Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

The Last Blockbuster on Earth Is the Ultimate '90s Immersive Experience

Step inside a virtual time machine.

It begins in the parking lot in Bend, Oregon. Almost everyone stops to take a picture under the familiar blue and yellow sign, in front of the QuikDrop return. Hanging on the side is the ubiquitous ripped movie stub logo. You’d know it anywhere.

Inside, I’m stationed in the back of the store against the bright canary yellow wall. Next to me is a collection of Russell Crowe’s costumes: his robe from the movie Cinderella Man, his leather hood from Robin Hood, and the blue vest he wore in Les Misérables

The items were acquired from Crowe’s (spectacular) breakup auction “The Art of Divorce,” by comedian and TV host John Oliver, and gifted to another Blockbuster store in Anchorage, as life support. It didn’t survive. After the store closed in 2018, the items were sent here to Bend, and now make for a pretty good vantage point to watch the tourists stream in. The back wall is usually the first place they stop.

Want Russell Crowe paraphernalia? They got your Russell Crowe paraphernalia. | Vanita Salisbury

Due to lack of funds, this Blockbuster was last renovated in 2006. But it's better this way. It’s frozen in time with popcorn ceilings and yellow walls, gray carpets and low fluorescent lighting. Wire shelving still displays DVD cases, emanating the smell of plastic. Candy and bags of popcorn are for sale by the register. Movie-lovers browse the aisles. There are employee recommendations shelves, and an actual person to seek opinions from instead of an algorithm.

Most people aren’t stopping in to rent movies, though. It’s the memories, triggered by these visceral elements. After the Blockbuster in Western Australia shuttered March 2019, this is now the official last one standing. Celebrities like Ron Howard and Chrissy Teigen have stopped by. You can get a souvenir laminated Blockbuster card that reads “Last Blockbuster Video: Bend, Oregon.” Or better yet, get a real, working one to rent movies. It’s free with a driver’s license and credit and debit card. And some people do, just for the night.

“We have tourists come set up an account, even if they just rent it and take it to their hotel room and return it the next morning,” says manager Sandi Harding. “We have had some really cool people that come in, went to Goodwill, bought a DVD player, took it to their hotel room, watched a movie and re-donate it the next day.”

The Blockbuster is a stop on bus tours, and cab drivers give out souvenir cards to people visiting town. The middle of the store is reserved for locally made merchandise. You can buy hats, t-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies, cozies, board games, magnets, cups, baby onesies, and adult-sized ones.

And in the glass display case of Blockbuster trinkets past—next to the Crowe items—there’s a bottle of beer. Called The Last Blockbuster, it was released in 2019 by local brewery 10 Barrel, a version of their Sinistor Black Ale. Its flavor? Red licorice.

The Last Blockbuster beer, and other ephemera from the past. | Vanita Salisbury

This is a story about time travel. And the tremendous, gripping strength of nostalgia. Some current-day immersive experiences trade on this power: the bright 80s neon colors of juggernauts Meow Wolf, immersive sets like the Friends experience. Or the promise of childlike wonder to those who thought they had outgrown it, like New York’s Museum of Ice Cream and Albuquerque’s Electric Playhouse. There’s even an actual pop up called The 90s Experience, that feels like you stepped into the opening credits of Fresh Prince. (According to one Yelp user the decor is so detailed there’s a half-used Bath & Body Works lotion sitting out.)

The Bend Blockbuster is an actual vestige of time past, and a virtual time machine. The first Blockbuster opened in 1985 in Dallas, Texas, with 8,000 VHS tapes, 2,000 Beta tapes, and a rapid growth trajectory. According to Built to Fail: The Inside Story of Blockbuster's Inevitable Bust, one year into the business, it had expanded into 20 stores, offering a wide selection and family-friendly fare. From 1987 to 1994, there were over 3,000 Blockbusters—more than one a day—gobbling up competitors and dominating weekend entertainment.

But easier access to movies and bad business decisions would be the behemoth’s downfall—including the disastrous no late fees initiative, and, perhaps most famously, turning down the opportunity to buy a fledgling company at the time, Netflix. The demise was almost as quick as its growth. In 2014, Blockbuster LLC closed all of its corporate stores, with 50 franchises left. By 2017, it was down to three: Bend, Anchorage, Alaska and Morely, Western Australia. And in 2019, one remained.

