Confessions of a Blockbuster employee: “It was like living in a cult”

Featuring arson attacks, Orlando Bloom's mum and a smack den in the kids' aisle

The VHS tape is back! Yes, those bulky, black boxes that brought movie magic to millions in the olden days are enjoying somewhat of a resurgence. Nostalgia for the ’90s has led fans to set up mini-libraries on street corners and swap rare classics on the internet. One collector even drove 600 miles just to save 20,000 tapes from landfill.

It’s gooey-eyed madness, of course, but the news reminds this writer of a golden age when Friday nights after school meant “two videos and a big bag of Butterkist” from Blockbuster (for me at least). I caught up with Mike Shaw, former employee of the rental chain’s long-closed Canterbury branch, to hear about the behind-the-scenes drama that was unfolding while eight-year-old me was rifling through VHS boxes.

Elton John and Christine McVie popped in for snacks

Canterbury’s best known for cathedrals not pop stars, but that didn’t stop Elton John and Fleetwood Mac‘s Christine McVie paying Mike a visit when he was working the afternoon shift one weekend.

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“They came in and bought a shitload of popcorn and some Ben & Jerry’s,” he remembers. “Once they left, the manager from [the off-license] next door came running over and said: ‘Guess who’s just been in my shop buying all the gin?’ So, they bought a load of booze and then went: ‘Ah, we should have snacks as well.’ And came to the popcorn stand.”

Daniel Day Lewis came in to rent his own movie

Hollywood isn’t the Phantom Thread star’s kind of place, clearly, which is why he could be found in deepest darkest Kent on a dreary work night. “Daniel Day Lewis once came in to rent The Boxer, a film which he is in,” says Mike. “He was coached by a famous boxer for the role and they both came in together to watch it after it was out. It blew my mind that neither of them owned it or had seen it.” We did ask Mike who the “famous boxer” was, but he said he couldn’t reveal his identity for fear of reprisals…

Orlando Bloom’s mum rented her son’s movies

“When The Lord of the Rings first came out, Orlando Bloom’s mum would come in and ask: ‘Do you have any films by Orlando Bloom?’” remembers Mike. “He was a Canterbury boy, so they were local – and she would only rent his films. It was sweet, but after a few times of clocking who she was on the system, we decided to have a bit of fun. At the time, he’d only been in LOTR and we’d answer: ‘I’ve got no idea who you’re talking about, I’m sorry.’ Her face fell.”

Local drug users would hide needles behind the shelves

Taking your child down to borrow the latest Star Wars prequel? Watch out for cleverly hidden syringes down the back of the kids’ aisle. “We had a big problem with heroin addicts,” says Mike. “It was quiet during the day until the schools kicked out, absolutely dead. If you got those shifts and you wanted to study, turn on a GameBoy, leave or do anything you were sorted because nothing happened. But ‘undesirables’ would come in and take advantage of that. They would go into one of the far corners, which was the kids’ section. You’d find their paraphernalia and stuff on the floor, but one person decided to hide their used needles behind video boxes, so if someone reached onto the shelf to get a video? They could get pricked by needles. Thank God it never happened.”

Angry customers could sometimes get physical

“You’d get people threatening you if you refused to rent them a video,” remembers Mike. “Maybe they’d turned up with a stolen card or badly forged ID. It wasn’t super regular but you would get someone aggressive at least once a weekend. They’d try and swing for you or they’d wait outside.

“One time this guy started reaching over the counter to swing for me. Then he grabbed the computer and started swinging it around. He said: ‘I’m gonna wait for you outside.’ And I thought: ‘Alright, fine, I finish in seven hours.’ We had to call the police and as soon as they arrived, he ran off and I got a lift home, that was it.”

Shoplifters weren’t very subtle about it

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Thieves in the movies are often clever and operate in the shadows, but in real life they’re bolder and a bit more stupid. “They wouldn’t do it on a busy Saturday with a lot of people about,” says Mike. “But shoplifters would come in on a Tuesday at 11 o’clock when nothing is happening and stand with a black bin bag. They’d load up on popcorn bags and sweets, then walk out with it over their shoulder as if ‘oh this bag? this is what I came in with’.”

The drop boxes suffered arson attacks

Imagine rolling up after closing only to find you couldn’t return your copy of Bridget Jones’s Diary because, well, there were flames shooting out the drop-off letterbox. “A couple of times, someone threw a match in there and I turned up in the morning and the fire brigade had been,” says Mike. “All that was left was a pile of molten videos.”

There was always vomit, so much vomit

Blockbuster – like Wetherspoons and Odeon – is remembered for its zany carpets with ’80s style patterns. But they’re much less fun when smeared with sick. “Kids would puke regularly from eating too many sweets,” says Mike. “We had a cleaner who would come in once or twice a week, but all she really did was dust and hoover. You can’t hoover puke. So, we could be dispatched on a Saturday afternoon with a dustpan to scoop up as much of it as we could and then rub a mop over it.

“I know it doesn’t sound like it, but I do have fond memories of the place! It was a bit like living in a cult for five years…”

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