Reel Life

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


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.