Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Alex Ross Perry
March 31, 2012 12:48 PM
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From Hammer to Nail: What We Lose When We Lose Video Stores

Indiewire is a big fan of the microbudget film review site Hammer to Nail, as well as filmmaker Alex Ross Perry, whose "The Color Wheel" won the title of Best Undistributed Film in last year's critics' poll. So we were excited to see Perry's name in Hammer to Nail this past week with an essay/interview that reflected his DIY ethos. Perry's interview with Joe Martin, the longtime proprietor of Brooklyn rental store Reel Life--which closes its doors for good at the end of this month--is an unexpectedly heartfelt tribute to the deterioration of the physical video store. Perry and Hammer to Nail editor Michael Tully have graciously allowed us to republish the interview here in full. --Indiewire editors

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On Sunday March 18, 2012, I was walking around the neighborhood where I live—Park Slope, Brooklyn -- thinking about places where I would be able to display promotional posters for the release of my film "The Color Wheel," occurring two months to the day later. A shall-we-say no brainer was of course Reel Life South, an indescribably indispensable video store located on 8th Avenue and 11th Street, three blocks from my apartment. I further allowed my fantasy to include the time where, something like maybe six months from now, I could walk into Reel Life, inform the owner Joe Martin that The Color Wheel will soon be released on DVD, and that I was looking forward to the honor of seeing it on his shelf.

I have been renting regularly at Reel Life since shortly after I moved to Park Slope, exactly four years ago. Prior to that, I worked at Kim’s Video on St. Marks for three years, and have a hyperbolically emotional connection to The Video Store. Like Kim’s, the selection at Reel Life was massive, hand picked, and full of quasi-legal (read: not legal) bootlegs and VHS tapes. VHS tapes, it should be known, are the essence not just of my home collection but also of my rental life. I cannot explain why with any sense of brevity, so let’s say that I just like them more. And Reel Life had, I would guess, thousands. Most of them were contained in the second floor’s magical enclave, where the cult and horror sections made their home. This is what video stores are made for. My last four autumnal seasons were spent doing marathon renting sessions from this curated cove of terrors; all of September and all of October, this is what I did instead of watching the leaves change or whatever it is people do.

So naturally, of course, on Monday March 19th, Reel Life South announced on their Facebook page that they were closing at the end of the month after twelve years. The statement is reproduced here:

“Dear valued friends and customers: it is with a heavy heart and deep sadness that we’ll be closing the doors once and for all at the end of the month. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for the years of support. It has been our honor to have been your video store.”

I had survived the shuttering of Kim’s, barely, because a) I had left on good terms before it closed and while there I really put a lot of myself into the management, organization and overall success of my floor (which was DVD and vinyl sales); and b) it was relocating to a horribly truncated but nevertheless extant location. There still was a place, a sign, a name, someplace to go to and look at and touch merchandise. The new store didn’t have any rentals, but that was in some way tolerable for me because I no longer lived anywhere near it.

Reel Life, however, was just a place I liked going to spend money and also time. I have spoken every chance I get about the emotional and educational connection I have to The Video Store. I am always quick to point out that I learned more from working at Kim’s than I did from going to film school at NYU. So I really connect with The Store, any store, but when it is My Store, it is important to me. The other thing about Kim’s that is worth mentioning here, and that every eulogy and obituary I read got wrong, is that it was not felled by circumstances beyond control, such as declining business or a greedy rent doubling landlord. (This is what is happening to Reel Life South, and had already claimed the life of the other Reel Life, the one in Williamsburg.) Kim’s was done in by greed on behalf of the outstandingly poor management team that spent most of my time there doing everything they could to systematically ensure the failure of the business by any means necessary. It was a tragic loss for all of New York, and it really did not have to happen at all. And the preventable nature of this tragedy is the real crime, and one that none of the requiems really spoke of.

I am always quick to point out that I learned more from working at Kim’s than I did from going to film school at NYU.

