I wrote this for a newspaper last year, when my local Blockbuster – which I had worked at for few years – was closing down.
With today marking the closure of the last remaining UK stores, I thought I’d share it…
The Rob mentioned in the story went on to manage another Blockbuster store. Yesterday he turned the lights off there for the last time.
This weekend, the book closed on what had been quite a large part of my life.
After 22 years, Blockbuster in Canterbury has closed its doors, ready to be smashed into pieces in preparation for a new hotel with too few parking spaces.
For many, I expect it was just another video shop, but the big blue store by the crossroads always meant more to me.
When I was a child, I lived away, but a couple of times a year I would come back to the UK to see my Dad. As well as going bowling in Margate and being robbed at the Rotunda amusement park, these trips always involved a visit to Canterbury “because that’s where all the shops are”… or were.
Driving into the town, I would get preternaturally excited about the massive video shop as we passed it. I could never see inside properly, only enough to make out people milling about and the shape of rows and rows and shelves and shelves of VHS tapes, but – for me – that was enough.
You need to understand, the only places I had seen videos in before were cornershops and newsagents. Alright, maybe there had been one or two dedicated rental places too, but they were usually just the first two rooms of an old house, with people still living upstairs and (more often than not) a chip shop next door. New releases were unheard of and visits generally ended with renting something I had seen many, many times before because the only other PG videos were worn-out Looney Tunes tapes and The Elephant Man.
No – this incredible place wasn’t just a video shop, it was a video supermarket. But did I ever get to go inside? No. “It’s too far out the way,” Dad would say as we drove right past it. “Why bother going in there, when we’ve got a video shop at home?” What a ridiculous thing to say. Why bother going to Alton Towers when there’s Bembom Brothers in Margate? Grown ups just don’t understand these things, and so, I never did get to look inside the big blue video shop; not until I was much older.
I wound up back in Kent for university, and being a poor student I needed a job. The fates decided that it was time to introduce Blockbuster Canterbury into my life.
Walking in for the first time, I was blown away. It was everything I always imagined it would be. In reality, I have romanticised it so much that what my brain presents isn’t actually what it was like. I remember a place with sloped floors and roped-off sections, cool neon lights on the walls and LEDs in the floor. If I focus, what was actually there was an angry bearded man grumbling about something while slapping stickers on video boxes, and a little Indian guy with long hair and a beard sitting on the counter and who said “hey dude,” when I walked by.
It doesn’t matter. All that mattered was, this was my chance to work in THE BEST PLACE IN THE WORLD. And it was.
Like any job, you eventually get fed up and start to take things for granted, but at first, it was amazing, and when I think back, I think most of my time there probably was too. I’m not much of a “people person”, so had a very low tolerance for idiot customers, but the reason I – and the rest of the staff – kept on doing our best was because of the manager.
When the store opened on March 31, 1990 the manager was Rob McInnes.
When the store closed on July 8, 2012, the manager was Rob McInnes.
Rob was the beating heart of that place. One man kept that shop together for more than two decades – literally, in more recent years, as the facade crumbled and things fell apart – and over that time, Rob has had hundreds of members of staff. Some people came and went in just a few weeks, some joined the company and stayed forever, and some of us came in, did our few years service and moved on. For all of us though, Rob was there, acting (in a strange way) as a surrogate father, and making sure that everything was ticking along in his own idiosyncratic way. From next week, Rob will be working elsewhere, at another Blockbuster; the past 22 years locked up inside the store, waiting to be torn down.
All those children wetting themselves or puking on the carpets, the air conditioner leaks, the shoplifters filling bin bags with stuff thinking we wouldn’t notice, the attempted burglaries, the arguments, the threats, the junkies leaving used needles hidden behind kids’ videos, the escaped dogs, the time Daniel Day Lewis came in, the innumerable times some super-low rate celebrities tried to blag free stuff…
Even now, I still have dreams about working there. I know there are readers right now laughing and rolling their eyes at how uneventful my waking life must be if that’s what I dream about, but you know what? They’re great dreams and I always wake up happy. I can’t quite put my finger on why that place is so special to me still. Perhaps it represents the last part of my life before being a proper grown-up started; maybe the childhood memories connected to the dad I rarely saw is a stronger link than I realised; or maybe it was just the perfect place for me to be at that point in my life.
Regardless, since leaving, I have barely visited. Most of my movies are now delivered digitally or bought for a discount price while grocery shopping. Am I part of the system that left the store – and the company – in such poor condition? Perhaps if I’d rented more then the prospect of knocking the old place down would have been laughable. “Sell the site and knock the building down? While Mike Shaw still comes in every week? Preposterous!”
They say that the physical rental industry is dying, and they’re right, but the disappearance of Canterbury Blockbuster feels premature, and the idea that the shop, Rob and his team are not going to be there any more makes me sad.
Rob, staff past and present, battered building… I salute you all.