Thursday, February 16, 2017

Riske Business: Blockbuster After Dark (Part One)

by Adam Riske
Ten stories from my time at Blockbuster they might not want you to know!

• Sometimes when people went up to the counter to ask if a video game console was in-store to rent, I would lie and say it was all checked out. It took way too long to get the person to fill out a form, leave a deposit, draw blood samples, etc., so I just pretended we didn’t have any. Besides, I didn’t get into the business to rent video games. I saw them as an occupational hazard.

• If you had a late fee and contested at all, I was quick to give out a free rental coupon as long as you paid the fee. Is that rewarding “bad” behavior? Yes, but I’m not gonna stand there making $6/hour to have you yell at me for the greater good. I don’t need that.

• The store I worked at didn’t have employee picks. Rarely, but sometimes, people would ask me what I recommended from the new releases. For a month or so I would say The Wood, a delightful coming-of-age dramedy starring Omar Epps, Taye Diggs and Richard T. Jones. Not one of those people rented The Wood. I was so disheartened after a while that when someone asked me what I recommended I would just say “I don’t know. I’m really busy at school right now.”
• When The Sixth Sense came out on DVD/VHS, people were ridiculous. When I was emptying the overnight drop box they would stand over me waiting to see if a copy of The Sixth Sense came in. As a fan of having personal space, that really bothered me. I would look inside the drop box before taking out the videos and if the person was affable enough I would give them the tape if it was in there. If they were being an asshole, I would say it wasn’t in there, even if it was. I would give them a free rental coupon for next time. I wanted them to have a Blockbuster night…but not this night!

The Boondock Saints was a “Blockbuster Exclusive” rental when it first came out. In the week or two before its on-shelf release date, we would unpack the new inventory to set it up for rent later on. When I got The Boondock Saints box I was like “WTF?” We had, like, waaaaay too many copies for a movie I’d never heard of. Me and another guy named Matt were so perplexed by this that we became obsessed with the movie, although neither of us watched it. We even wrote lyrics to a Boondock Saints song. Alas, I don’t remember them.

• Speaking of Matt, he was 18 and I was 17 when I was working at Blockbuster. I was going out-of-state to college a year later and so was he so we talked about that a lot. We bonded. We were friends. Then one day he told me he got his very pretty girlfriend pregnant and that he wasn’t going to college for a little while. Instead he was going to live in his gf’s basement and raise his son. I remember thinking that he had it all figured out and that I was a schmuck for not having settled down and started a family sooner. I know that sounds crazy, but Matt was an assistant manager at this Blockbuster and I wasn’t. He actually beat me out for the position. So he had the career and the family and all I had was college in front of me. I didn’t know what to do with that kind of freedom. I was 17. I accomplished what I was meant to already. I wanted to settle down!
• There was a guy that came in every Tuesday that I called “The Perfect Balance” (we sometimes had nicknames for the regular customers). He was a middle-aged Blockbuster Rewards member who wore a safari-ish hat and every week he would come in and get a new release and a favorite (an older title). Without fail, he would get the hottest new release (the one you need to know about in conversation at parties and social get-togethers) and a classic older title that was one of the essentials. I remember once he did a The Family Man and The Godfather Part II double bill and I was like “Who is this guy? He’s a legend!” But then I thought he must be a loner to have time to see movies like this on his own terms. Just when I thought that, he came in one time with his wife who clearly adored him. He figured it out! Nowadays, at F This Movie!, I’m trying to find that perfect balance of watching the important new stuff (to our popular culture) and the most important films of the past; i.e. the perfect balance. The safari hat guy is my inspiration. Bonus Trivia: He and I never spoke about it. I never commented on how cool I thought he was. I wanted Blockbuster to be a safe place for him with no scrutiny. If you’re reading this, sir, I just want to say it was an honor renting you videotapes.

• Blockbuster would play promotional videos on the monitors around the store. Sometimes they would have music videos. I’m a big fan of throwback jamz of the ‘90s so my life changed when they had Carl Thomas’ “I Wish” on one of those preview tapes. I loved that song so much and still do to this day! I would get actively annoyed when a customer would come up to me when that song was playing because it meant I wouldn’t be able to see it again (uninterrupted) for another hour or so. You’re probably saying “Why didn’t you just rewind the tape?” But that would have uncovered my secret shame.
• I once hid inside the drop box on a dare and pulled a video out of a woman’s hand while she started to drop it off. I could hear her confusion and I laughed really hard. The joke was on me, though, because one of my co-workers blocked the drop box with a cart we used to put videos back on the shelf. I couldn’t get out for about five minutes. Thank goodness none of my managers were around. I would have lost my dream job.

