I call the time I spent working at Kim's Video in New York City my post-graduate education. It's a cute line, but it's true. The Master's degree I got from New York University in cinema studies required just three semesters of course work and the completion of a final, week-long comprehensive exam, which most students opt to endure at the end of a fourth semester in which they take no additional classes, presumably as a way of prolonging the delightfully stress-free atmosphere of academia as long as humanly possible.
With little else to do during my phantom semester, I got a job at one of my favorite places in New York City: Kim's Video. Kim's was a rental store like no other; occupying an entire building on St. Marks Place, with one floor for music, one for DVD sales, and the last, and best, for DVD rentals. The rental floor was enormous, and the collection, some 55,000 titles, was insanely comprehensive. There were discs imported from all over the world; there were videotapes clearly bootlegged off of cable television (I once rented a Joy Division concert bootleg to Chloë Sevigny a week after I'd seen "The Brown Bunny." Good times).
Titles were arranged by country, director, and, in some cases genres that only existed within the hyper-film-literate confines of Kim's (my favorite was "Actionne Rigatoni," a clever play on the Spaghetti Western and Kim's slang for '70s Italian action flicks). If you couldn't find it at Kim's, it was a pretty safe bet you couldn't find it anywhere else in Manhattan, if not the world. I only ended up working there for about nine months, but they were nine of the most important moviewatching months of my entire life.
The pay was horrible, but I wasn't in it for the money. I was in it for the free rentals. Every time I left the store after a shift I took three movies home with me. Though I saw a ton of great films in grad school, Kim's was where I fell in love with Luis Buñuel, Don Siegel, Sam Fuller, Monte Hellman and countless others.
Not long after I left Kim's for a job at IFC, Mr. Kim closed the St. Marks store and offered up the rental collection to anyone who wanted it, with some caveats: the 55,000 videos and discs had to be kept together, and they had to be made available to Kim's customers (you can read the sign announcing his demands here). The collection's unlikely final destination was the town of Salemi, Italy, where the films were to be housed in a new community center open to the public and Kim's members summering in the tiny Sicilian town looking to watch, say, a bleached out bootleg of Robert Frank's "Cocksucker Blues." A deal was struck, Kim's closed, and the stock was shipped across the Atlantic. It was the last anyone heard from it.
Or it was until LA Weekly editor (and former classmate of mine at NYU) Karina Longworth started looking into matters. In the new Village Voice, she follows the strange journey of the Kim's collection in a tale of mystery, Mafia, and political intrigue. Actionne Rigatoni, indeed.
When Longworth arrives in Salemi, she can't find the "Centro Kim's," as the store's new home was supposedly called. And when she asks about it, no one in town seems to know what she's talking about. Here she's taken on a surreal tour of the local sights by a member of the police:
"His tour encompassed the few buildings between the police station and the museum: the library, a church. All the while, he kept a running commentary on Salemi's historical importance. His English was imperfect, but he used it artfully; I repeatedly asked questions about the video collection, Sgarbi, and the new administration, and he redirected each one. 'Sicily is the origin of culture,' he kept saying. When I asked if he remembered the videos' arrival, he said that he did and then began a tangent: 'The Americans are a young people.'"
In an age of streaming online movies and YouTube bootlegs, I guess we really don't "need" Kim's — but Longworth's sad and fascinating tale is a reminder of what we lose when our local video store disappear. Kim's was a haven not just for movies but movie lovers. Though the staff had a reputation for surliness and snobbery, they were also really good at recommending movies; trying to get a good suggestion out of Netflix's robobrain algorithm is like trying to teach the T-800 terminator to cry. We thought it was a hassle to walk eight or ten blocks to St. Marks Place to return a tape — shipping them off to the middle of Europe really puts that kind of convenience into perspective. I'm grateful for my video store education. I'm sorry future generations won't get to have one.
Read more of "The Strange Fate of Kim's Video."