To refresh your memory: that collection of something like 50,000 titles was put into boxes and shipped to some town in Sicily, where it was allegedly going to create a cultural center/never-ending film festival/online database that, as per Mr. Kim’s instructions, would remain ‘forever accessible’ to Kim’s members. Keep in mind that this was deemed a better option than the offers from NYU and Cooper Union to take like 75% of the collection and keep it in the East Village, so long as they did not have to take all three beat up DVDs of Forrest Gump plus a 2-VHS set of it. This deal was untenable for Mr. Kim, so goodbye everything. (Postscript: the last I heard from somebody who was in position to know, the Sicilians had never commenced any of their plans to do a single damn thing with any of this media, never communicated again after they got the videos, and here we are four or so years later and the collection is still—shockingly—not available in any way to Kim’s customers, or anybody probably. This used to be called a bamboozle. The only mementos I have are the handful of small section markers for things I identified closely with my formative experiences as a customer of Kim’s.)

I was emotionally overwrought when I went through Reel Life the other day, browsing as I always have, but this time for keeps. Joe Martin, who is now 40, decided to sell off the collection to all the neighbors and customers to whom it was special so that they can—I assume, because this is my plan—have it at home to serve as a reminder of the special and wonderful times they spent browsing his superb selection. Without Reel Life around for Halloween 2012 or 2013, I would be at a loss. That is, if not for the 25 or more tapes I now have at home, allowing me at least two more years of fantastic double-features for the spookiest of seasons. Reel Life will continue to exist in my home, and in the homes of everybody else who will own a piece of it.

I spoke with Martin in the cult and horror section during the final days of Reel Life’s life, in order to sort out my emotions on having yet another video store taken from me, and also to trace the evolution (de-evolution?) of the video store from the year 2000 (when Martin started work on the Park Slope Reel Life and when I got my first job as a part-time clerk at Suncoast Video at the mall) to today.
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10 Comments

  • lexlilexi | April 2, 2012 5:02 PMReply

    This article moved me in ways I can't articulate at the moment but I just wanted to thank Indiewire, Alex Ross Perry, and Joe Martin for having this conversation and publishing it a few times. I've savored every word and am going to keep thinking long and hard about a lot of what you've both said here. Long live film love! It will have to find another way to materialize in the flesh. That's really what its all about.

  • Corey | April 1, 2012 2:35 AMReply

    A good interview about the profound shift. But there are a few questions that should be asked as a follow up. How about the shelf-life of DVDs vs. VHS. DVDs get scratched up so easily since they're not in a protected case like VHS. Seems like most videostores could keep a VHS tape in circulation for over a decade. I'll get a title from Netflix that's been out for 2 months and it's scratched to the point where it's unplayable. Did the stores in Brooklyn have X-rated sections? That was a big revenue source down here for stores. And unlike the new titles that lost their luster after a few weeks, an adult title could steadily rent for years. Seems like when adult videos could be watched via the internet, that revenue vanished when people went from 56K modems to cable. Where is the nearest Redbox to that store?

    The human interaction of the videostore is lacking as people don't really bump into each other at the Redbox. You don't work the aisles looking for that strange Vestron cover that tempts you for months to see if the cover matches the action. Seems most people in line act like they're at a bank ATM. Asking them "what are you thinking of renting" is as evil as saying, "What's your PIN?"

    Pals keep asking my why I don't stash my DVD collection onto a mega-harddrive to watch them "easier." But I adore the packaging. I've created a mini-videostore in my former storage room. Eight shelving units rescued from Border's old video section. I can stare at the spines and covers. I correct pals that it's not a man-cave - it's a Cinema Chapel where I can go to genuflect.

    Far as the Bond DVDs go, call me a sucker for special editions since I've bought the VHS, the original DVDs, the Special Edition DVDs, The Ultimate DVDs and the Blu-rays. There's just something cool about getting the complete context of the movies especially the trailers that included "The Bond Sale Double Features."

