Confessions Of A Blockbusters Employee

Join me in my front row seat to watch the final days of a collapsing industry...
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Join me in my front row seat to watch the final days of a collapsing industry...

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As an underpaid and underachieving writer, I have often found myself having to find part-time or temporary work in order to supplement my pitiful income. All the noble ‘starving artist’ crap goes out of the window when you’re down to your last tin of beans and you’re smoking the tabs out of the ashtray.

For some reason, I’ve always drifted into jobs within the retail and service sector. Over the years I’ve worked in bars, restaurants, casinos and shops. It’s funny, because I actively despise people. The general public have a habit of turning into psychopaths when they feel as though their consumer rights are being violated. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of being insulted and threatened by a disgruntled customer on the eve of your latest book release. “It’s disgusting, how can you sleep at night selling this kind of crap you bastard?” they snarl, while you apologise and try to explain that you didn’t have anything to do with the manufacture of the product that they have just slammed down onto the counter.

Anyway, when my nosey and smug peers grill me on what I do for a living in addition to writing, I always leap to the defence of whatever my latest minimum-wage job is with something along the lines of: “I can people watch, ok? You get to meet and talk to all kinds of characters. Underpaid, unfulfilling work always gives me great ideas.”

At the moment, I work part-time for a retail-chain of what was once referred to (back when VHS ruled the Earth) as ‘video-shops’. For younger readers, video-shops were places where people would go to rent films. In person. On video-tape. Yeah, I know, how quaint… I won’t name the company I work for, just in case my boss happens to see this article. All I’ll say is that this particular retail chain was recently the subject of a South Park parody.

It’s Blockbuster, ok? There I’ve said it. You can stop laughing now.

As reported yesterday, Blockbuster has gone into administration, the latest in a succession of high-street retailers that so far includes HMV, Comet and Jessops. Around 4, 000 staff at 528 stores around the country now face the very real prospect of redundancy.

The first Blockbuster store in Britain opened in 1989, at the height of the home video boom, but began to struggle at the turn of the millennium after Blockbuster US went bankrupt. It was bailed out by US pay-TV provider Dish Network in a $320m (£200m) deal, but in a story that is sure to be repeated many times over the next few months, has continued to struggle to adapt to an ever-changing market.

So all this means I’m getting a front row seat to the spectacle of the final days of a collapsing industry. It’s a bit like being a print journalist I suppose. I get to man the decks as the ship goes down. In years to come I’ll be able to spin yarns about DVD versus Blu-Ray as my grandchildren ignore me and stare into their virtual reality headsets at the latest re-release of Star Wars.

One of the only reasons the store I work has managed to hang on is that it’s situated in what could be considered a low-income area, so people are less-likely to have a decent internet connection, and the sort of devices required to access all the wonderful opportunities presented by Netflix, LoveFilm and illegal downloading.

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Over the past couple of years, perhaps the biggest generator of profit is the sale and exchange of pre-owned games and films. Essentially, I’ve been working in a kind of multi-media pawnshop. Once the customers have finished with their film or game, they can trade it in towards store-credit, or a much lower amount of cash. The games/films are then sold on. There is a big push towards selling pre-owned products over new items, as second-hand sales make far more profit for the company than new sales, much to the chagrin of film-makers and game-producers, who see little, if any, of this money.

What I have noticed over the past couple of months, is that these transactions are increasingly becoming a one-way street. For example, Christmas saw an increase in trade-ins for cash as skint families ditched all their unwanted goods in order to raise funds for the festive period, the result of which was a huge back-log of stock that wouldn’t shift and inevitably became the focus of the big New Year sale.

The writing’s on the wall. Even video-games, currently the cornerstone of sales for a number of different retailers, are looking set to follow the download/subscription model that has been adopted by the music and film industry.

Although the higher-ups and management are putting on a brave front as they try to find a buyer, it’s becoming clear that it’s only a matter of time before I hang up my CSR (Customer Sales Representative, I’ll have you know) badge for good. As more and more people gain the facilities to access all their entertainment needs online, the lowly retail-worker will find themselves as antiquated and obsolete as the physical formats that they used to flog.

It’s a shame, because very often that person behind the counter is the last-line of defence between the consumer and all the commercial shite that gets churned out. Last year, I made it my mission to turn people off dross like Battleship and Men in Black III and point them in the direction of something like Kill-List or Wild Bill. Maybe it’s just early onset nostalgia, but I still have fond memories of when a trip to the local video-shop on a weekend was a rare treat, and I loved wandering around and looking at all the cases for the new releases. I’ll never forget the excitement of when I finally got to watch Gremlins or Rocky III after waiting patiently for the store’s copies to be returned.

As a final note, in the run-up to the UK release of Django Unchained, let’s not forget that the majority of Quentin Tarantino’s early output was written while working as a video-store clerk, and he has often cited that experience as being one of the main inspirations for his directorial career. Actually, I’m not allowed to forget that fact – I’m reminded of it every time I piss and moan about the indignity of having to work for a living.

So let’s raise a glass to toast the passing of the video-shop. Now excuse me while I scan the ads for bar-work. At least you can’t download booze…

Joe Hakim's new collection of poetry will be available later this year from Burning Eye Books