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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.
Photo via Kingstonist/Flickr