When Nicole Wiegand wants to relax, she reaches back to 1987.
Most evenings, Ms. Wiegand, a 37-year-old owner of an art store in Philadelphia, browses her extensive video collection, pops one into a VCR and waits for the hum of white noise. She’s even set up a box outside her shop where people can pick up or drop off tapes.
"I loved the video store, loved it," she says. "I’d pick a movie off the cover art alone…and that opened me up to so many things."
While the pandemic supercharged streaming, a few people decided to swim against the current and go back to the familiar format of VHS. It isn’t the easiest of hobbies. VCR players haven’t been in production within the last five years, and using the player on a current smart TV requires an expensive customized setup of several devices. Looking for a recent film on VHS format? It’s likely you’ll only find films from the 1980s and 90s, direct-to-VHS specials and home videos.
That hasn’t stopped die-hards. A small community of VHS fanatics has sprung up around the country, trading tapes and tips on how to watch. Much of it is organized around small boxes where people can drop off or pick up tapes. The "Free Blockbuster " boxes started in Los Angeles and spread. There are VHS tape trading events and auctions.
In the late 1990s, Hollywood studios began selling films on DVDs and VHS rentals lost their grip on home viewings. Blu-ray took over in the early 2000s. By 2010 Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy protection.
To try to re-create a bit of the video-store experience, Brian Morrison started Free Blockbuster in 2019. The group turns former newspaper boxes into free little libraries of movies. VHS die-hards hope the effort encourages the exchange of home entertainment with strangers in their neighborhood.
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A film fan who worked at various video stores throughout his teenage years, Mr. Morrison, 37, stocked his first Free Blockbuster box in Los Angeles with old VHS tapes, hoping to create community around film watching.
Though DVDs and videogames showed up later in some boxes, he says VHS tapes were the more interesting draw for Free Blockbuster users. Mr. Morrison connects tape fanatics in different places, who maintain their own boxes.
VHS tapes "aren’t just DVDs’ older cousins," Mr. Morrison says, "they’re an art form in many ways."
The 69 Free Blockbuster boxes, now located across the U.S. and in Canada and Australia, are maintained by a network of fans.
Mr. Morrison said he received a request from Blockbuster LLC, which is owned by Dish Network Corp. , last year that he change the name of his organization. He said he asked if the company would consider licensing out the name but hasn’t heard back.
A Dish spokesperson said the company "loves bringing Blockbuster back to fans through partnerships, social media engagement and promotions. At this time, this is not a partnership we have chosen to pursue."
Dish Network Corp. bought the Blockbuster video-rental chain out of bankruptcy in 2011. One independently operated Blockbuster store is still open for business, in Bend, Ore. That store was the subject of a recent documentary on Netflix.
Kim Lettiere, 29, who works for an animation studio, maintains a Free Blockbuster box in the Philadelphia area. Earlier this year, she received a plastic garbage bag at the studio filled with 800 VHS tapes of various sorts, including recordings of public-access television shows. The former owner, a 98-year-old man, had kept the tapes for decades, crafting individual labels with tiny drawings and cast information. The tapes were in pristine shape by the time Ms. Lettiere received them from the man’s son.
"You can’t find a lot of stuff like this, to have a physical connection that you pop in your VCR," she says.
"The one big question I get is, who still has VCRs these days?" Ms. Lettiere says.
The last VCR maker stopped production in 2016.
Ebay lists hundreds of used models, as well as refurbished box TVs with embedded players. Specialty electronics retailers still carry VCR/Blu-ray combo players.
On occasion, Free Blockbuster fans drop off VCRs in the boxes. Many still have their original units, such as Mr. Morrison. "I like to maintain the hardware," he says, "and access those memories in ways I can’t otherwise."
The Philadelphia area, home to six Free Blockbuster boxes, is one of the most prominent VHS fan communities, according to Mr. Morrison. That includes Gisele Barreto Fetterman, wife of Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who, with Ms. Lettiere’s help, recently erected a box in Braddock, Pa., outside of her nonprofit. "Movie nights and snacks are for everyone," Ms. Fetterman said.
Ms. Wiegand, the Philadelphia art store owner, and her wife, Nicole Krecicki, have received anonymous boxes of VHS tapes. Customers also pass along movies, for their growing home library or the new Free Blockbuster box, sitting just outside of their shop.
"We took the clothes out of one of our bedroom closets and converted it to a VHS closet," Ms. Krecicki says. As well as shelves stocked with tapes, the closet contains vintage VHS drawers, the kind popular in rec rooms in the 80s, and boxes of extra tapes waiting for display space that may never come.
Ms. Krecicki gushes over a 1988 made-for-TV teen flick "Dance ‘Til Dawn," and Ms. Wiegand holds close a tough-to-find acquisition, "Beetlejuice."
Mr. Morrison, who started Free Blockbuster, says his collection features a shelf solely for the display of family-friendly films. His favorite? A muppet version of "The Frog Prince," an early Jim Henson special featuring Kermit the Frog.
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