North Phoenix Free Blockbuster stand doles out DVD, VHS movies | Phoenix New Times

There’s a Free Blockbuster in Phoenix lending DVD and VHS movies

Here's how to make it a Blockbuster night.
The Free Blockbuster kiosk outside the north Phoenix home of Thomas and Kimberly O'Hanlon.
The Free Blockbuster kiosk outside the north Phoenix home of Thomas and Kimberly O'Hanlon. Benjamin Leatherman
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North Phoenix residents Thomas and Kimberly O'Hanlon have fond memories of Blockbuster Video. Back during the height of the nationwide video rental chain’s popularity in the 2000s, the couple would pick up a movie from a nearby store on date nights.

“We’d go to the Blockbuster every week and then hit it up with Jack in the Box on the way home,” Thomas O’Hanlon says. “Back then, it was a really affordable date.”

These days, more than a decade after every Blockbuster Video location in the Valley has closed, the O'Hanlons have created their own lo-fi, DIY version of the iconic store.

Since 2021, the couple has offered a Free Blockbuster stand outside their home near 35th Avenue and Cactus Road, stocked with DVDs and VHS tapes. Made from a plastic newspaper stand and painted blue and yellow, it functions like a Little Free Library, allowing the public to borrow and return movies.

It's one of more than 200 such stands set up in cities across North America as part of the Free Blockbuster project, which is inspired by the iconic video rental chain Blockbuster Video. Each is aimed at fostering a sense of community and nostalgia.

Thomas O’Hanlon says they wanted to celebrate both.

“We wanted to do something like a Little Free Library because it brings something to the community that's also accessible and gives people entertainment,” he says.
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The exterior of a now-defunct Blockbuster Video location in Tempe in 1999.
Tempe History Museum

What’s the Free Blockbuster project?

The Free Blockbuster project was launched in 2019 in Los Angeles by film and television producer Brian Morrison, a one-time Blockbuster employee who transformed abandoned newspaper stands into public video libraries.

Later that year, Free Blockbuster locations began popping up throughout California before spreading to other U.S. cities. By 2020, stands were available in states from Washington to West Virginia. Currently, there are more than 200 Free Blockbusters across North America, as well as the U.K. and Australia.

There’s also been a renewed interest in the project over the past few months after an article appeared in the New York Times earlier this year.

What’s the appeal? Nostalgia for Blockbuster Video and the '90s and 2000s is part of it. At the height of the chain’s popularity, Blockbuster operated more than 9,000 locations worldwide, including dozens of stores in the metro Phoenix area.

“You could find Blockbusters everywhere,” Thomas O’Hanlon says. “They were part of a lot of people’s daily lives.”

Morrison told the New York Times that people miss the act of going to a Blockbuster store to select a movie.

“We are social animals; we want to go out into the world and engage with each other,” Morrison told the New York Times.

In recent years, there’s also been a nostalgia for physical media coupled with a growing fatigue with streaming services.

“It was nice to be able to go out and rent a movie instead of just having everything accessible from our living room with a touch of a button,” Thomas O'Hanlon says.
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Thomas and Kimberly O'Hanlon stock their Free Blockbuster stand with scary movies during Halloween.
Thomas O'Hanlon

How a Free Blockbuster stand came to Phoenix

Thomas and Kimberly O’Hanlon heard about the Free Blockbuster project and were interested in having a stand outside their home. The couple had operated a Little Free Library while living in Oregon and wanted to do something similar after moving back to Arizona in 2021.

Thomas O’Hanlon says that starting a Free Blockbuster stand was a unique way for the couple to interact with their community.

"It seemed like a fun concept and since there weren't any in Arizona yet, so we got together as a family and created one," Thomas says.

The couple signed up on the Free Blockbuster website and were sent a “welcome kit” with materials to create the stand, including stickers and a membership card. Thomas O’Hanlon says they initially stocked the stand with “a bunch of DVDs and VHS tapes” from their collection. Like any Blockbuster location, they also offered pre-packaged snacks.

“We put in a whole bunch of microwave popcorn in there and people took those,” Kimberly O’Hanlon says.

Unlike a normal Blockbuster, the O’Hanlon’s don’t charge late fees.

“We always hated those fees,” Thomas O’Hanlon says.

How the neighborhood has reacted

The couple’s Free Blockbuster stand has been embraced by their neighbors and others in the community.

“It's been nothing but a pleasant experience thus far,” Kimberly O'Hanlon says. “If I happen to be outside when people come by, they’ll say, ‘Hey, that's really awesome,’ or ‘That's cool, we’ll use it.’”

People have also contributed DVDs and VHS tapes to the stand.

“It’s become self-sustaining to where the community, when they take one movie, they’ll replace it with one of their own,” Thomas O’Hanlon says. “They’ve engaged with it and become involved in the process.”

The couple also rotates the stand’s selection of movies on a seasonal basis. (Every October, for instance, Thomas adds a collection of horror flicks.) During the hotter months of the year, though, they bring the movies inside when temperatures hit 110 degrees or more.

At the moment, the stand contains two dozen DVDs, including rom-coms like “Couples Retreat” and “Love Actually,” a variety of animated movies and such cult classics as “Interview With A Vampire.” There are also a handful of old Godzilla movies on VHS that were donated by visitors and even a CD by Australian rap-rock band A Broken Silence.

“It’s interesting how the selection has grown,” Thomas O’Hanlon says. “It started off with DVDs from our collection and now there's a combination of our stuff and things that have been donated.”

The couple’s stand is currently the only Free Blockbuster library in metro Phoenix and one of two in Arizona (Kingman retailer Big Mike's Toy Reunion began operating a stand last year). Thomas O’Hanlon hopes other locals will start their own libraries.

“It's a fun idea that gets used by communities and people who have an appreciation for films,” he says.
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