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Thursday, November 7, 2013

25

Requiem for a New Jersey Blockbuster Video

I worked for a dinosaur before it went extinct, and they made me wear khakis. That is, I was a customer service rep at Blockbuster Video in Flanders, New Jersey from July 2004 to August 2005. Yesterday, Blockbuster announced that it will be closing its remaining 300 US stores, but the Flanders location had shut down years ago. When I worked there I was a senior in high school and made a dollar over minimum wage. It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.

My boss was a lip-pierced drummer in a ska band. At 27, Ryan held the highest level of authority in the store and was the only staff member to have contact with our corporate overlords, a responsibility that seemed to exhaust him. Whenever anyone asked the name of his band he’d deadpan, “Green Day.” I still think this is a fantastic joke.

I spent my first day in the back room watching hours of corporate training videos and answering corresponding questions under the supervision eye-rolling manager. One of the videos spent a good amount of time on sexual harassment; in one scene, a man complimented a woman’s suntan in a way that was deemed inappropriate. I wondered if the actors hired for this training video had felt excited to get involved with such an entertainment giant.

Everyone had made-up nicknames on their name tags, which raised some eyebrows among the customers. My first name tag said something like “Beast” on it, because I had a rabbit-like teenaged metabolism and was always eating. One day I lamented to my co-worker Eric that "Beast" wasn’t very complimentary. “It’s like, why don’t you just call me ‘Stinkyfat,’” I said. Without speaking a word, Eric picked up the label gun and printed me a new name tag. I answered questions from customers about “Stinkyfat” until I finally quit to leave for college.

We got five free movie rentals per week, plus first dibs on new releases before we even had to put them on the shelves. I watched so many movies that year. I discovered Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry and the Coen Brothers at the perfect moment in my life cycle to not be cynical about them. I also watched a lot of Queen Latifah movies. Did you know that both Kevin Bacon and Alicia Silverstone starred in Beauty Shop? I did.

My co-workers were all fairly punk-oriented and introduced me to some of the greatest media a 17-year-old could hope to consume. For Christmas I got Say Anything’s ...Is A Real Boy and Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. One co-worker with a pink mohawk was constantly raving about Le Tigre, a habit that led to arguments with another co-worker who insisted that there were no good women guitarists. What I wouldn’t do to go back to that conversation today, loaded up with years of feminist ammo!

Also, a lot of people rented Soul Plane that year. “Is this good?” they would ask, holding up the case.

“I don’t think so,” I’d say, and they would shrug and push it across the counter to me anyway. This happened over and over again.

One day after I’d been working there several months, Ryan told me he was trying to get me a raise. “I could probably get you ten cents more an hour,” he said. I burst out laughing, assuming he was being sarcastic. He wasn’t joking, and I didn't get the raise.

The corporate mandates were the only thing I didn’t like about the job. To this day I refuse to wear khakis. There was talk of secret shoppers sent by the company to make sure we were pushing enough product at check-out, reminding customers about popcorn and candy. On Friday and Saturday nights, we were required to take two-hour shifts on the floor, going up to customers to ask if they needed anything and then trying to sell them products like the Blockbuster Movie Pass, which was Blockbuster's way of trying to fight back against the dent that Amazon and Netflix were already making in sales. The Blockbuster Movie Pass allowed you to rent videos either by mail or in store and keep them out as long as you liked. We were supposed to be constantly pushing it, but I was introverted and angsty, and could not have been a worse salesman. I would slink up to customers with regret in my eyes and not be able to stop apologizing.

One night Ryan tried to motivate me with some juicy company swag, a knit blanket with the Blockbuster logo on it. I wanted that blanket bad. “If you can sell three Movie Passes tonight, it’s yours,” Ryan promised, and  I really tried. I smiled, I think. When I rang up customers I actually asked them if they’d heard of the Movie Pass instead of just pretending like I'd forgotten about our mandate.

