With its bright yellow walls, fluorescent lights, metal racks filled with movies and candy, and 24-hour dropbox slot for returns, it’s nearly impossible to not feel nostalgic when stepping into the last remaining Blockbuster in the world. The store, located in Bend, Oregon, has been in operation since 2004.
It may look familiar in all its yellow-and-blue glory, but behind the scenes, things have changed since the days before streaming services and online movie rentals. “People would be surprised at how much we do on our own,” says Sandi Harding, the store’s general manager. Blockbuster Bend currently has 12 employees. Four of them are full-time, including Harding’s own teenage son Ryan, the assistant manager.
Staff duties include making new release boards and movie cases and hand trimming thousands of laminated sleeves for membership cards. It helps that the store owners, Ken and Debbie Tisher, also own a UPS store that offers printing services.
Perhaps most surprising is that Harding is tasked with buying movies for the store. “The morning Avengers Endgame was released, I was up early hitting Target, Best Buy, and Wal-Mart, buying up copies for when we opened that day. That’s how we get all our new releases, Disney films, and television shows for the store now,” says Harding.
She explains that while 80 percent of their inventory comes from the content distribution service Vobile Inc., they have to source the remaining movies any way they can.
In addition to all the laminated card-toting members that come through their doors, the store has experienced a surge in activity with its newfound notoriety. Ellen DeGeneres has taped an episode on-site, the staff is routinely interviewed by the media, and thousands of tourists flock to the store to take selfies or sign the guest book.
Many visitors also purchase “Last Blockbuster on the Planet” merchandise, which ranges from locally made stickers, caps, t-shirts, and hoodies to winter hats crocheted by Harding herself. There’s even a feature length documentary, The Last Blockbuster, in the works. Veteran filmmakers and Bend residents Zeke Kamm and Taylor Morden are currently documenting the rise and fall of Blockbuster, along with its last remaining store.
Kamm initially drove past the store and falsely assumed it had gone belly up with the rest of the franchise. He thought, “It’s too bad that space isn’t still operating.” He learned the truth when his friend Morden, a Blockbuster Bend member, approached him, saying, “I have this idea, but we need to start right away or someone will beat us.”
Morden wanted to share the tale of the store’s miraculous survival. “I loved the idea, so we set out to form a plan of attack, outlining what the film would be like, starting a Kickstarter campaign, and got to work,” says Kamm. In addition to working on the film, he records a weekly podcast called Unwinder from inside the store.
“People are just so happy to be here,” says Harding. Long-time member and Sun River resident Jen Irurita agrees, admitting that while she does use Netflix, Redbox, and Hulu, she prefers Blockbuster. “Sometimes it can be hard to find stuff online,” she says. “I really like physically seeing all the movies laid out and being able to pick one up and read the back of the box.” Irurita compares the experience to walking into a library as opposed to browsing for books on an e-reader.
The rise and fall of Blockbuster
To understand how the industry behemoth and leader among video rental chains went from operating 9,094 store locations in its heyday to having one remaining licensee housed inside a Central Oregon strip mall, we have to rewind to the year 1990. That’s when the Tishers began opening Pacific Video stores in Bend. Two years later, Blockbuster started acquiring their competition and driving independent video stores out of business.
In 2000, the Tishers saw the writing on the wall and decided that since they couldn’t beat Blockbuster, they had to join them. The couple began converting their locations into Blockbuster franchises. The Northeast Revere Avenue location in Bend, run by Harding, opened in 2004, the very same year Redbox kiosks began popping up everywhere. By 2005, Netflix was mailing out DVDs to 4.2 million customers.
In 2010, Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy. Dish Network bought off their remaining assets, began closing stores, and shifted the franchisees over to licensees, a step that led to even more stores closing. The Tishers decided to remain in business and signed a licensing agreement for the continued use of the iconic Blockbuster name and logo, which they renew on an annual basis.
Fast-forward to the shuttering of the Perth, Australia store on March 31, 2019, and Blockbuster Bend earned official bragging rights as the last Blockbuster on Earth.
“We were already the last Blockbuster in America so we got lots of attention,” Harding says. “I was driving in my car when a radio station called to tell me the Australia store was closing, making us the last Blockbuster in the world. I didn’t expect that. I was surprised, and sad, too, because the reality is when a store closes, people lose their jobs.”
Bend residents understand the importance of job security and supporting local business. Blockbuster member Sarah Lauderdale comes in monthly with her family to rent movies. “I really love the idea of shopping and supporting local. I hate to see mom-and-pop shops dying away,” she says.
As for Blockbuster Bend, Harding says there are no plans to throw in the towel. “We run this store with our heart and soul every single day. As long as we can keep the customers coming in and pay the bills, we’ll stay open.”
If you go
The Bend Blockbuster is open Sunday through Thursday 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.