Dayna Balough, Contributing Writer
From the candy-filled aisles to giant buckets of popcorn, renting movies at Blockbuster used to be the highlight of anyone’s weekend in the ’90s and early 2000s. Now, four “Free Blockbuster” locations in Richmond seek to reinvigorate that nostalgia through its “take a movie, leave a movie” concept.
In 2018, California resident Brian Morrison said he noticed old abandoned newspaper stands were going to waste in Los Angeles. After repainting and repurposing them, Morrison stocked local boxes with DVD and VHS tapes, creating a system of free movie rentals and exchanges for the Los Feliz neighborhood.
“The first box was started as a way to breathe new life into abandoned LA Times newspaper boxes here in California,” Morrison said in an email interview. “We have Little Free Libraries, why not little Free Blockbusters?”
As the boxes became more popular and widespread, Morrison said he noticed a variety of media within each individual box.
“VHS and DVD are the most common formats for home motion picture viewing but we have all kinds of media at Free Blockbuster,” Morrison said. “We’ve had vinyl records in our Los Angeles boxes, one box in Pennsylvania had a reel of 16mm film — I’m told Oakland has all kinds of things.”
The thrill of discovering something new is what originally fueled Morrison’s idea, he said. As participation increased, it became the catalyst for the Free Blockbuster movement.
“Feedback from each individual community has been overwhelmingly positive,” Morrison said. “People who see them online for the first time think it’s a great idea and want to know how to get one in their area. Our answer is, ‘build one!’”
After hearing about the Free Blockbuster concept last May, Richmond resident Nathan Ellis created the first Free Blockbuster stand on the East Coast, located at the corner of 27th and Marshall streets in Church Hill.
“I had been laid off early in the pandemic,” Ellis said in an email interview. “I wanted to use my sudden amount of free time to create something fun and positive for the community at a time when just about everyone needed any reason at all to smile.”
Old and unused newspaper stands are common where Ellis resides, and revitalizing each box can take up to a few days before it is opened to the public. Ellis said he tries to keep the boxes as stocked with as much media variety as possible, occasionally incorporating snacks as well.
“We like to occasionally stock our locations with boxes of movie theater candy and individual bags of microwave popcorn too when we have a little extra money to buy some,” Ellis said. “Nothing is better than picking out a movie and grabbing some Sour Patch Kids or Reese Pieces and popcorn to enhance your home viewing experience!”
In a digital age with ample streaming service providers, Ellis highlighted the power of nostalgia when it came to media.
“We have found that most people get really nostalgic for the tactile experience of browsing and handling physical media,” Ellis said. “There is an entire generation of people who are growing up without that tactile experience, and we hope that we can bring some of that magic back.”
Jon Hawkins, another Richmond resident, recently contributed to a Free Blockbuster box and donated the “Alien” movie series.
“Free Blockbuster is great since you’re limited in selection. If you’re overwhelmed by endless options you have a limit,” Hawkins said in an Instagram direct message. “It feels more engaging when tangible for some odd reason. I’m more attentive under those circumstances.”
Hawkins said the restaurants and stores near the Free Blockbuster box in Church Hill add to the experience.
“There’s a record shop, pizza shop, barber, bakery, and burger place all right next to the box,” Hawkins said. “You can do a lot on the block and I’m usually dropping off and picking up food which is great.”
With the one-year anniversary of Free Blockbuster’s presence in Richmond approaching next month, Ellis is looking forward to adding new locations around the city, and hosting a giveaway.
“Meanwhile, we will continue to maintain the boxes and stock them when we can,” Ellis said. “It’s also up to YOU and the community too — Free Blockbuster is for everyone!”