I’m sure everyone remembers their first job, and their first boss.
Mine was at Blockbuster. From a very young age, I had fallen in love with movies, and when it came time to getting a paycheck, I knew I either wanted to work at the movie theater or the movie store. The former didn’t hire me when I interviewed, but when I came into the Blockbuster store near my childhood home, Julie did.
I can’t tell you how much I loved that store, and that job. Despite only getting paid minimum wage- at the time, something around $5- it was the only job I’ve ever had that I didn’t mind having to be at. Even when I became an assistant store manager- making roughly $7 an hour even after the minimum wage increased- I loved it. Had it not closed (and had I not needed more money coming in each week), I often wonder if I’d still be working there.
It was a fun job; mostly we rang up customers and restocked the shelves with returned movies, and when it was slow we cleaned the store. As with any retail job, customers could be trying at times- on occasion, we’d have to argue with someone that a restocking fee of $1.21 was very different from a late fee of $4.50 (this was when we “had no late fees”; to set the record straight, we only charged the restocking fee when the customer returned the movie between 10–30 days past the due date, whereas late fees were charged for every extra rental cycle the movie was kept, which for new releases was every 2 days), and a few times we’d have to explain why we didn’t carry VHS anymore (this was in the mid-2000s, on the verge of Blu-ray’s release), but more often than not, I enjoyed my time there.
I enjoyed seeing the regular customers, people who sometimes would see me in the grocery store and ask me what new movies were out because they knew I was the “Blockbuster guy”. Even years later, I remember some of them vividly, like the guy who always came in through the exit (through doors that didn’t have handles on the outside) and joke that we made it “so hard to get into the store”. He would then proceed to talk to us and solve a Rubik’s Cube while his wife looked for a movie. But what was really fun about it was spending time with other movie-loving people, both customers and coworkers, and finding that common interest. I remember when a customer would bring up one of my favorite movies, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell them that they were renting something special.
I made lasting friendships there; one of my old coworkers is also going to be a groomsman at my wedding, as I was at his (along with another former Blockbuster coworker of ours). Another has been a sounding board for my book ideas for years (and I for his), and to this day, years after our Blockbuster closed and became a Verizon store, we still reminisce and discuss the latest movies just like we did while we were working.
But the person who brought us all together was Julie.
She was the store manager when I started in 2005, and she remained the store manager until the store was closed a few years later. Of all the Blockbusters in my small hometown of Roanoke, Virginia, ours was the only one that never changed hands; while all of the other stores seemed to run through managers, Julie was ever-present at the Electric Road store.
Julie ran a tight ship; it was the only store without working cameras, and yet the store with the least amount of theft, and though it was mostly run by high-school-aged teens, Julie made sure that we had a proper work ethic and kept the store presentable; you never knew when the district manager was on her way. And if anything was out of place, don’t you worry, Julie would tell you; despite the store not opening until 10 am, she would often get there around 6 or 7 and even if I’d closed the night before (we closed at midnight and often stayed until 1 or 2 in the morning), she wouldn’t hesitate to call me to fuss about the windows not being wiped down or the movies not being straightened on the shelf.
That wasn’t to say she was mean; far from it- just as often as she would wake me up to fuss about something I did, she would call to fuss about someone else or just to talk about the latest books and movies we were into. And even if she was fussing at me, it always felt intended to be a learning moment, and as soon as she’d said her peace, she’d say nothing more about it and move on to other things. She cared about her store- and her staff- and it showed in every conversation with her. Yeah, it might have just been a movie rental store, one of hundreds at the time, but the way Julie cared for her store- and the way she taught us to care for it too- made it feel like it belonged to us. It might have been a movie rental store, but it was our movie rental store.
It was because of how Julie ran our store that whenever another nearby Blockbuster was in trouble, they’d come to us to fix it. Julie was brought in several times to help fix a struggling store, and every now and then they would ask us assistant managers to step in at other stores to fill shifts or help out because they knew that if we were trained by Julie, we’d undergone “Blockbuster boot camp” and would get it done right.
Julie also seemed to embrace the idea of having fun at work; she allowed us to play movies on the display TVs instead of the trailer tapes that we were sent (it had to be G or PG rated and preferably animated or without any language or blood, in case kids came into the store), she let me use my laptop to write in the manager’s office when we were slow (as long as I hid it when the district manager came in), and though she never let on that she knew of it, I suspect that she allowed my friends and myself to play what we’d call “Blockbuster Warfare”, where we’d take rubber bands and the locks that went into the DVD boxes and shoot them at each other when the store was empty. And Julie herself would often bring one of her Chocolate Labradors into the store to hang out.
It was because of the atmosphere that Julie created for her store that I never minded having to come in. I would come in on my days off when one of my friends was closing the store and just hang out for hours, and they would do the same during my shifts. We would hang out in the store hours after closing, too, just talking and watching movies. And the friends I had at work easily became the people I hung out with outside of work, too; I remember Julie making “Blockbuster Reserved” signs out of the inserts we used in the DVD boxes so that we could save our seats at the movie theater when the majority of the store’s staff went to see the midnight premiere of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince- the theater didn’t allow people to reserve seats, but Julie didn’t care, she wanted us all to sit together (and I think we took up an entire row and a half).
Some of the friends I made working at that store will be my best friends for the rest of my life. The memories of working in that store are some of the best work memories I have; I’ve even still got my old Blockbuster shirts hanging in my closet. I’ve got my name tag sitting on my movie shelf (a shelf that is full of movies labeled “Blockbuster Previously Viewed”). I’ve still got my lanyard for the hanging nametags we used to wear (and about a dozen of those that I can use for wallets when I need a new one, among a few other items that I collected before the store went away). I loved movies before I worked there, but they became a part of who I am because of that store.
And that was because of Julie. Her hiring me to work at Blockbuster changed my life in many unforeseen and lasting ways. She was the matriarch of our Blockbuster family.
I just learned that Julie passed away this week. Since the store closed, and since I moved out of state, I’ve remained in touch, but not as often as I would have liked to. Every now and then, we would message each other on Facebook about the latest movies, or she would send me pictures of her kids, the latest pictures showing that her two children were finishing up reading Harry Potter for the first time, a franchise that we both shared a deep love for (her Chocolate Lab was named Gryffindor, after all).
In fact, she’d just messaged me a couple of weeks ago to ask my opinion on similar books that her kids should read next (as anyone who knows me should know that I’m always prepared to recommend a good book) and to suggest that we start a Blockbuster employee YouTube channel where we all get together to discuss the latest movies and talk about our old jobs. It sounded like a good idea when she mentioned it, but now… now I really want to find a way to make it work.
Julie was the kind of boss that anyone should want to have. She was strict when she needed to be and could be picky about things being done properly, and she wouldn’t hesitate to call someone out if they did something wrong. But she was also kind and fun, and stood up for her employees and protected us like we were her own kids; she wouldn’t take shit from any customers and defended us when someone had a complaint and she knew we were in the right. She was invested in our lives and stayed in contact with many of us years after the store was gone. Blockbuster made a family out of a lot of us, and we were Julie’s family.
She was also the kind of friend anyone would want to have. I’m sad that I didn’t stay in touch with her as often as I have with some of my other Blockbuster family, but I’m grateful that we did stay in touch, and that we had a lengthy conversation just two weekends ago. And even if I was bad at staying in touch, she never forgot to stay in touch with me, through the years and until the very end.