The world’s last Blockbuster store has already survived Netflix and the streaming wars, so what’s the worst pandemic in decades? As Vice reports, the Bend, Oregon franchise is still open even in the time of coronavirus, although it hasn’t been easy.
Led by general manager Sandi Harding, the store became the last link in the global video rental chain about two years ago. It’s kept going this long through a mix of nostalgia, novelty, and what seems to be genuinely good leadership — but then, that’s true of many local institutions that have permanently closed during the COVID-19 crisis. The last Blockbuster is holding strong. It isn’t just relying on rentals — the store sells made-in-Oregon merch, such as a bumper sticker that reads “I SURVIVED ALONG WITH THE LAST BLOCKBUSTER”.
Harding did have to temporarily close her doors at the pandemic’s beginning. “Everybody would be converging in the same area, everybody wanted to see the John Oliver stuff, or everybody wanted to go to the new release section,” she said. But with new, one-way directional arrows on the floor, expanded curbside pickup, and by limiting occupancy to ten patrons at a time, owners Ken and Debbie Tisher felt confident they could safely reopen.
The physical location holds an appeal for people who’ve been stuck at home for too long. According to Harding, “I had a customer come in and she said, ‘I am so grateful that you reopened, because I couldn’t flip through Netflix one more time.’”
None of the dozen-plus employees have been fired, and with the help of a Paycheck Protection Loan they all continued to receive pay even when the store had closed. But even so, the store isn’t exactly thriving. Curbside pickups and selling merch have helped, but as Harding said, “The longer it goes on, the more stress there is for everyone, and the more I’m like ‘Oh gosh, can we really sustain this?”
For now, she’s determined to try.
“You’re in a tight spot, because part of you is looking at the economics of it and thinking ‘I have to have customers coming and spending money, or my business isn’t going to be viable,’ but at the same time, I’m like the Blockbuster Mom. These are my kids that work here, the customers are my family and, my gosh, I can’t put them at risk either. Your heart is just torn in two different directions.”
Blockbuster merch, old and new, is available through the last store’s website.