Last Blockbuster on Earth mints new memberships 'every day'

Yes, you can still get a laminated video rental card.

March 7, 2019, 4:20 AM

You may still have a late fee for that DVD you rented in 2010 if -- and only if -- you belong to the Blockbuster store in Bend, Oregon.

At the end of March, the last Blockbuster video in Australia will close, leaving the Oregon outpost of the once-dominant brand the lone survivor, according to the Australian Associated Press.

Five of the final six Blockbusters in the U.S., including two in Alaska, closed last year.

"Obviously, we feel sad for them. One of the things about being a Blockbuster is the kinship we all share," Sandi Harding, who has been the general manager of the Bend store for the last 15 years, told ABC News. "We have people come from all over the country and the best are the ex-employees. They always come in -- like seeing a long-lost friend. They come behind the counter and type in their number because our computers haven't changed."

PHOTO: Customers visit the last Blockbuster video rental store in the United States in Bend, Ore., March 16, 2018.
Customers visit the last Blockbuster video rental store in the United States in Bend, Ore., March 16, 2018.
Ryan Brennecke/The Bulletin via AP, FILE

The store and its customers probably defy stereotypes. The last of the Blockbusters is profitable, and in fact growing, Harding said. Its customers aren't technophobes and holdouts stuck in the past. There are a lot of younger people who are moving to Bend in search of community and nostalgia.

"Everyone assumes that our customers are older, and maybe not as internet savvy, but that's not true for us anymore," Harding said. "Bend is one of the fastest-growing cities in Oregon and we have new people of all ages asking to set up an account, excited, saying, 'Wow,' we don't have Blockbuster where we lived. Now that we're the last, one it's re-energized the hype of coming in and getting a card."

A card? Yes, the stores' printers, which date back to 1992 and use floppy disks, don't work as well anymore, but the staff of about 10 employees is there to hand-write the iconic blue-and-yellow laminated membership cards.

Five to 10 new accounts are created daily, Harding told ABC News.

"Every day," she said. "We have people come in to get a card every day."

PHOTO: Membership cards at the last Blockbuster store in the world, in Bend, Oregon.
Membership cards at the last Blockbuster store in the world, in Bend, Oregon.
Courtesy Sandi Harding/Blockbuster

The Bend store, which opened up in 2000, is the last of a franchise that had five stores at its peak. The penultimate store closed last March. The surviving store has no VHS tapes -- it's not that old -- but it does have video games and movies on Blu-ray. Still, that doesn't mean people from all over the country don't send the store rented DVDs and tapes unearthed from a garage or basement many years after the fact.

In September 2010, Blockbuster declared bankruptcy, crushed by the rise of streaming services like Netflix and corporate infighting. It was an inglorious last chapter for a company that was once the dominant hub of home entertainment with more than 9,000 locations. Dish Networks bought the remaining assets in 2011, immediately closing 300 stores to leave just 500 in the U.S.

In 2013, Dish announced it would close the remaining 300 U.S. Blockbusters by January 2014, but several franchises managed to hang on.

Until there was one.

In fact, the video store chain is part of the Netflix origin story. Founder and CEO Reed Hastings frequently mentions that he started the business -- originally a subscription package for DVD rentals -- because he was charged a $40 late fee for "Apollo 13." "I'd rented a VHS and I had misplaced it and it was six weeks late," Hastings said in a 2006 interview. "I remember 'cause I didn't want to tell my wife."

Netflix still offers DVD rentals. The company didn't respond to a request for comment about the size of its current DVD rental market, but its website still offers two subscription tiers.

For those looking for nostalgia, and a trip to the video store, much of the old Blockbuster remains. Ubiquitous blue and yellow logos abound. The prices are also retro: 99 cents for a one-week rental for a kids movie. New releases, such as "A Star is Born," go for $3.99 for three nights, and older movies can be rented for a week at the same price.

Jason Stevens, who used to work at a store in southern California, has memories of Blockbuster visits with his father, who misses the social aspect of renting a movie from a physical place.

"There's definitely something about those interactions you can't get from streaming services," Stevens told ABC News. "I recently moved to central Oregon for work, with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and found the Blockbuster in Bend. I took the opportunity to take my son there, and we opened an account so we can have those opportunities for those interactions again."

PHOTO: T-shirts, cups and hats for sale at the last Blockbuster store in Bend, Oregon.
T-shirts, cups and hats for sale at the last Blockbuster store in Bend, Oregon.
Courtesy Sandi Harding/Blockbuster

Stevens usually watches movies on Netflix and Hulu, but, he said, "Blockbuster had some memorabilia from the movies 'Cinderella Man' and 'Les Miserables' on display. That's something you'll never get from any streaming service."

There are still late fees as well. Don't even think about holding onto your movie unless you're ready to fork out 49 cents a day, for up to 10 days. After that, Blockbuster will charge you like you're buying it -- about $6 to $20, with 30 days to return the movie for a refund and just pay the $4.90.

The store's staff also hustles to keep relevant. On Tuesday, Harding drove around to the local Walmart and Target to buy copies of the Academy Award-winning documentary "Free Solo." She's anticipating the release of "Captain Marvel," since Marvel movies always do well.

That's not to say the Bend Blockbuster isn't reveling in its exclusive status.

The store sells swag, including $20 T-shirts that say, "Last Blockbuster in America!" and bumper stickers that say, "I survived along with the last Blockbuster."

Oregon also has no state sales tax. But, in another flashback, shoppers need to call or email their orders in. There is no online store, although it does have a Facebook page, where fans check in and often post selfies.

PHOTO: The checkout desk with stickers for sale at the last Blockbuster store in Bend, Oregon.
The checkout desk with stickers for sale at the last Blockbuster store in Bend, Oregon.
Courtesy Sandi Harding/Blockbuster

Blockbuster plans to stay in Bend for a while. There are still a few years left on the lease and the landlord "loves the fact that we're the last Blockbuster in the world," Harding said. They pay a licensing fee to Dish Network, and that contract renews yearly. Harding said she sees no reason to not renew at the end of 2019.

Dish Network confirmed Bend is the last remaining store in the U.S. and that there is one licensee in Brazil.

"I don't have information on how many stores, if any, that licensee still has," a company spokesperson said.

But Harding, 47, and the rest of the store's employees aren't necessarily stuck in time. The last thing she watched?

"Because the 'Game of Thrones' trailer dropped, I've been binging 'Game of Thrones,'" Harding said. On the HBO GO app, no less. "Of course I stream. There is room for everything. There's room for Netflix, there's room for HBO Go and Amazon and Blockbuster. There's room for everything."

The Walt Disney Co. is the parent company of Marvel and ABC News.

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