Using the TV/VHS combo. (He's putting in Wayne's World.) | Vanita Salisbury

The first Blockbuster in Bend opened in 1992 as local franchise Pacific Video, converting in 2000. If you’ve seen The Last Blockbuster, you’re probably already acquainted with Harding: the 2021 documentary spotlighted the struggle of the last store to survive, and focused largely on her efforts. Harding joined the franchise in 2004 during the company’s peak, with over 9,000 stores. “When they filmed the documentary they did not tell me how much I was going to be in the movie,” she says. “I probably would have said “absolutely not” through the whole thing.”

But not because she’s not appreciative. Rather, since the movie was released she’s become somewhat of a celebrity with a store to run. “The first month that movie came out, I literally was coming in through the back door,” she says. “Not that I don’t wanna talk to people, because I love that. But I couldn’t get my work done!” There are bright pink signs in multiple places in the store that ask you to not take pictures of the employees without their permission.

And in the end, it’s worth it. “We’re so grateful to Zeke [Kamm] and Taylor [Morden] for doing that, and it really helped the store a lot,” she says. “And of course Netflix picking [the documentary] up really helped with that. And all of us know the irony of that, and we’re all kind of laughing.”

Can we interest you in an adult onesie? | Vanita Salisbury

This is a story about community. It’s strange, rooting for a company that originally shut down mom and pop video stores on its way up. But these days, the last Blockbuster resembles those indie shops more than its corporate owner, Dish Network, which holds the Blockbuster license. The store itself is still owned by original franchise-owner Ken Tisher. For Harding, it’s a family affair: her kids paid their dues behind the counter, and even her mom is now employed there.

This mom and pop runs on a couple things: ancient IBM computers (miraculously), and Harding. During the pandemic, it was impossible to prevent people from converging in the store—mostly around the Russell Crowe stuff (thanks John Oliver)—so they shut down for two weeks. They continued to cater to their subscription customers, plus any veterans that happened to stop by. “They had my home number and my cell phone and they’d call me and tell me what they wanted,” says Harding. She’d go down to the store, retrieve it, and they’d pick it up.

Probably just like you remember. | Vanita Salisbury

And the store thrives on nostalgia. In 2020, they made news with an Airbnb collaboration. For three nights, ordinary citizens could sleep in the Blockbuster for just $3.99—the cost of a rental. “It was a great opportunity for us to do something for the locals that had kept us open for all these years,” says Harding. There were VHS and DVD players, rollerblades and 90s-era clothing to play dress up with. Two brothers opted to play Mario Kart on the Nintendo 64s and one couple made it an extra special date night. “They had VHS movies that they’d never seen of each other growing up,” says Harding. “That was the coolest thing.”

People still email her daily about staying in the store. But if it happens again it would be a rare occurrence. “It was really cool and a lot of fun, but our store isn’t set up to be an Airbnb,” she says. “We don’t have a shower.” Also it’s still a functioning store.

She’s more interested in using the influence of the brand in charitable ways. They’ve done benefits for street dogs with the humane society. They do toy drives and collaborate with the Ronald McDonald house every Christmas. And there’s an upcoming suicide awareness event this summer. “That is something that touched our store unfortunately,” she says. “I don’t think that it hasn’t touched anyone.”

These days, the Bend Blockbuster’s income is now 80 percent from merchandise, shipped as far away as Japan and South Africa. They’ve had to expand their merchandise operations to the dance studio next door. Each item is shipped with a thank you note.

And they’ve been so successful at promotion that people regularly inquire about opening their own franchise. “Nostalgia inspires a lot of people to want to do it but they have to remember that while we make it look like a lot of fun, it’s still a lot of work,” says Harding. And nostalgia does have a shelf life. Every day they wonder if it might all disappear. According to Harding, “Even when business is good, you still have to think about what’s happening six months from now and six years from now. And how do we keep this going as long as we can.”

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She wishes every night was a Blockbuster night.