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Blockbuster's Self-Inflicted Tragedy Is Our Loss

PORTLAND, Ore. ( TheStreet) -- Blockbuster Video is dead and few will outright mourn its passing. It crushed independent competitors, smothered its customer base in late fees and choked out variety for the sake of lining its walls with as many questionable new releases as possible.

It won't be missed by many, but the experience around it will.

There was a time long before the company's 2010 bankruptcy and its 2011 buyout by DISH Network (DISH - Get Report) when going to Blockbuster wasn't an exercise in misery and anachronism. I got my Blockbuster card the same year I got my driver's license -- roughly the same year Blockbuster was purchased by Viacom (VIA.B), for what it's worth -- and immediately used the latter to make the most of the former at the nearest Blockbuster in Nutley, N.J. That Blockbuster opened in the former location of a men's clothing store along the main drag on Franklin Avenue and had a remarkable, unorthodox layout featuring new releases, video games, food, magazines, posters and used and new videos for sale on the top floor. A curved staircase near the store's front entrance swept down into a dungeon of older films organized by genre, with a hole in the center looking up into the store above.

Amid the 2-for-1 rentals and myriad boxes of Mike and Ikes were customers from the far reaches of a one-town radius, including my old teachers, friends from grammar school and kids I worked with at the nearby Shop-Rite. It wasn't exactly country-store friendly, but it was one of the few ways you got to see everyone outside of school or work and get a glimpse into their lives. You could judge their Steven Segal movies and romantic comedies, but they judged Police Academy and Dick Tracy rentals just as harshly. Occasionally, there was even common ground or a solid recommendation -- I wouldn't have seen early Hong Kong action movies if a friend hadn't put A Better Tomorrow and City On Fire in my hands during a trip there in the early '90s.

When I moved to Weehawken, N.J., after college, my nearest Blockbuster was a location in the center of Hoboken on its main thoroughfare of Washington Street -- just a few blocks down from the legendary and recently defunct rock club Maxwell's. At that time, Blockbuster created more parking trouble along Washington than Maxwell's ever did with its shows and the display of double and triple parking that occurred on the curb just outside its doors became a magnet for gripes, fights and increased parking ticket quotas in the years that followed.

Even in a town teeming with bars on every other block and restaurants from one end of Washington Street to the other, Blockbuster was a grand common area. You, your neighbors and friends may have been united only in your hatred of the store's long checkout lines and the blissful ignorance of its staff -- who seemed to lack even basic knowledge of the films they were renting -- but it was something you experienced together. You pulled cheap, if scratchy, selections from the used DVD bin each Christmas and bumped into each other after store hours trying to sneak overdue rentals into the Quik Drop. It wasn't a great experience, but it was a collective one.

It's also what's most frustrating about watching Blockbuster go. In the years just before the arrival of Netflix (NFLX - Get Report), Blockbuster made those experiences so absolutely miserable that that it made people retreat from its stores and ones like it altogether. It reduced the video store's interpersonal experience to such a low denominator that companies including Netflix and Amazon (AMZN) not only felt the need to develop algorithms that could recommend movies, television shows and other forms of visual entertainment based on a user's preferences and viewing patterns, but found great success doing so.
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