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, with the peaks of the Three Sisters in the distance. Almost everyone stops to take a picture under the recognizable blue and yellow sign. To the left is the QuikDrop return. On the brick wall, the ubiquitous ticket stub logo, ripped on one side. You’d know it anywhere.
It's so familiar that it's inspired imitators—a Blockbuster-themed pop-up bar opens in Los Angeles this month, where “membership cards” serve as drink tickets. On November 3, a workplace comedy with some famous names premieres on Netflix, imagining what life might be like in the last remaining outlet of the video rental chain. But there's only one place where you can experience the real thing.
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 vest is altered, says a handwritten note that accompanies it.
The items were acquired by comedian and TV host John Oliver at Crowe’s (spectacular) breakup auction, The Art of Divorce, and gifted to another Blockbuster store in Anchorage, Alaska as a form of life support. Unfortunately, the shop didn’t survive. After its closure in 2018, the artifacts were sent here to Bend, and now make a pretty good vantage point for watching the tourists stream in. The back wall is usually the first place they stop.
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 recommendation shelves, and an actual person to seek opinions from instead of an algorithm.
Most people aren’t stopping in to rent movies, though. They’re drawn in by these visceral elements, and the memories that accompany them. I meet a flight attendant staying in nearby Redmond for the night, whose family used to visit Blockbuster every Friday when she was a child. I watch a man select a VHS copy of Wayne’s World and slip it into the old-school TV/VCR combo on display.
After a Blockbuster in Western Australia shuttered March of 2019, Bend's is officially the 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, pick up a real, working one to rent movies. It’s free with a driver’s license and credit or debit card. And some people sign up, even if 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've 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-donated 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, koozies, board games, magnets, cups, baby onesies, and, also, adult-sized ones.
And in the glass display case of Blockbuster trinkets past—right next to the Crowe memorabilia—stands a bottle of beer. Called The Last Blockbuster, it was released in 2019 by area brewery 10 Barrel, a version of their Sinistor Black Ale. Its flavor? Red licorice.
This is a story about time travel. And the tremendous, gripping strength of nostalgia. Some current-day immersive exhibitions trade on this power: the bright '80s neon colors of juggernauts Meow Wolf, immersive sets like the roving Friends experience. Places imbued with the promise of childlike wonder to those who thought they'd long outgrown it, like New York’s Museum of Ice Cream and Albuquerque’s Electric Playhouse. There’s even an Oakland, California 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 that there’s a half-used Bath & Body Works lotion sitting out.)
The Bend Blockbuster is an actual vestige of a bygone era, as well as 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 media selection alongside 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 what, at the time, was a fledgling company: Netflix. Its subsequent demise was almost as quick as its rocketlike growth. In 2014, Blockbuster LLC closed all of its corporate stores, leaving just 50 franchises to fend for themselves. By 2017, it was down to three: Bend, Anchorage, and Morely in Western Australia. By 2019, only one remained.
Bend's first Blockbuster opened in 1992 as local outpost of Pacific Video before converting to its current form in 2000. If you’ve seen The Last Blockbuster, you’re probably already acquainted with Harding—the 2021 documentary spotlighted the struggle to keep the last store afloat, focused largely on her efforts. Harding joined the franchise in 2004 during the company’s peak, when it spanned 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 it's not because she wasn't appreciative. Rather, since the movie was released, she’s become somewhat of a celebrity, albeit one 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 throughout the store asking visitors to not take pictures of the employees without their permission.
And in the end, it was well worth it. “We’re so grateful to Zeke [Kamm] and Taylor [Morden] for doing that, and it really helped the store a lot,” says Harding. “And, of course Netflix picking up [the documentary] really helped—all of us know the irony of that, and we’re all kind of laughing.”
This is also a story about community. It’s strange, rooting for a company that shut down mom and pop video stores on its rise to power. But these days, the last Blockbuster resembles those same indie shops much more than its corporate owner, Dish Network, which holds the Blockbuster license. The store itself is still owned by original franchise operator Ken Tisher. For Harding, it’s a family affair: Her kids paid their dues behind the counter, and her mom is now employed there.
This mom and pop shop runs on two 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 subscribing 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.
Ultimately, the store thrives on nostalgia. There are occasional promotions where the prize is to spend the night, and 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 video 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 dress up in. 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 of each other growing up that they’d never seen," 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.” Not to mention, it’s still a functioning store.
She’s more interested in using the brand's influence 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 this summer they hosted a suicide awareness event. “That is something that touched our store, unfortunately,” she says. “I don’t think that it hasn’t touched anyone.”
These days, 80% of the Bend Blockbuster’s income comes from merchandise, shipped out as far away as Japan and South Africa. They’ve had to expand this particular operation to the dance studio next door. Each item is shipped with a thank you note.
In fact, they’ve been so successful at promotion, 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.”