Before the rapid rise of video streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu, moviegoers in the 1990s and early 2000s remember scouring the aisles of their neighborhood Blockbuster in search of a movie. They would take it home on a DVD – or for anyone who really goes back, a VHS tape.
Those days are long gone for the once hugely popular video rental franchise, at least officially. The last existing Blockbuster store is tucked away in a strip mall in central Oregon, 170 miles east of Portland.
But Blockbuster has returned to Valley Stream – well, sort of. Christopher Castillo may be too young, at 11, to know when videocassettes reigned supreme. But his 44-year-old father, Alfonso Castillo, definitely remembers it. And the two hope others will feel a bit of nostalgia, too, as they revive the classic viewing format by opening one of many free VHS tape libraries across the country.
The “Free Blockbuster” movement, as it is known, was started three years ago in California by Brian Morrison, a former Blockbuster employee who turned an abandoned newspaper distribution box into a collectionold tapes for anyone to borrow and lend. Since then, dozens of free Blockbusters have popped up across the country.
Like Morrison, Castillo and Alfonso repurposed an old newsstand at the corner of Cornwell and Foster Avenues, outfitting them with DVDs and VHS tapes to share with the community. Films include “The Usual Suspects”, “Gumby” and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
They were inspired to launch Nassau County’s first free Blockbuster while cooped up at home together during the coronavirus pandemic, spending their days like any classic movie-going family — watching retro movies from years 80 on VHS tapes. It was then that they decided to go back.
“It’s a way to share movies that we think are really cool,” Alfonso said. “We filled the Free Blockbuster with tapes from our own collection. And over the past two days, people have been dropping off their own movies, including a Blockbuster DVD that’s very, very old.
For Christopher, it’s about finding out more about what it was like at his age for his father.
“It’s fun to imagine yourself in the 80s,” he said. For Alfonso, it goes back to his formative years as a young adult spent scouring the aisles for the latest releases. In fact, Alfonso’s first job was at Silver Fun Video on Merrick Road, and later at Suncoast Motion Picture Co., in Green Acres Mall.
“I grew up in the 80s, I worked in a few video libraries and I was always very nostalgic for VHS tapes,” Alfonso said. “We thought it was fun, you know, partly because I live relatively close to the old Blockbuster” which is now a 7-Eleven convenience store.
“For me, I like that it’s a throwback to the days of going to the Blockbuster and renting a video on a Friday night.”
But there are no late fees at Free Blockbuster, and while a rewind might be nice, it’s not mandatory. Those who lend and borrow not only get their hands on hard-to-find movies, but they also provide a distinct source of entertainment for many people who may not have access to streaming services – or prefer to stay away from them. .
“I’m thinking even of the older people in the community who might still have (a) VCR in their house, that might be the last piece of technology that they really relate to and understand,” Alfonso said. But those without a VCR will still have to go through the installation of a special converter box to get these tapes to work on their modern smart TV.
Not Alfonso and Castillo, however. They prefer the traditional VCR.
“We have one in every room of the house,” Alfonso said.
But the two are no strangers to new technologies. They even have a YouTube channel, “The Heavenly ’80s”, where they discuss movies from that decade that they’ve watched and enjoyed.
The free Blockbuster is going strong, but there’s still nothing quite like the original. And Alfonso and Castillo are already planning their next retro adventure: visiting this latest blockbuster from across the country.
For Alfonso, it will be worth it. “It will be like stepping into a time machine.”