More to loss of Blockbuster-like stores than what may appear on the surface

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Reflections from my Notebook

The announcement that two Blockbuster Video stores in Alaska are closing sparked a lot of media reports about the lone remaining store of the chain, which once boasted 9,000 nationwide in 2004, 19 years after the first store opened. The only store now open is in Bend, Oregon.

Although no Blockbuster stores ever located in the small cities of our area, Spring Valley once had an independently owned video store as did some other area communities. Even if no video store was present, grocery and convenience stores in most small towns carried an inventory of tapes and DVDs to rent.

The independent stores are long gone and the inventories in the other stores have been discontinued. Redbox video vending kiosks, or a similar service, are all that remain in our area, mostly in the same grocery and convenience stores that once had their own inventory.

The closing of the small city video stores was likely due to not a large enough market, something that has doomed many businesses in rural areas. However, the problem for stores in larger communities started with competition when Netflix began mailing movies to homes. The threat then changed to technology as most people now stream movies to watch.

The store in Bend is defying that trend as business is still thriving.

“The social interaction you get — face-to-face talking to people, not having your nose in your phones — I think that’s what you find coming into a Blockbuster store,” general manager Sandi Harding told NBC news.

That’s a common sentiment when technology replaces a pastime, even if that pastime merely involved an older technology. Convenience and immediacy may be gains, but the human touch always suffers in these types of transformations.

There is something to be said about family members strolling the aisles aimlessly, checking out the backs of the case to read a synopsis of the film or actually talking to a human clerk about recommendations. It may be easier to go online to see how many stars a film received, but the process just seems unfulfilling at times.

Those who lament the transition to convenience over the human experience may be surprised to find there is something else missing with the disappearance of video stores.

It would seem the changes in video distribution would lead to more movies to choose from as the internet brings people a global inventory while Redbox kiosks, which launched in 2002 and are now the predominant retailer for video rentals, provide another option. That’s not the case, though.

Kate Hagen, a writer with Black List, an online site for screenwriters that includes a blog on films, noted that even the largest Redbox machine only holds around 600 discs, covering 200 titles — “no match for even a tiny video store.”

The choices online are also limited, even through Netflix, the largest such service. Since 2010, the total number of feature films available to stream on Netflix has dropped from 6,755 to 3,686 as the company focuses more on television shows.

The reduction in movie inventory didn’t eliminate just obscure titles. Many popular movies are no longer available.

For example, people who like older movies are out of luck. Hagen found that Netflix only offers three titles from the 1950s available to stream. Most movies available to stream are from within the past 10 years.

Other movies aren’t available online due to music licensing issues or changes in ownership of studios and other business decisions. When video stores were common, the stores purchased the titles and kept them in their inventories forever, no matter what happened in the corporate world.

Although some online streaming services have started up to cater to specialty films, such as art house or classic titles, Hagen argues there are disadvantages when the online inventory becomes splintered because people may not bump into interesting movies by chance like they would in a video store.

Although Hagen laments the current state of film availability, she does see promise of independent video stores taking hold in certain markets. The trend is similar to vinyl record stores that have started even though most music is streamed these days, and independent bookstores, an alternative to large retailers and Kindle.

“The joy of spontaneous discovery, of getting a recommendation from someone that really pays off, of remembering where you were in the world the time you found the thing  —  your thing  —  is likely to be more meaningful when it happens offline,” she wrote.

While streaming, instant media and robust digital content will continue to grow in the next 10 years, said Hagen, there will also be a reaction to that culture and “folks will begin to crave in-person experiences once again.”

Or, as Eric Allen Hatch, a founding member of a Baltimore video collective, told her: “While the internet promised instant availability of everything at your fingertips, the reality is very different.”

We are finding that is very true in many other areas of society where technology promises a more efficient, cutting-edge process, but eventually we discover something important is lost.