Sunday | April 26, 2015
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Big Island’s last Blockbuster goes bust

Emily Hirayama opened the Blockbuster store at Prince Kuhio Plaza in 1991. Now, 22 years later, the Blockbuster manager will be closing the video rental store.

The Hilo store is one of 300 Blockbusters nationwide that parent company DISH Network announced it is closing this week, leaving the Big Island without a Blockbuster. DISH Network shuttered its Kona Blockbuster store in 2011 in an earlier round of closings for the bankrupt movie and game rental chain.

Hirayama and her staff of eight will be out of work when the store closes March 24. She said the Hilo store was profitable but nearing the end of its lease, prompting the corporate decision to close.

“It’s sad,” she said. “We’re just going on day-to-day. There is a lot that we still don’t know.”

Hirayama said the store was a franchise when it opened, then it was purchased back by Blockbuster in 1996. Two years ago, Blockbuster was acquired by the satellite TV firm DISH Network after Blockbuster declared bankruptcy.

Now Hirayama’s customers, especially those without Internet connections at home, are asking where they can rent movies and games. Most major grocery and drug stores have kiosks or vending machines where customers can rent DVDs but can’t examine the information on the covers.

Angel Hiatt of Keaau was perusing what was available at Blockbuster on Thursday when she learned it will close. It’s “horrible to hear,” she said. “I’m so sad about that.” Hiatt uses Blockbuster’s online site to order videos she can take to the store to exchange. “I guess I’ll have to send them back myself,” she said.

“Video movies are our only real entertainment at night,” Hiatt said. “What do you do here? TV is more commercials than anything else. Movies are what I like to watch.”

Hiatt has tried online streaming but doesn’t have the bandwidth to make it work well. “Everything goes in and out,” she said. Hiatt said Blockbuster’s closing “is very, very sad, just like the bookstores. What a shock.”

Elijah Mahaulu of Hilo said he sometimes rents videos at Blockbuster because he doesn’t have cable, but it’s his “papa,” a more frequent renter, who’s “kinda bummed.” Mahaulu said he’ll just have to find a Red Box rental kiosk.

Video streaming technology, once thought to be too complicated for most consumers, has played a major role in the demise of DVD rentals. Streaming video companies like Netflix have been strong competitors in the industry, while Red Box kiosks — basically DVD vending machines — have also taken a bite out of Blockbuster’s business.

As a result, video rental stores are now as rare as public phone booths. Blockbuster’s Kona store closed in 2011; its Waimea store also closed. Alpha Video moved out of Puainako Town Center sometime in 2012 and could not be reached for comment.

The Wahiawa Blockbuster store on Oahu is the second one identified for closure in Hawaii in the latest round of announced closings, leaving only three stores remaining in the state — two on Oahu and one on Maui. DISH Network did not name the stores, but employees have reported the closings.

Nationwide, the closures will affect about 3,000 employees and leave about 500 stores in the U.S., the DISH Network announcement said. The company closed 500 Blockbuster locations across the country in 2012. Blockbuster will continue to offer video streaming on its website, as well as its DVD-by-mail service.

Kimberly Shimabuku, general manager of Prince Kuhio Plaza, said in an email that Blockbuster’s lease has already expired and that PKP has not yet been formally notified that Blockbuster is leaving. However, a new lease is “out for signature” with a new tenant for the 6,000-square-foot space. The tenant was not identified.

Meanwhile, Hirayama isn’t sure what she’ll do upon becoming unemployed in Hilo, where jobs are scarce. But she’s proud of the job she’s done at Blockbuster for the past 22 years.

“I opened the store and I’m going to close it,” she said.