By the end of the night, I’d sold one Movie Pass. Ryan gave me the blanket out of pity and I still lay it out with pride in Prospect Park today.

The store was right next to a Subway and smelled like it, and televisions mounted to the ceilings played seasonally-produced Blockbuster promo reels 24/7. These featured previews, music videos, and ads, and after weeks and weeks of hearing the same ones, they were maddening. I think that this is one of the hardest parts of working in retail. Before I worked at Blockbuster I worked in a department store, and for years after, adult contemporary drove me to rage. True hell is the holiday season, Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime."

I actually did have to work Christmas that year at Blockbuster, but this is a memory that I remember fondly. On that one day, we were allowed to turn off the promo reel and watch any movies we wanted, as long as they were rated PG or G. I watched Clue, which was such an improvement over the White Chicks preview that I brimmed over with holiday cheer.

We got to know our customers. We were able to leave comments on their accounts in our computer system, which is how I found out that a former Superbowl-winning athlete frequented our store. (I’m sorry to say that I’m utterly sports-dumb and couldn’t tell you, then or now, who he was.) All the employees left glowing notes on each other’s accounts, like “Eric has a weird head.” One time a woman came in looking frazzled, and after I welcomed her to Blockbuster she said, “Can I ask you something?”

I said, “Sure, how can I help you?”

“If I give you fifty dollars, would you slit my husband’s throat?”

It took me a second to realize that she was joking. I laughed, nervously.  “He’s driving me goddamn crazy,” she muttered as she walked around the store.

One time there was a power outage and we spent the whole day in the dark, writing up receipts by hand. Another time we watched as someone slowly backed into my co-worker’s car in the parking lot, then turned around and left. More than once, I heard a dramatic re-telling of the time my boss chased down some skateboarding kids who’d stolen video games. But nothing too exciting happened while I was working there. Mostly I joked around with my co-workers and did my AP calculus homework when it was slow.

As glamourous as it all sounds, there were some real benefits to my brief career at Blockbuster. It sparked a love of cinema that led to me majoring in film in college, where I continued to watch tons of movies and even make some truly crappy ones of my own. I learned that any job can be fun if you’re with the right people. And I still have that sweet-ass blanket, which is probably worth tons of money now.

Not too bad for a Stinkyfat.

Liz Galvao writes stuff and hosts the music podcast I Forgot My Sweater. You can find her on Twitter or in Brooklyn, where there are still video stores for some reason.

Photo via Kingstonist/Flickr



25 Comments / Post A Comment

Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that)

I worked at a video store, too, (sale not rental) during my last year of university. This brought back memories. What I wouldn't do to go back and be able to store information on all of our customers.

No, seriously, it would have prevented us from ordering "Kazaam" seven times because a customer forgot he ordered it, or didn't think we had ordered it for him yet.

j-i-a

@Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that) KAZAAM

1968020174@twitter

@Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that)
.What a story! Narrated stylishly, true thoughts ..."Can you have some spare time to sit back in your chair having your laptop with you and making some money online for some intersting online work “said Jenny Francis in the party last night ....see more what is for you there to increase your pocket money ... .BAY91.CoM

Oliver St. John Mollusc

I had the exact same experience working at B. Dalton, down to the disaffected 27-year-old boss and the constantly looping promo reels (we were in a mall next door to a movie theater). And I remember that job really fondly too. Our boss was an amazing cook who baked me baklava from scratch on my last day of work before going back to college. I also got really good at the "I'm looking for that book by that guy with the weird name that has that thing on the cover" game.

Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that)

@Oliver St. John Mollusc Oh yes, that game! I can't remember what I liked more: telling everyone what the clues were, or the feeling of satisfaction you get when you actually figure out what it is.

Hellcat

@Oliver St. John Mollusc Fellow former bookstore employee here. And yes, that game... oh, that game! I worked in a B&N just when the "superstores" were starting out and let me tell you, that kind of space and freedom and coffee and couches seemed to bring out the worst in shoppers!

