Once, long ago, I was one of those 16 year old Blockbuster clerks. And boy, do I have stories.

There was the teenage kid who had the $200 late fee, for example. His whole family came in to watch him pay it. No one said a word, everyone wore a pronounced frown, and for some reason, everyone wore black. It was like a funeral procession.


There was the old man who always gave me the stinkeye when he walked into the store, then left ten minutes later without ever renting anything. Every Sunday afternoon, like clockwork. I'm guessing he was always on his way back from church.

One day he finally spoke to me, and asked if I had a copy of some old movie whose title I forget. I looked it up and it seemed the movie was out of print on VHS, and had never been released to DVD. He responded, "Well, can you call the studio and have them make you a copy on special order?" I said that that wasn't possible. He then shouted back at me, "Don't EVER say that! Don't you ever say you can't do something for YOUR CUSTOMERS!" The last two words of his sentence were punctuated by him slamming his palm on the counter. At which point, a middle-aged woman who I assume was his daughter patted him on the shoulders and led him out of the store, looking mortified the whole time. Never saw either of them again.


My favorite Blockbuster fiasco, however, was the START program.

I might be remembering the acronym wrong. But this was Blockbuster's big response to the rise of Netflix, back when it was just a discs-by-mail service. Management's big idea was that people weren't switching to Netflix because they were sick of late fees or simply didn't want to have to drive out to Blockbuster to return movies every three days; it was OUR fault. We, the customer service clerks in the trenches, were clearly to blame.


We were being too darn friendly and chatty with the customers, they said, and that led to long lines. Yes, standing in line for five minutes was what was driving customers away. So from now on, we were no longer allowed to talk to our customers like they were human beings. We were given a script which we had to follow, EVERY SINGLE TIME.

The script had all the blandness of an automated voicemail system. It was like we were being ordered to make every customer feel like a complete stranger who had just stepped into a foreign country. Is the customer someone you recognize? Too bad. Follow the script. Are they an old friend you haven't seen in years? Follow the script. Is it your mother? Follow the script.


None of us liked the START program. But management loved it, and that was all that mattered. If you didn't follow it, you'd be replaced by someone who would. Our store's new manager was a fervent disciple of the new program. When he caught me not using it one night, he took me aside and ranted at me for half an hour about how customer service was a matter of discipline and "people never forget when you screw up! Not ever!" Eventually it segued into a rant about the time he worked at Friendly's. He kept his voice raised the whole time.

At this point in time I had worked for Blockbuster for a few years, and I was pretty sick of it. This was the last straw. I gave my two weeks, and ignored the stupid script for the time I remained there.


I came back to that store several months later, as a customer. The manager who had yelled at me was no longer there. The START program, which he had assured me was here to stay, was no longer being enforced. I was the only customer to be found.

The TV screens throughout the store were supposed to be showing a loop of company-approved commercials. Instead, they were playing Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.


"We're allowed to put on movies now?" I asked the clerk on duty, a former co-worker (saying "We" out of habit, as if I still worked there.)

"Nah," he said. "This movie's Pg-13, too. I could totally get fired for this." He was smiling.


We talked for half an hour. No one else entered the store.

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