• One of my assistant managers, Jen, was about 25 when I was working there during my high school years. We bonded. I had a huge crush on her. Even though I didn’t smoke, I would take a cig break with Jen. I would tell her about high school things like prom and whatnot and she would listen and give me advice. My heart yearned for Jen and I secretly wished it was her I was taking to prom. Cut to late May 2000 and I had just finally turned 18. I told Jen in hopes she would say something back like “The only thing preventing us from making love was that you were underage. Now that’s not a problem. Meet me in the break room.” Instead of saying that, she was like “Oh cool. Happy Birthday!” I haven’t spoken to her since Blockbuster. What a dummy. She could have gotten laid.

What are your Blockbuster stories? #GoldAndBlueThruAndThrough


  1. I worked at a Blockbuster for the Summer of '98.

    Had the similar dejection from customers asking for reccommendations and never taking them. Our store rarely played the promotional videos and let us put on G or PG movies instead. I always felt proud when something I selected caused the customers to actually pause their browsing and watch the monitors for a few minutes. The ultimate was when they asked if they could rent the very tape that I'd put on.

    One time a customer was renting a double feature of "Apocalypse Now" and the John Malkovich version of "Heart of Darkness". Like a dummy, I looked at the titles and said: "Did you know that Apocalypse Now is actually based on Heart of Darkness?" She was graceful about it though and said that she was an English teacher and that it was for her class that had just finished reading the novel. I thought that would have been a cool class.

    1. I had a manager that let us put in kids movies but the majority were all about the preview tapes. My Dark Crystal screening went over everyone's heads but at least it allowed me to hum the theme while putting tapes back on the shelf that day.

  2. Awesome nostalgia trip you just took me on, Adam! I too worked at Blockbuster during a similar age of my High School life. All of the above rings true. Remember "Blue Law"? Ugh... Remember the big ass book with all of the movie titles assorted by Genre, Director, etc...?

    I remember having to close the store at midnight and finally getting my crafty countout done by 12:05am. I would pull all of the other drawers early and only have one drawer left to count so we all could get the fuck out of there. The only problem is, if there was a rush at say 11:45, we were fucked because the line would be to the back of the store.

    In addition to "Blockbuster Exclusive" I remember an endcap with "Sundance Selects" or something like that. Reservoir Dogs was the hottest flick on that wall at the time, along with My Own Private Idaho and Zebrahead.

    I still have a thing for women in Khaki's and blue button up's :)

    During my time you could take home a movie a night, however, the Manager was cool and allowed 2. One of my favorite things to do was rent something I had never heard of and that's probably indicative of why I try to go into movies blind these days. I rented a shitload at blockbuster.

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane! I miss video stores, but don't miss working at one!

    Side note - I once worked at a prominent mom and pop video store in Oldtown Alexandria called Video Vault for ONE day. It was an old 5 story house converted into a video store that carried just about every genre movie you could imagine. My first day I was set to close around 9 pm and the manager said, "Btw, when you're closing on your own and you hear sounds, that's just the ghost. This house use to be an old hospital during the war and it's haunted." He wasn't kidding. I said "oh, hell no", called in the next day and said I found another job. I don't fuck around with ghosts.

    1. What was Blue Law? I don't remember that.

      I remember we had the big book but then they made it into a digital kiosk where the machine would help recommend a movie for you. That was fun during down time.

    2. Blue Law was where you had to line up all of the video boxes to be perfectly in line with the "blue" outline of the Blockbuster cases behind it.

    3. Sound more like Ball Buster. Am I right?

    4. I thought Blue Law was that Skinemax movie starring Stacey Dash! Thanks for bringing up Video Vault (R.I.P.), man, that place was necessary. If anyone out there had the old Synapse DVD of The Sinful Dwarf, they shot one of the featurettes in the Cult Room (yes, room), so you can sneak a peek at one of the greatest 15 square feet on God's green earth. My high school film club (me and my then girlfriend) used to rent stuff from Video Vault for club meetings, and I'd draw flyers featuring the movie we were showing. Best thing we ever showed was Bad Ronald!

    5. That is the first and deepest Illegal in Blue reference to ever appear on this site. Dan Gauthier appreciates your support.