  • MDL | March 31, 2012 9:41 PMReply

    Independent video stores [in Los Angeles] are a big part of how I learned cinema history. I watched many older classic films [on film] at retrospectives in places like UCLA, the American Cinematheque and LACMA. But video stores filled in the gaps. And when I moved to Los Angeles in 1991 there were many stores to pick from. It was a fountain of film on VHS and then DVD. So it is very sad to see video stores going away. However, I do not think the death knell of appreciating older, vital cinema is over; it is just changing. I still frequent a couple video stores and also stream Netflix and Hulu, which have a lot of good old titles that I may have missed in the past. Hulu, specifically, has the Criterion collection. And the image quality is better than old VHS or DVD. So I would say these new services are tools that the cinephile can use to expand their horizons. But it is true that young folks who have a love for old classic films or foreign indie titles from decades past will not get as good an experience with streaming titles as they would have with a good strong indie video store that took the time to build a great collection. And especially if you liked hunting for older titles rather than the new mainstream ones. But there is still hope out there for we who love cinema. I wish video stores could still be as vital. Maybe in some cities they still can? Especially when Netflix loses rights to older titles or rare titles completely disappear. There has to be a way to preserve the right to see the thousands of films that are yet to be made available on streaming services - or are only available at $20.00 a pop at place like the WB archive. Cheers to video stores.

  • Dr. Rottwang | March 31, 2012 8:33 PMReply

    There is appreciation and sadness when any film oriented business closes, but for someone who has worked in movie theaters for over three decades, the closing of video stores is a bittersweet irony. It was video stores that hastened the demise of many great, grand theaters. Now we are faced with another bout of theater closings. The digital projection age is once again culling theaters from our cultural landscape. Predictions of 10,000 screens going dark is more chilling than the loss of storefronts.

  • RevGreg | March 31, 2012 8:19 PMReply

    I ran a mom and pop shop in Edinboro, Pa. called Poppa Ropp's Video for 23 years, an amazing run for an indie video store to say the least.

    We were known for our large selection of foreign, horror/sci-fi and cult movies, although we also had the latest box office hits and popular stuff in stock.

    We survived cable, satellite, Blockbusters, Movie Galleries, internet, etc... but the day I saw Netflix I knew it was over.

    While this article brings back those sad final days, I gotta tell ya, I am amazed that ANY video store is still in business (not only due to Netflix but the explosion of internet downloads and streaming sites). Never before has so much been available at your fingertips.

    And guess what? As our doors closed in 2005 for the last time, I was actually sorta happy for the fans of cinema. Seriously. The fact that you can now rent over 80,000 movies (about 75,000 MORE than any video store you have ever walked into in your life) via Netflix alone, the fact that nearly every film imaginable is now available somewhere in some format (sometimes remastered) and Blu-Rays are still affordable (trust me, they wouldn't be if video stores were still out there - VHS ended up at something like $110.00 per tape when we went out of business), have made this a very, very good world for film and video fans!

    Change is good. It happens whether we like it or not. And yes, there is a sadness of seeing these old places closed up and gone. There was definitely a magic inside those video stores of yore...

    So, I'm not sure this is much of a story at this point. I feel bad for the owner and may be the only one commenting that knows EXACTLY how he feels, but he should be happy it made it this far, in a world that is now raising the first generation of kids that will never, ever know what it was like to rent a video from an actual store.

  • bguest | March 31, 2012 5:58 PMReply

    Netflix is awesome...Bergman, Fellini, Kubrick, Godard...American indie classics like Slacker,
    Clerks, El Mariachi, new art cinema like Le Havre, Uncle Boonme...sorry about your store but Netflix rules!

  • Chris | March 31, 2012 5:38 PMReply

    I agree it is sad when any small business that provides a unique service to devoted customers has to close down. It negatively affects both the owner as well as the loyal customers. However, it is profoundly wrong to say that this trend of closing video stores will diminish the choices or sense of discovery of movies of all types. We are at the beginning of huge transition that will place every movie (of any kind) at the beck and call of vast numbers of people around the planet--at a scale that could not have been imagined a mere decade ago. There are also curators of this content emerging (and more will emerge) with better tools of discovery that will widen the field of choice for all of us through digital distribution. These curators are and will be passionate viewers of the obscure as well as the mass media choices who will assist us just as the video store owners did--and some of them will be former video store owners. So mourn the passing but also look eagerly at the present and to the future ways of viewing great movies of all types.

  • Simone | March 31, 2012 4:06 PMReply

    "I am afraid that the next generation of filmmakers, cinephiles and just plain movie nerds will have a pitifully limited understanding of what they might not already want to see."

    Too true. My entire life would be different if I didn't have that little rental store in my hometown to grow up with that introduced me to the amazing spectrum of movies that exist. In hindsight, I wouldn't have chosen my college major, met most of my friends, lived in my city or worked the job I work if it weren't for the people who worked at that store who exposed me to the movies that made me love movies. This was one of the most heartfelt pieces on the subject I've ever read, thanks a lot for posting it.

