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Blockbuster Returns (Kinda!) to the Bay Area

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a refurbished news stand is displayed with old VHS tapes and DVDs inside
Free Blockbuster is a nationwide movement that has just arrived in downtown Benicia. (Courtesy Thomas Brungardt)

In the summer of 1999, Deep Blue Sea was released as a top-budget action blockbuster, wherein Samuel L. Jackson (spoiler alert) gets devoured by a ravenously brain-enhanced shark. It’s not the kind of cinema that garners awards; for most, the movie is now forgotten in the streaming age of endless new content.

But Deep Blue Sea is exactly the sort of faint cinematic memory that Benicia resident Thomas Brungardt is hoping to add to his vintage VHS tape collection. With roughly 450 VHS tapes between him and his business partner, Tony Bernasconi, the duo sells old, odd films at Pocket Monkey Vintage in downtown Benicia.

Now, they’re taking their cinephile nostalgia to the next level by launching Benicia’s first and only Free Blockbuster neighborhood kiosk.

a refurbished news stand is displayed with old VHS tapes and DVDs inside with the two creators standing beside it
Thomas Brungardt (left) and Tony Bernasconi refurbished a donated newsrack and turned it into a community exchange program for VHS tapes and DVDs. (Courtesy Thomas Brungardt)

On April 1, Brungardt and Bernasconi launched the community lending program by installing a refurbished newsrack on First Street in front of Pocket Monkey Vintage. The outdoor newsrack, donated by the city’s 121-year-old newspaper The Benicia Herald, is painted in the iconic blue-and-yellow theme of a Blockbuster video rental shop.

Think of it as one of those Little Free Libraries where passersby take or leave a book. Except instead of books, strangers exchange movies like Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Titanic and The Empire Strikes Back.

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“We love video rental stores,” Brungardt says. “I used to go to mom ‘n’ pop video stores and Blockbuster for cult classics. [Free Blockbuster] is for those who still like having the physical form, and for younger generations who haven’t used [VHS or DVD] before. We wanted a way for people to have that. It’s just about bringing that joy back.”

Brungardt and Bernasconi aren’t alone in their fondness for Blockbuster. In fact, Free Blockbuster began in 2019 when a former Blockbuster employee in Los Angeles installed the first DIY community box in his neighborhood, and invited others to do the same in their own cities. There are now at least 340 reported locations around the globe, with a handful already in the Bay Area.

So far, Brungardt says, younger people in particular have responded favorably.

“The younger generation has never seen a VCR or TV that is square,” says Brungardt. “They watch the movies and experience something new and they take out their phones and post it on TikTok. It’s quirky for them. A few young folks have turned into collectors now. It’s cool to expose them to what we had growing up. And their parents come by, too.”

a refurbished news stand is displayed with old VHS tapes and DVDs inside
The formerly beat-up newsrack was donated by The Benicia Herald, and can be found in front of Pocket Monkey Vintage. (Courtesy Thomas Brungardt)

Inside Pocket Monkey Vintage, Brungardt and Bernasconi — who also operate The Traveling Museum, a roving collection of items from the ’80s, ’90s and aughts housed in a 1978 Ford van — have set up a makeshift watch room, where movie collectors can pop a VHS tape into a VCR and test out the quality of each tape. (They also have a vintage Playstation 1 on deck).

The two friends get most of their material from estate sales, where they buy boxes in bulk and sift until they find the good stuff. Many of their duplicates populate their Free Blockbuster box. They’re hoping other local movie lovers will also drop off any extras while taking something to add to their own collections.

For Brungardt and Bernasconi, it’s a basic act of kindness that also unleashes a childhood sense of satisfaction. There’s also something innately altruistic about trading VHS tapes and DVDs with strangers. It recalls the age-old adage that movie shops once preached — “Be Kind, Rewind” — a reminder to think about the next person in line.

“We’re not changing lives,” Brungardt admits. “Our goal is to spark nostalgia and bring happiness to others. If we can make someone happy for just 10 minutes a day, that’s what it’s about.”

The newest Free Blockbuster Bay Area is located in front of Pocket Monkey Vintage (560 1st St, Benicia). Traveling Museum is a retro mobile that  pops-up around the Bay Area; check their page for listings.

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