    6. A big hit in the "Drama" section

  3. those were the days. dumb customers renting shitty movies and saying dumb things about foreign, good customers to have good conversations about movies. co-workers to bond with over the same tastes in movies. i miss those days, too bad the salaries were so low.

    true story, one guy said the proof that foreign movies were bad is that they're never nominated for oscars. 'but sir, the oscars are for american movies, they have a separate category for foreign', 'yeah, well, they're still bad'.

    another time, one customers was complaining that crouching tiger hidden dragon was unrealistic because people were flying in it. i quickly replied 'what about star wars?'. he didn't reply

    1. Haha! Oh and people complaining that films had subtitles! And when VHS letterboxed versions starting hitting the shelves, my lord, people were freaking out!

    2. I was thinking about that recently, about how foreign movies are negated to the "other" foreign movie category. Christ, wouldn't it be more honest to call it the Best American Picture rather than just Best Picture.

      Now, I do realize that a handful of foreign films have won major awards, but I could count them on 2 hands, and many either had famous American actors (Brad fucking Pitt, Babel) or directors (Eastwood, with Letters From Iwo Jima).

      At the same time, I do realize that to qualify for these
      "awards", they need to be shown in theatres in LA, so they, the awards, are intrinsically an American thing.

      But, and I feel I might be toeing the line a bit, but it feels weird, especially in a country infamously known for having 1st class citizens, and then the "others", the slaves of course.

      I'm not suggesting anyone here thinks that way, quite the opposite, but it's a little disturbing how the mainstream "take on things" reflects historical tendencies.

    3. heck, the british named their ceremony with their countru's name. the BAFTA's

    4. I don't like it when people complain about "never having that _____ minutes of life back, but I wish I had never explained the difference between letterboxed and pan & scan to a single Titanic shopper. Fuuuuuuuuuuck.

  4. I lived in rural Vermont and never had a Blockbuster, but my local joint Video King was the best. The owner and I had a tacit agreement that I could rent whatever I wanted and as long as I didn't get busted by the parents and no heat came back to him.

    So from the age of twelve I was able to see Riki Oh: The Story Of Ricky, The Stendahl Syndrome, and Q&A with Nick Nolte. I think I was the world's youngest Nolte fan.

    Despite duds like Sliver and The Prince Of Tides that agreement with that irresponsible Video Store owner really shaped me.

    I got into a Blockbuster eventually and it was like being at an Amusement Park. But I'll always treasure Video King and it's bizarre selection.

  5. Never worked at Blockbuster, but I did spend a holiday season as a clerk at Suncoast. My job consisted entirely of sitting in the back and calling people to let them know their pre-order discs had come in. It was actually kind of glorious. Plus, a whole 5% discount on my purchases.

    1. A 5% discount at Suncoast???!!!! That's equal to paying the actual suggested retail price.

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  7. I worked at a local shop, Video Vern's in '98 and '99. I was constantly playing '60's music themed stuff during long weekday shifts without many customers. Hullabaloo, Ready Steady Go or anything else that might feature a Beatle a Miracle or an Impression. One of the rare daytime regulars, Trajan, was intrigued by my '60's obsession. He told me about taking his Beatles obsessed sister, SIGOURNEY FUCKING WEAVER, to one of their concerts. I believed him because I went to school with his daughter and knew of the connection, but maybe sensing some skepticism, he brought in the photo album. Getting to see pictures of The Beatles that haven't been made public was pretty damn cool, not to mention pictures of his sis posing in front of The Hollywood Bowl. In his lesser moments Trajan would try pretty hard to get me interested in being a Mormon and explaining his shunning of a predestined Hollywood life in favor of his spiritual path. But damn, those Beatles pictures were cool.

  8. Trans World Entertainment owned Record Town and Tape World. I worked at Tape World in high school. Then they opened Saturday Matinee, which was a video sales store, similar to Suncoast, but classier. How was it classier? Our uniform was a tuxedo sans jacket! I transferred to Saturday Matinee and thought I was the coolest cat in the mall, walking around in my tux shirt, cummerbund, and bowtie.

    In college I worked at Blockbuster. I recommended A Midnight Clear a lot. A whole lot. I thought it was the best movie that nobody was watching, and made it my personal mission to get it seen. (I should see that again, wonder if it holds up.)

    Blockbuster was open on Christmas day. I drew a short straw and had to work. But they sent me to a different store! Not bad enough that I had to work, but in an unfamiliar store with coworkers I had never met. Merry Christmas!

    On the other hand I helped open a new store. They hired all of us and we set up the store from scratch. Starting with just a 'buster shell, we assembled shelves, unpacked and stocked and inventoried all the initial videos. We trained by role playing as customers and checking out videos for each other and laminating membership cards. It was great to start fresh together like that, we became a tight crew.