Blockbuster-themed newspaper boxes are now found in Covington and Northside, filled with old video games, VHS tapes and DVDs that are free for the taking. A third box is expected shortly in Clifton. Whether you keep the media, return it to the box after you’re done or even bring some old tapes of your own to donate, there’s no threat of late fees these days.
The blue-and-yellow boxes are not officially connected to the slain multibillion dollar movie rental titan Blockbuster, which mainly exists as a brand name after the 2013 closure of its last 300 locations (save for the famed “Last Blockbuster” in Oregon). Blockbuster had 9,000 retail stores at its peak. Free Blockbuster, which has requested a license to use the franchise trademark, is responsible for around 35 free boxes across the country. The repurposed newspaper boxes are decorated and stocked by volunteers — similar to Little Free Libraries — partially in order to celebrate the unique experience video rental shops like Blockbuster offered in the 1980s and ’90s.
“I think the beauty of this and why it's important is because we have only streaming services and we kind of freeze up because there is so much media we could consume that we almost don't know what to pick,” says Greater Cincinnati’s Free Blockbuster manager/franchisee Shadow Woolf. “I think it's really great to give someone a limited amount of stuff to choose from — you don't have to just sit and sift through things for an hour. You can take a glance and go, ‘Oh, I haven't watched Moonrise Kingdom in a while. I haven't seen Gremlins in years,’ and you can pick that up and have a fun night.”
Woolf is an artist and when he’s not thrifting for more titles to restock the boxes or working as a motion graphics artist for Pure Romance, he creates esoteric action figures of pop culture characters, like Doctor Scott from Rocky Horror Picture Show and local billboard icon Blake “The Attorney” Maislin. Along with the figures, Woolf makes custom VHS sleeves for movie and TV titles like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Stranger Things.
“Prior to the boxes in Cincinnati, the closest (one) was in Detroit. I really wanted to check one out and I kept kind of waiting to see if someone was going to make one here in Cincy, then I realized, why don't I do it? I know how to do all this,” Woolf says. “I have way too many VHS tapes and DVDs and a lot of duplicates that I'll just pick up thrifting. So, it made sense.”
Already well stocked with movies from his personal collection, Woolf’s first step was to get hold of the newspaper boxes. While many of these can be found across the city, filled with empty beer cans and junk food wrappers, Woolf insisted the boxes be obtained honestly and legitimately. A business owner told Woolf the boxes outside their shop hadn’t been maintained for years and he was welcome to clear the sidewalk of them. Woolf took them home, cleaned them up and painted them Blockbuster blue and yellow.
Woolf connected with two businesses in the area that were sensible hosts for Free Blockbusters: Earth to Kentucky art and toy shop in Covington and Northside’s Arcade Legacy: Bar Edition. Both were natural decisions based on their wares and clientele (Woolf also manages Arcade Legacy’s social media and sells his figures at Earth to Kentucky.) If you’re looking for the Northside box, it’s inside Arcade Legacy: Bar Edition, conveniently next to the Stranger Things pinball machine; Earth to Kentucky’s is outside the shop.
“I’m putting them in places with the hope that the people that are already going to be there are the same ones that will be excited to see something like this, whether it's people going to Earth to Kentucky who are into retro toys and old school stuff, or obviously, at the (arcade bar), those fit,” Woolf says.
Free Blockbuster is an organization whose stated mission is to combat the myth of scarcity by providing free entertainment to as many people as possible. And similar to the aforementioned Little Free Libraries, the boxes also help upcycle media that might otherwise make its way to the landfill.
“I have in my personal collection, I think about 400 VHS tapes. And I picked up my first one as an adult a year ago,” Woolf says. “I was at a toy store and I saw Pee-wee's Big Adventure. I’m a big Pee-wee Herman guy. It was still in the plastic, for five bucks. I picked that up and just stared at it. And I thought, you know, I miss having VHS tapes. I'm 26, we grew up with tapes and then, all of a sudden, they were all gone. Like really fast. I didn't realize how much I would miss that.”
Nostalgia for a time we perceived to be simpler is more prevalent than ever. First-page millennials are now entering their 40s, while the back chapters are just old enough to drink, so pop culture heavily revolves around this demographic. And it’s not surprising that Blockbuster holds such a special place in so many hearts, millennial and beyond, as it was the primary source for much of America’s cinematic consumption for decades.
“I think being at home and having to entertain yourself (during the pandemic), everyone kind of became little kids again for like a year. You had to remember, how did I have fun and stay entertained at home before?” Woolf says. “The last time you did that you were probably a kid. And I think everyone reverted back to being kids and teenagers for a while. Yes, it was a horrible time. But then I think that was kind of a cool, weird benefit that none of us ever thought we would have. I know I fell into it hard, as you can see (with these Free Blockbusters).”
And just like your last trip to an actual Blockbuster, it may have been a while since you’ve heard this relevant reminder: Be kind and rewind before you return any borrowed tapes.
Earth to Kentucky is located at 836 Main St., Covington; Arcade Legacy: Bar Edition is located at 3929 Spring Grove Ave., Northside. Follow @freeblockbustercincinnati for more info and updates, or freeblockbuster.org.