  • gotnotruck | March 31, 2012 4:03 PMReply

    Forgot to say I Love the Cohen Bros. Especially "A Serious Man", talk about profound, secularly spiritual, and funny. Not even close to an oscar, not that I care. Never have watched. But Up in the Airhead was. Liked Wendy and Lucy and many new directors, but have a hard time remembering their names. Brain cells popping off. If you're wondering all this talk about "spirituality" like a pox these days: I'm an atheist mystic. Raised atheist: always had visions from all religions, then some. But absolutely no belief in god, especially that mean tempered, irrational, two timing, white guy with a beard.

  • gotnotruck | March 31, 2012 3:54 PMReply

    Tell me about it. I still mourn Tower Records. And book stores. There's exactly one left near me. Barnes & Noble, which, when it moved in, closed down Endicott, Shakespeare and Co. Numerous second hand books followed. To read paper books is greener. Take it out of a library and return it. To recycle an e reader or cell phone, (and fashion dictates you need a new one every two years), requires them to be originally shipped here from China, use energy while you use it, shipped back to China, recycled, (theoretically), and shipped back here. Only to end up toxic in a waste dump. Using energy in the process. Last summer a call came forth from Con Ed to "unplug and do not use electronic devices". I LOVE good movies. Was glad to read in the Slimes today that other countries do "action films" better than we. Animated schlock with beefed up guys in stupid costumes make me puke. New York is great for movies. But I wanted to be able to go to Tower Records, and buy or rent music and DVDs. Now most kulchah goes through Amazon. bleeping. com. Progressives are anti Walmart. Ignoring the fact that, as The Economist says, approvingly, "Amazon is Walmart online." Look at what it's done with books and book stores, music, movies. And to movie makers, musicians, artists. Out of luck. The record companies of the old days were bad, but not as bad as being gobbled up by Amazon. An Amazon guy on late night NPR said "It's a great business model. Many fewer employees." To find out just how much fun it is to work there, check out the latest Mother Jones for "The Secret Hell of Online Shopping", by a journalist who did a "Nickled and Dimed" as did B. Ehrenreich. I've always suspected that the internet cost jobs. A woman economist on Charlie Rose a few nights ago said unemployment wouldn't get that much better here because of " globalization and the internet". I have this computer, a TV, and a DVD player, radio. Used to have a video/dvd player which seem to no longer exist. 5th Ave when I moved here permanently in '70 below Tiffany and Bergdorf's was publishing house book stores. I bought post cards, which I collect, on Prince St, before Soho became a glitzy mall. Manhattan is a series of strip malls called avenues, lined with the same boring chain stores you see in 'burbs anywhere. Except Madison Ave for the .001%. Fashion is an art. Coffee shops like Cafe Romana, where John and Yoko hung out undisturbed, opera playing and a garden in the back. Gone. Other independents: gone. If anyone tries to close Cafe Reggio, I'll chain myself to it. Perhaps it's better in other boroughs. What I want from films: anything by Tarkovsky. Love films with philosophical and/or spiritual content with profundity. Another example, "Ward Six", a new Russian woman director version of the Chekov play at Walter Reade a few years ago. About a psychiatrist who ended up a patient having a long conversations with another patient, not caring about his change in status. Shot in gorgeous color on the original ward. I'm 66. Young love in its four or five permutations and combinations bore me to tears. So predictable. A woman in her twenties agreed recently. When I was young, I learned a few things from them. Now blissfuly beyond that. Love documentaries. I was in the Civil Rights Movement in the South, along with many other white Southerners. No one even wants to write an article about us. One reason is Bob Moser of The Nation's observation that "Talking about race in the South is a way of not talking about race in the rest of the country". Although PBS suggested I pitch something to American Experience. We're dying off. Another idea is to do a documentary of the Village in the sixties, not folk music scene, acid scene. 1,000 mics of Sandoz LSD stamped as such. For some reason the New York Hyterical Society isn't interested, any more they are on racism in NYC. Yes, I miss DVD stores, record stores, and book stores. Thank god for all our fine movie theatres! On TV, most of the good stuff is on Sundance in the morning or early afternoon. The later, the stupider.