Blockbuster Nights and the Surprisingly High Cost of Nostalgia

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I was at a coffee shop recently when I saw a man around my age wearing a “Make it a Blockbuster Night” tee shirt and I immediately experienced an intense surge of nostalgia accompanied by envy. 

“I want that” I thought of the man’s shirt. I was not sure whether he was wearing it ironically, as 1990s kitsch, or out of a genuine sense of longing for a bygone era of late fees and crushing independent video. It did not matter. All I know is that simply seeing the Blockbuster logo, alongside its most iconic tagline sent me on a Proustian reverie. 

And then it sent me to Ebay to see how much a tee-shirt like that was going for. I looked up Blockbuster Video and was inundated with Blockbuster tchotchkes. I was clearly not the only person deeply nostalgic for the video titan. My emotional connection to Blockbuster is deeper than most because I worked as a Customer Service Representative from 1991 to 1994, from my sophomore year of high school to my freshman year of college. 

This is going to sound really sad, because it is, but many of my happiest teenage memories come from being a Blockbuster employee. The first girl I ever made out with was a Blockbuster co-worker. There are few things I am more nostalgic for than the heyday of Blockbuster Video. 

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Unsurprisingly, the grifters and opportunists of Blockbusters have found a way to monetize that nostalgia to a ridiculous degree. Look up “Blockbuster Video” on Ebay and you’ll find twenty dollar membership cards, forty-five dollar popcorn bowls and used videocassettes of garbage like Batman & Robin selling for a preposterous 94.95

Signs, meanwhile, go for hundreds, even thousands of dollars or I would definitely consider getting one for my man cave if I were the kind of people who would ever consider having a man cave. These wildly inflated prices crassly exploit the double-barreled blast of nostalgia and scarcity, or at least perceived scarcity. It’s true that Blockbuster doesn’t exist anymore, other than that one store in Oregon, but I’m not sure why that makes people think their used videocassette of Jack the Bear will make them enough money to retire on. 

The crazy thing to me about the current wave of Blockbuster nostalgia is that during its long, lucrative and dominant lifetime Blockbuster was seen by many, particularly cinephiles and leftists, as a force for evil in the world. They were a corporate monolith with a damn near monopolistic control over the video store market. 

People hated the late fees, the sterile uniforms, its cowardly refusal to carry The Last Temptation of Christ and the way it prioritized carrying 75 copies of the biggest new box-office hit over two copies of an important new independent sleeper. 

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None of that seemed to matter when streaming killed the Video Store. Blockbuster’s failure to compete with Netflix or RedBox or adjust to the game-changers of rental-by-mail and then streaming forever changed the way people thought of Blockbuster. The biggest, most ubiquitous, most resented winner in home video became first an unlikely underdog, whipped thoroughly by Netflix when it tried to launch its own, much less popular, successful rental-by-mail service, and then ultimately a failure. 

At the height of its success, people bitterly resented Blockbuster’s power and influence. By the end, people felt sorry for the former world-beater but at its peak, Blockbuster was the McDonald’s of video stores. 

Despite the enormous, justly merited anger people feel towards McDonald’s for its many sins, if it went out of business the nostalgia people would experience for it would be overwhelming. Hell, just looking up the McDLT recently on Wikipedia and seeing the limited-time burgers McDonald’s has experimented with through the years made me pine desperately for the fast food giant’s past. 

Nostalgia is a funny thing. It makes us long yearningly for things we hated at the time, or at least felt ambivalent about. Time has a way of softening our feelings about our personal and collective past. We tend to forget the bad things and long for the good, for the cozy domesticity of the Blockbuster night. 

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I miss Blockbuster Video, and not just because one of the key scenes in the billion-dollar grossing Captain Marvel takes place there, but not to the degree that I’d pay forty fucking dollars on a random membership card from some greedy weirdo on the internet. It turns out you CAN put a price on the cheap but potent buzz of nostalgia but on Ebay at least, that price tends to be way too fucking high. 

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