At this week’s SCMS, I presented a paper, “Redbox or Red Envelope: Closing the Window on the Bricks-and-Mortar Video Store,” exploring the implications of the rise of alternative forms of video distribution and the seemingly imminent demise of chain video stores. Thus, it came as little surprise that Blockbuster announced, just as I was flying in to Los Angeles, that it might have to file for bankruptcy (although it did force me to tweak my paper slightly). Although Vadim Rizov and others seem to suggest that Blockbuster’s collapse was inevitable, it’s easy to forget that ten years ago–maybe even five years ago–the big blue video chain seemed like an inevitable part of our media landscape, a dominant force in the video distribution biz, in much the same way that Coke and Pepsi 2-liters appear at your local supermarket. And like Wal-Mart and other chain stores, they served as an easy target for people who are troubled by suburban sprawl and the homogenization of culture. There are dozens of websites like this one demanding that we Boycott Blockbuster (many of which could–and should–continue to exist long after the last late fee is assessed.
I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a huge Blockbuster fan, but I also find myself a little puzzled by some of the responses to news that the rental chain will have to close as many as 1,300 stores in the next few months. Aside from the obvious concern about lost jobs, these depictions of Blockbuster often obscure more complicated aspects of how individual stores might fit within a given community. One example of this is Vadim Rizov’s post in which he speculates, based on the store’s homogeneous designs and emphasis on new releases, that few people will miss the video rental store: “Since being inside most Blockbusters was like being trapped in an airport waiting area, only with brighter lights and stacks of direct-to-video garbage everywhere, I believe few will mourn.”
I’ve been thinking about the particularity of retail spaces, in part, because I’ve been reading Ted Striphas’s smartly argued and eminently readable book, The Late Age of Print, in which he suggests that we should avoid looking at corporate superstores as “abstract concepts” (56). As Striphas surmises, such accounts cause us to miss out on seeing what Meghan Morris has called the everyday “sense of place” associated with a given space. Although it’s obvious that Blockbusters are sites of labor–the store’s employees are often targets of anti-BB screeds–they are also specific sites of labor, often integrated into communities in ways that may not be immediately visible. Striphas’s case study–a Durham, North Carolina, Barnes and Noble that provided books and jobs to an underserved urban community–illustrates the ways in which individual stores may have very different political and social implications for a given community (and this leaves open the possibility that some of those effects may be harmful).
In a sense, Blockbuster has become a useful fiction, a symbol of all that is frustrating about video distribution, while fitting neatly into (often reductive) narratives about the competition between independent retailers and giant conglomerates–recall that Blockbuster was once owned by media giant Viacom. But even while it’s easy to treat Blockbuster as a quaint “tourist destination,” a relic of the media mergers-and-acquisitions era, when looking at the stores from the perspective of the film buff, it’s also worth thinking about how individual experiences of the former rental giant might disrupt that narrative ever so slightly.