Dish Network, its shares up 50% since March, soared to new highs on Wednesday just hours before its Blockbuster employees were showing up for work in the middle of the night for the opening day of the liquidation sale of DVDs and video games in the last 500 of what once was a 9,000-store chain.
It was the end of an era that began 30 years ago.
Video stores like chain book and music stores before them are victims of the Internet virus — Sam Goody, Tower, Glendale-based Licorice Pizza, Virgin Megastores, Wherehouse, Borders, Crown Books, Walton Books, B. Dalton… the list goes on and on and the job losses are staggering.
Where have all those people gone? Are they working in the warehouses of Amazon — the most destructive company that ever existed because it prefers to eliminate all competition and avoid taxation by never making much of a profit at least until the day comes when there is nowhere else to turn?
Are we, the consumers, so averse to being among other people, of going out and about, that we have become agoraphobic or maybe just so lazy?
You would never have guessed that at 10 a.m. Thursday at Blockbuster’s “flagship” store in the San Fernando Valley, there would be a mob scene of more than 100 customers scooping up handfuls of used DVDs at a 33% discount and used video games reduced 10% or cover inserts for 20 cents each or anything else that was portable from TVs to display cases.
As he rang up sales and clambered up and down an aluminum ladder to remove equipment hanging from the ceiling, the manager of my local Blockbuster was his usual cheery self, unfazed by getting his dismissal notice in an email, unfazed by being at work since 3 a.m. to get his store ready.
“Pride,” Robert Sprout said, “That’s what makes this store so special, why we survived right up to the end.”
After a pause, he added: “And it’s fun….Wasn’t it Sir Isaac Newton who said, ‘If you love your job you never work a day in your life.’ It’s that way for me.”
Actually it was Confucius, but why quibble. The point was well taken. Sprout loved his job, and created an atmosphere in his well-run store that made it fun. He greeted customers, offered his opinion on movies, asked what movies they liked lately.
It isn’t quite the same on Netflix, which suggests you watch movies based on algorithms of what you picked in the past, not on an open-ended conversation that might lead somewhere unexpected. We are dehumanized by our lack of human contact, by our willingness to respond to our computer-determined definitions of who we are as if we were incapable of change and growth.
Sprout loved his job so much, loved the movies so much, loved talking movies with customers, that he worked for Blockbuster for a dozen years, the last 14 months as manager of the Topanga Canyon store in Chatsworth.
“How about a fridge for your man cave, $50,” he suggested to one customer.
“Would you like any popcorn? It’s a dollar now,” he told another.
The customer responds, “We’re sad you guys are going.”
Then he said a few minutes later, “It’s like losing a thousand friends.”
Sprout got the bad news in an email a week ago like the managers of the other remaining stores. He has eight weeks to finish the job of closing the store. Then, he is going to drive to Iowa, visit his grandmother, “have time to watch all the movies I haven’t watched” — and figure out what to do with the rest of his life like thousands of others who will be looking for work when there aren’t very many jobs.
The genie is out of the bottle. The Internet, globalization and so many political, economic and other factors have changed the world we live in and we, in our self-indulgence and narcissism, are active participants in feeding trends that are as toxic to our futures as the greenhouse gases we spew into the atmosphere and the poisons we spew into our waters.
America doesn’t create wealth anymore; we consume. And the disparity between rich and poor grows and the middle class shrinks and we are as indifferent to the plight of others as Marie Antoinette was before she was beheaded.
Yet, there still are odd enclaves that survive the trends even in video rental, businesses like Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee on Vineland in North Hollywood, where 100,000 movies in DVD and VHS formats are available, many of them available nowhere else.
Brandt, a legendary Hollywood figure, died in 2011 at age 90 and the shop has been run successfully by Alex Van Dyne for the past five years.
“We survive because we deal with the old films, all the way back to the beginning of cinema,” Van Dyne said. “We deal with the films people can’t get ahold of, the old movies that people want. That’s our customer base.”
He sheds no tears for the death of the video chain: “The future of rentals is online. That was determined years ago. It was bound to happen, just a matter of time, the path of least resistance. Why get in your car when you can just download something to watch at home. It’s the way things are.”