Christopher Castillo spray-paints an old advertising circular box to turn...

Christopher Castillo spray-paints an old advertising circular box to turn it into a community “Free Blockbuster” video box in Valley Stream. Credit: Newsday / Alfonso Castillo

Spending so much time at home watching movies with my family during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic reminded me of many a “Blockbuster night.” Before binge-watching was a thing, there was the pressure of watching all the movies you rented before they were due back to the video store — lest you be forced to pay the dreaded late fee.

And so, with lots of free time on my hands, my youngest son, Christopher, and I last spring decided we would open our own Blockbuster, sort of.

The “Free Blockbuster” movement started in California in 2018, when a former video store clerk repurposed an abandoned newspaper dispenser box into a community repository for old DVDs and VHS tapes. Today, the blue-and-yellow branded boxes adorn sidewalks in more than half the states in the nation, and Babylon and Brooklyn. Chris and I set out to open the first one in Nassau County, on the curb right outside our Valley Stream home.

After salvaging a beat-up, old advertising circular box, Chris, then 11, spent days scrubbing graffiti off it, scraping off old decals and hardened gum, and spray-painting the Free Blockbuster logo on it with a stencil.

Our father-and-son summer project was an instant hit. We even made the front page of our local weekly newspaper, the Valley Stream Herald. The only downside was the “Blockbuster Bandit,” as we called him, who cleaned us out of every DVD with each visit.

Then, one November afternoon, while working at my dining room table, I heard a “boom!” Outside the window, I saw a pickup truck pulled over. I assumed he blew out a tire, and the truck was towed away.

Later, my son returned home from school and frantically said, “Daddy, the Blockbuster was destroyed!” I rushed outside and found our labor of love smashed into tiny blue pieces in what appeared to be a direct hit. If there was any solace, it’s that the “Blockbuster Bandit” had struck earlier that day, and the box was empty except for a few old NHL videotapes.

Watching a heartbroken Chris stand over the rubble, I was devastated.

Because the accident also caused damage to my fence, I called the police hours later, but it was too late to document the accident in a report. Without this, I didn’t have a way to recoup damages.

Later that night, while throwing away the remnants, I noticed contact information for the box’s manufacturer, Go Plastics of Ball Ground, Georgia. I emailed the firm to describe the unusual event and asked to be directed to where we could find another beat-up old box to refurbish.

The next morning, I received an email from the sales director. Heading our way, he said, would be a top-of-the-line “SS-5 LD” model in “bright blue.” It would have twice the storage capacity of our old box, a shelf, and would come decorated with decals reading “Take a Movie, Leave a Movie” and “Be Kind, Rewind.”

His email concluded, “Last, we’d like to congratulate you and your son for doing something good for your community. Please tell your son that we here at Go Plastics are proud of his accomplishment.”

The new and improved Free Blockbuster Valley Stream opened on Dec. 7, one day before Chris’ 12th birthday. We posed in front of our new baby and sent the picture to Go Plastics with a note saying, “No need to rewind. You are already too kind.”


ALFONSO CASTILLO, a  Newsday reporter, lives in Valley Stream.

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