On an otherwise unremarkable Los Angeles street corner hangs a familiar blue and yellow logo, forcing passers-by to do a double-take.
The image of a ripped ticket stub belongs to ye olde Blockbuster Video, the once ubiquitous US rental chain destroyed by Netflix. But the Blockbuster on Melrose Avenue isn’t actually a store at all – it’s a pop-up speakeasy.
Upon entering, patrons receive drink tokens identical to the Blockbuster membership cards of yore. Avril Lavigne, Juvenile, Matchbox Twenty and other bards of antique blast from the speakers. Visitors wander the shop looking at video cases displayed on the shelves, all from the height of the chain’s success: Titanic, Mallrats, Twister.
The pop-up was developed in large part by Derek Berry of Bucket Listers entertainment, who describes himself as an aficionado of “nostalgia in pop culture”.
Inside the Blockbuster speakeasy. Photographer: Bucket Listers
Blockbuster “is having a very nostalgic moment”, riding a wave of 90s throwbacks, from JNCO jeans to Dunkaroos – the cookies that come with icing for dipping, says Berry, 40. “It’s like you have a cool parent and you don’t realize it until you’re much older.”
That enthusiasm has been building in recent years. The pop-up was packed on a Wednesday night; Tickets are for two-hour windows. In 2018, John Oliver came up with a plan to rescue a location in Anchorage, Alaska: he bought Russell Crowe’s jockstrap at auction and sent it to the store to put on display.
Sadly, it closed anyway – but the jockstrap made its way to the last Blockbuster, in Bend, Oregon. The store has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, NBC News and beyond. They describe fans traveling from as far as Spain to pay homage, as a once commonplace site has become a tourist attraction: in 1989, the Post reported, a new Blockbuster was opening every 17 hours. In 2010, the company filed for bankruptcy, and the following year it was bought by the Dish Network, which closed most stores.
Memorabilia at the last remaining Blockbuster store, in Bend, Oregon. Photographer: Andrew Marszal/AFP/Getty Images
“I just wanted to relive my childhood,” a fan who drove from southern California told the Times. “I wanted to see if it looked the same.” The store sells Blockbuster-themed merchandise ranging from sunglasses to baby clothes and was the subject of an affectionate 2020 documentary, The Last Blockbuster, following the adventures of the store’s general manager, Sandi Harding, and featuring tributes from Kevin Smith and Adam Brody.
At the LA pop-up, each empty video case along the walls lists the ingredients of a cocktail named for the film, and patrons bring their chosen movie to the checkout counter to exchange it for the drink. The Clueless features Pop Rocks and Gushers; the Avatar contains blue Curaçao; The Big Lebowski is a version of a white Russian. The shop is peppered with other artefacts of the late 20th and early 21st centuries – a Nintendo, Pogs, sugary drinks in those barrel-shaped plastic things. At the back is a section labeled “adults only”, offering fully grown children of the 90s the opportunity to breach a once forbidden room. (Turns out it’s a patio for casual drinking; maybe it always was?)
The Avatar cocktail. Photographer: Bucket Listers
Nothing makes you feel old like strangers cosplaying an era you remember. But what is it about Blockbuster that summons such particular nostalgia – enough that people are lining up to pay a $29 cover charge?
The resurgence is presumably a result of the chain’s lifespan – it was founded in 1985 and survived the first decade of this century – dates that align closely with the births of the oldest millennials and the youngest members of Gen Z. Those generations accounted for virtually everyone at the pop-up on Wednesday night.
But the chain also feels like an especially potent symbol of a bygone era, perhaps because it was among the highest-profile businesses to be undermined by a tech startup before “disruption” became a cliche.
Its rapid flatlining brought the end of an American ritual. Forget the movie: the trip to the video store was an experience in itself, featuring an investigation into the current offerings, an amazing of snacks and a reliably life-affirming interaction with bored teenagers at the checkout counter.
People pose for photos outside the last Blockbuster, in Bend, Oregon. Photographer: Gillian Flaccus/AP
A trip to Blockbuster wasn’t a revelatory experience at the time, but it did mark a clear contrast with our current moment – most of all because it required a commitment: the movie you got was the movie you’d watch. No scrolling endlessly through the options before hurling the Roku remote at the wall. In a world burdened by choice, there’s something reassuring about the simplicity of a limited selection.
And so the friendly ghost of Blockbuster continues to haunt us. In a weird moment of cognitive dissonance, last month saw the launch of a sitcom about the store, starring Melissa Fumero and Randall Park.
It’s streaming on Netflix.