Fifteen years ago, there were 9,000+ Blockbuster Video stores located around the globe. But as streaming technology proliferated, an entire business model imploded, and a Blockbuster in Bend, Oregon is now the last such store in the entire world.
At least that's what we thought, up until the discovery of a heretofore unpublicized DIY Blockbuster outlet nestled inside an office building in lower Manhattan. Well, there is technically no renting involved (uh, do you know anyone who owns a VHS player?), so it's more of a lovingly-assembled simulacrum. Either way, the question remains: how did a makeshift Blockbuster end up here of all places?!
Cory Bruce, 36, edits video content for Comedy Central in the Viacom offices on Hudson Street. He's also the founder and self-professed manager of the DIY Blockbuster, which is housed in a corner of the offices. Bruce, who worked at a Blockbuster in California for three years in the early '00s, opened this one up in February 2018, and moved it to its current location this past March.
"I'm a video editor and a lifelong fan of video-related things," he told Gothamist. "I also love decorating and transforming spaces into something weird and fun. Our Blockbuster started as a bit of joke, but nostalgia played a part in it as well."
The initial idea was sparked when he found a bunch of VHS tapes on the street while walking to work one day. He brought them in with him, printed out some Blockbuster signs, found an unused TV and an old VCR, and set it up in the cubicle next to his. "We started playing and displaying movies and people from around the office started donating VHS tapes to the store," he said. "We printed up some rental cards and more signs and a few more screens, and over months we expanded to DVDs, Laserdiscs and snacks as well."
Things snowballed from there. Bruce started scouring thrift stores to fill out the VHS collection, and added more screens (they're up to eight). He estimates the film library contains around 600 videos now, including around 400 VHS, 200 DVDs, and one very special laserdisc of Speed. Movies are constantly playing on the screens each day (each VHS get rewound and replayed several times a day), and they've acquired enough films that they can have themed days, like "Jerry O'Connell Thursday," "Kirsten Dunst Wednesday" and "Lucille Ball Tuesday."
It's been a hit with his coworkers: "People love the Blockbuster when they get to see it and hang out in it," he said. "It brings back the joy of a rental store without asking for anything in return." One of those people is fellow video editor Kate Sweeney, who has tweeted about the DIY Blockbuster several times over recent months. "I just sit in this madness, I am not responsible for it," she told Gothamist. She noted that the cubicle is hidden from view, so it can be a big surprise to people when they find out about it. "Sometimes people’s kids come and play with the toys. Mostly it’s adults playing with the toys."
Another coworker, a producer named James who was working in the Blockbuster cubicle this week, said, "It's a blast from the past. It's like I'm sitting in my childhood."
"The store is a labor of love for me and many others," Bruce added. "Lots of people have stayed late or come to the office early to add something to the Blockbuster. If someone is walking by and sees that a movie is done and needs to be rewound they will walk over and press the button."
Amazingly, his bosses are also okay with it. "The office higher ups have been great about letting it happen as long at it isn't messy or too much of a distraction," Bruce said. He noted that all the initial construction and renovations/redesigns have happened after hours. "I'm not sure everyone is 'all in,' but I think most people who know about the Blockbuster get some small joy from its existence, and that is a great feeling. When you put a bunch of creative people in a building together this is the kind of thing happens sometimes."
The playfulness hasn't just stopped there. Bruce said the "success" of the DIY Blockbuster has led to an expansion with the creation of "a sort of 90's strip mall, including a Tower Records, KB Toys and Circuit City in the cubicles surrounding the Blockbuster."
"The Tower has a large collection of cassette tapes and CDs and a few records and it has a CD listening station where you can sit and listen to the album of the day," Bruce said. "Today is MC Hammer's Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em. They added us to the building tour for new employees a few months ago and it has raised our profile a bit."
Unfortunately, as with those other Blockbusters, the future is uncertain. Other business is about to get in the way: "We have heard that in the coming months the Blockbuster and all the stores would have to close because the cubicles are to be occupied by other employees who need the space," Bruce said. Just a few days ago, they began the process of taking down a portion of the Blockbuster so that someone could sit there (see below). "We haven't been too put off by the news because we are just grateful they lets us build and maintain it in the first place."
"Many of us are video nerds that aren't quite ready to relinquish the charms of movies on physical media, no matter how inconvenient they are in our daily lives," he said. "When it eventually does have to close, I'm sure we will find a great way to display the ever growing movie collection in a way that will make it a 'Blockbuster Day' for those that see it."
Somewhere out there Michel Gondry is already using an old word processor to adapt this blog post into a screenplay. Michel, let's talk.