(Also, if you go here, notalwaysright.com, and type "bookstore" into the search field, you will probably see tons and tons of all-too-familiar scenarios!)

Lucienne

This is totally validating my High Fidelity fantasies.

Quick Brown Fox

I worked at Blockbuster in 2001 and 2002, in Connecticut, and I'm so weirded out by how exactly the same our experiences were. I, too, can no longer wear khakis. And I felt weirdly sad (and very nostalgic) when Blockbuster went belly up.

Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that)

@Quick Brown Fox I felt something very similar when the (independent) video store I used to work at closed down. I knew it was coming, but it was weird to think about nonetheless.

Ralph Brown@facebook

Great article! the whole time I thought the author and story was a about a MAN oh well she sure fooled me lol

MrsTeacherFace

The worst part about wearing the khaki's with the navy blue Blockbuster polo is that we had to tuck them in. No one looks good that way, especially a chubby 20 year old. I worked for Blockbuster, three different locations in Texas, for 2 or 3 years in college. I too hated and was terrible at up-selling. Also, late fees were THE WORST.

is it hot in here?

@MrsTeacherFace the worst was having to call people to remind them of their $2.35 late fee from Blockbuster Video - most people were like 'whatever,' but some people got all angry, and, at 16 years old, I really had no idea how to handle that.

Myrtle

I was recently looking at the corner where our neighborhood Blockbuster once was, remembering the Friday night traffic jam and the idling cars coiling down the block. Downloading from iTunes is like masturbating with a good vibrator: knowing it's a sure thing takes some of the anticipation out of it.

QuadrophonicSound

Interesting thing told to me just now by Mr. Quadro: Blockbuster will continue to exist in Alaska, where it's a franchise owned by a Texas company. Which explains how, while Blockbusters fell like dominoes in the lower 48, Juneau (approx. pop 30,000) was (and still is) somehow able to sustain TWO locations.

like a rabid squirrel

The Blockbuster in my hometown was also right next to a Subway and always smelled like (fake?) baking bread.

Hellcat

True hell is the holiday season, Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime."

Yes. So much.

fondue with cheddar

@Hellcat Truer words were never spoken.

is it hot in here?

OMG! I worked for a Blockbuster Video all through high school. This is so exact!! Ours was next to (and always smelled like) a Chinese takeuout place.

Other standout memories:

The time someone left a used condom inside a returned movie

Competing with coworkers to see just how many videos we could hold when returning them to the shelf

Titanic presales!!!

All that rewinding.

Gleemonex

I worked at a Hastings in Texas in the late 90s during grad school, and when I was on the movie floor, people would always come up and ask for stuff by its critic blurb; the best one was some airplane movie or other -- Turbulence? -- and they'd go, "Do you have 'It's a Killer Ride'?" Mr. Gleemonex (who also worked there) and I still say that to each other from time to time.

hussified

I worked for a smaller competitor of Blockbuster the year after college, and my brothers both worked for an independent chain in Philly for a few years after college (TLA). Our experiences varied SIGNIFICANTLY, but it was still all in all a decent job.

honey cowl

"For Christmas I got Say Anything’s ...Is A Real Boy and Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs."

ARE YOU ME?

I worked at Dairy Queen though. And I also refuse to wear khakis.

likearollingpin

"What I wouldn’t do to go back to that conversation today, loaded up with years of feminist ammo!"

Story of my life.

MichaelCCruz

my roomate's aunt makes $71/hr on the laptop. She has been unemployed for ten months but last month her income was $15288 just working on the laptop for a few hours. important source ........http://www.works23.com

1968020174@twitter

What a story! Narrated stylishly, true thoughts ..."Can you have some spare time to sit back in your chair having your laptop with you and making some money online for some intersting online work “said Jenny Francis in the party last night ....see more what is for you there to increase your pocket money ... >>>>> WW¬W.ℬAY91.Ⅽ¬OⅯ

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