyers (conveniently, The Tishers also own a UPS Store with printing capabilities), laminate membership cards one by one, create their own branded merchandise, and even hit big-box stores like Target and Walmart early in the morning on new release day to stock up on the newest movies for the store, as the distribution outlet that provided 80% of their content recently went out of business.
Yet despite all of these challenges, up until recently, the sole franchise was not only surviving but thriving, drawing in a mix of dedicated residents and die-hard movie fans. There are also the throngs of nostalgia-seekers set on making a bucket list pilgrimage to this corporate remnant, left over from a time when people spent Friday nights shuffling through the aisles, reading the backs of movies before choosing one, and picking up snacks.
The big question now is: Can the lone standout survive the coronavirus pandemic?
Sandi Harding, the store’s manager for the past 16 years, has no doubt it will.
“We’ve survived Netflix, Redbox, all kinds of movie streaming, and even Blockbuster corporate closing, and we’ll survive this, too. It’s not going to be easy, but we adjust and adapt, it’s just what we do here,” she said.
And adjust they did. When Oregon’s Governor Kate Brown issued a statewide executive order on March 23, 2020, calling for the closure of certain nonessential businesses and tasking those permitted to remain open to “establish, implement, and enforce social distancing policies” in accordance with the Oregon Health Authority, the store fell into the latter category. Following the directive, Harding instituted a limit of 10 members in the store at a time. Shortly after, she realized people were still too close to one another, so they closed for three weeks to make adjustments.
How the pandemic has affected business as usual
“My biggest concern was making sure our employees weren’t put at risk and to ensure it was a safe environment to work in before reopening,” said Harding. In addition to overall concerns about health safety, there was also the issue of financial security. Harding said there have been no layoffs, and, according to Ken Tisher, they recently applied for and received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan “that will be a great help with our payroll,” he said.
While the physical store remained closed for three weeks, customers were offered the option of curbside pick-up — which is much more involved than it sounds because the store does not have their 22,000 movie inventory online, only new releases.
According to Harding, members interested in curbside pick-up were instructed to call the store with a wish list of movies they wanted to rent, pay by credit card, and provide their license plate number. Then, an employee wearing a mask and gloves would search the shelves and pull those titles in stock. From there, the DVD cases were sanitized with a Clorox wipe and sealed in a Ziploc bag along with a note.
Once the members arrived outside the store, they’d call and an employee would bring the movies to their car. Harding estimated between 10 and 20 customers a day used their curbside service during the store’s closure.
In between curbside deliveries, Harding and her team kept busy rearranging the footprint of the store to ensure social distancing mandates were observed by creating one entrance and exit, rearranging the checkout line area, and cleaning every surface with Lysol.
“I don’t think our counters have been this clean in the 16 years we’ve been open,” said Harding. They also spent five full days replacing the labels on all 22,000 movies in stock, as most of the original stickers had dried up and fallen off over the years.
For the time being, store hours have been adjusted from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., which Harding refers to as their “COVID hours.” She hopes to be back to regular hours (10:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.) by May 15.
Despite shortened hours, Harding hasn’t been able to resist giving a few after-hours tours to the handful of tourists who had their heart set on stepping inside the ’80’s throwback.
What’s next for the last Blockbuster
“The amount of love and support we’ve received from people all over the world has been phenomenal. Over the weekend, we had 46 online merchandise orders come in. That was a record number for us,” said Harding.
As for what’s in store next, it’s anybody’s guess, but both Ken Tisher and Sandi Harding are confident they’ll still be around, holding down the yellow and blue fort in all it’s retro glory when all of this is behind us.
“Had we been forced to close entirely for a lengthy period, I would say we would likely survive, but just barely. We will survive this pandemic through outstanding management by Sandi and her crew and a bunch of other folks who support us in a variety of ways,” said Tisher.
Harding added, “We are taking it day by day, just like we always have around here and so far, it’s worked for us. There’s a reason we are the last ones.”