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D.C. Blockbusters: Victims of Changing Times

New Video Options Spurred Closure of Stores

Tom Williams/Roll Call
The Blockbuster sign has been stripped away on Eighth Street to reveal the name of the location’s former owner. Capitol Video Sales also recently closed its Capitol Hill store.

A couple walked along Barracks Row on their way to dinner. They glanced at the store on their right. A few people could be seen through the windows, browsing merchandise on the shelves.

“I can’t believe Blockbuster is hanging on,” the man said.

“Barely,” the woman replied.

“Actually, look at those empty shelves. They may be closing down.”

And, indeed, it was.

July 13 marked the last day any Blockbuster was open in the District of Columbia. For months, locations around the city closed, from Adams Morgan to H Street. People knew that the last holdout on Eighth Street Southeast would soon rent its last movie, but that last day — weeks earlier than the expected August closure — arrived quietly.

No posters about final sales hung on the windows. No crowds showed up to take part in the four movies for $20 deal (which wasn’t really a deal at all — Blockbuster has sold movies at those prices for a while).

Even the staff seemed to accept the inevitable. One employee, who didn’t want to give his name, greeted the final customers as they walked into the store.

“Sorry, no rentals today,” he said. He then paused briefly, shaking his head as a sad smile appeared on his face. “No more rentals.”

The end is here, but it’s been a long time coming. Last September, Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy, facing competition such as Netflix, which sends movies through the mail and streams them online, and Redbox, which distributes them from cheap automated boxes.

In a twist, the last D.C. Blockbuster closed the day after Netflix announced it would raise its prices for streaming and DVD plans.

On the corporate end, this was treated as a small blessing. Blockbuster quickly sent out a release, saying the company would begin “rescuing upset Netflix customers by launching a limited time, nationwide promotion for all Netflix customers who switch to Blockbuster Total Access,” the company’s own rent-by-mail system.

But it still didn’t stop the local doors from closing and changing a way of life on the Hill.

Blockbuster is not the only video place to shut down in the city. The sign that hung there for nearly 20 years was ripped away just a couple of days later, revealing that the location was once the home of Erol’s Video Club, a now-defunct D.C. chain. Erol’s was founded in 1963 as a radio and TV repair shop, became a video rental business in 1980 and was bought by Blockbuster in 1991, according to Forbes.com.

And just a block away, signs hang in the window of what was Capitol Video Sales, which recently closed its Capitol Hill location. (Another location in Dupont Circle remains open.)

“Thanks for 34 Years,” one sign reads.

But even with the Netflix price increase and only a couple Redbox kiosks in the area (one is at the CVS on 845 Bladensburg Road NE near H Street, and the other is at the Harris Teeter on 1350 Potomac Ave. SE), some people didn’t express any nostalgia or sadness over the Blockbuster closure.

“Who would possibly miss Blockbuster shelves filled with nothing but copies of ‘Maid in Manhattan’ or dealing with a surly, judgmental clerk who smirks at you when you’re renting ‘Super Troopers’ for the third time? Or late fees? Or anything having anything to do with rental stores?” asked Chris Fitzgerald, communications director for Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.).

Another staffer tried to be a bit more poetic in his summation.

“Like the days of Politiki, the Blockbuster on Eighth is now a relic of a bygone era,” said Nathaniel Sillin, communications director for Rep. Nan Hayworth (R-N.Y.), referencing the old bar that has since been replaced by the Pour House.

Anne Marie Malecha perhaps put it the most bluntly.

“I didn’t even know they were finally closing,” the communications director for Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) said. “Netflix ruined them a long time ago. I joined in college and never looked back.”

But at least one Hill resident doesn’t know what she’s going to do now that Blockbuster is gone.

Amy Cotton returned her last movie on that last day. She said she was bummed when she heard the news because she didn’t want to pay for Netflix and knew there wasn’t a Redbox nearby.

Since moving to the neighborhood in 2008, she would visit the store at least twice a month. It was a throwback because she grew up with family days dedicated to watching rentals.

“I always thought it contributed to the culture of Barracks Row,” she said. Then she shrugged.

She slipped the DVD case into the return bin.

Fittingly, the movie was “The Way We Were.”

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