Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Justin Trickel’s name.
Tourists from the Lower 48 who come to Soldotna to fish or hike sometimes find themselves surprised by a less-expected feature of the local landscape — Soldotna’s Blockbuster Video, one of the Alaskan remnants of the once-ubiquitous rental chain that survived its parent company’s 2010 bankruptcy and competition from rental kiosks and online streaming to become among the last in the U.S. The Soldotna Blockbuster’s Facebook page is full of tourist selfies taken in front of its blue and yellow sign or in its aisles of DVDs, accompanied by nostalgic exclamations.
“Every year we were getting tourists pulling into the parking lot, being surprised we’re here,” said Soldotna Blockbuster manager Justin Trickel. “Taking pictures outside, coming in and taking pictures, and saying ‘I haven’t been in a Blockbuster in years!’ And we’d say, ‘Yeah, we’re still here.’”
Open since 1994, the Soldotna Blockbuster had its last day of movie rentals Sunday. At noon on Tuesday it will open its doors again to sell off its DVDs and merchandise — up to and including the shelves.
Though slow internet connections in many local homes made Blockbuster a viable alternative to streaming, and it could compete with rental kiosks by getting in-demand movies faster, Kevin Daymude, general manager of all Alaskan Blockbuster locations, said the general economic downturn of the last few years has been harder to beat.
“The big thing is the economy has changed so much,” Daymude said. “Technology is obviously a huge thing, people can do more streaming and all of that, but in a lot of outlying places you can’t get that data — it costs you an arm and a leg. But the people coming in just don’t have the money they used to to spend on entertainment … People are still renting, but they’re just not renting as much.”
When Kenai’s Blockbuster shut its doors in March 2016, there were nine locations in Alaska. Now the only ones that remain are in Fairbanks and Anchorage. Daymude said the only Lower 48 locations he knows of are in Oregon, which he said had three Blockbusters until two closed in March.
After Blockbuster’s 2010 bankruptcy, the stores that stayed open were those managed by franchises that licensed the name — in Alaska’s case, the Canadian company Border Entertainment. Daymude said Alaskan Blockbusters survived not just because of different local market conditions, but also because their franchise owners were able to make different business decisions — particularly, Daymude said, opting out of the company’s 2004 decision to stop charging late fees.
“We weren’t committed to the doing same things, promotion-wise, that Blockbuster did themselves,” Daymude said.
Of the Soldotna Blockbuster’s six employees, three had previously worked at the Kenai location, including Trickel, who’s been with the company for 10 years. Trickel said many of the store’s customers were regulars who got to know the staff. They were reacting to its closure with mixed feelings.
“They’re glad we’re going to be selling everything, but they’re sad we’re having to sell everything,” he said.