Meet the Plano Man Keeping Blockbuster Alive
PLANO – When Blockbuster opened in October 1985, David Carrera was on the front line. Well, one of the first – customer number 2027, to be exact. He still has his membership card from the original Medallion Center store, where he browsed the massive selection of VHS and Betamax tapes as a teenager.
“Back then, of course,” said Carrera, 54, “video rentals were the entertainment of the day.”
Over the next three decades, Carrera went from being a Blockbuster customer to being a worker in stores – shelving new titles, handing out recommendations and earning free rentals – to becoming a company IT employee. At the top of Blockbuster, he helped manage IT operations for more than 6,000 stores from the company’s McKinney office. He met his wife while working at the Blockbuster call center in Lake Highlands. “The level of camaraderie and family you had with the Blockbuster family, it’s infectious,” Carrera said.
Even as the advent of streaming services and video on demand spurred layoffs, downsizing and outsourcing, Carerra held firm. When Dish Network, which bought Blockbuster at an auction in 2011, announced in late 2013 that it would close all remaining company-owned stores, Carrera wasn’t quite ready for the end credits. .
About 30 Blockbuster franchisees scattered across the country have opted to stay open even after corporate support was removed. But these franchisees faced an existential problem: they needed a centralized computer system to operate. Unless these remaining Blockbusters made the considerable investment to perform a complete technological overhaul, they would have no way of doing business.
Carrera, having spent years overseeing Blockbuster Technology, saw a way to maintain his tenure a little longer – even though he knew he was on hire.
“I reached out to the remaining franchisees and said, ‘Hey, if you want to continue, I’ll support you,'” Carrera said. With no way to upgrade the already outdated software, in early 2014 he and a handful of former Blockbuster employees got together at his Plano home to cobble together a system that Carrera could use to monitor franchisees remotely. He became the owner-operator of the Carrera company, catering exclusively to the remaining Blockbuster stores.
“Blockbuster, in all these years, has never upgraded this system to a 21st century computer system,” said Alan Payne, who owned a Blockbuster franchise until 2018 and wrote a book on the rise and fall of Blockbuster, published last year. “Dave luckily had the expertise to work things out as they went.”
Since then, the number of Blockbuster stores has dropped to just one: a location in Bend, Oregon, where rafts of nostalgics make pilgrimages to take photos in front of the ticket stub sign and browse DVD shelves.
But the one store wouldn’t be able to rent a movie, redeem a coupon or use a credit card if it weren’t for Carrera who ran 1990s servers in his home office, a role he sees as “a badge of honour”. He is the last of the Dallas employees working to preserve the Blockbuster brand – a brand that, even more than a decade after its fall, still enchants cultural memory in shades of blue and yellow.
“There’s this long goodbye,” said Carrera, who also works full-time at Austin-based Trinsic Technologies. “Then it’s the challenge to maintain it.”
Carrera’s contributions to the scrappy store, he admitted, are modest. Every week he enters new titles into the system. Once in a while, when a part needs to be replaced, he ships it; knowing the franchisees would need reinforcements, he salvaged as much equipment as possible before the distribution center closed. But this technology, he said, was built to last.
“I’m literally pulling parts out of old systems, almost like a dump,” he said. “I have a limited amount of gear, and I’m shocked it’s lasted this long.”
For the most part, Sandi Harding, the latest Blockbuster maintainer in Bend, handles the day-to-day technical issues, “but once in a while there will be a critical thing where the main server goes down,” she says. These times, she calls Carrera.
Harding said she and Bend store owner Ken Tisher had discussed upgrading the systems, “but now we have the nostalgia,” she said. “When people walk in, they expect to see my IBM computers. They expect me to still have those diskettes behind the counter.
Carrera has only visited the Bend store once, last summer. “It was everything I hoped for,” he said. “It’s like time has stood still, because you walk into the store and the smell, the view, the setup, the setup – it’s exactly the same as when I visited my last store here in Dallas.”
Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, Harding said, business in Bend is doing well. When the store eventually closes, she doesn’t think it’s because of the computer systems, but “because people stopped coming and renting.” That doesn’t stop Carrera, however, from worrying about its end of the bargain.
“It’s one thing that wakes me up in the middle of the night, ‘Oh my God, what if we run out of computers?'” he said. “Well, it is what it is. It will just work until it stops working.
Either way, Carrera said, “I’m here until the end.”