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From Hammer to Nail: What We Lose When We Lose Video Stores

By Alex Ross Perry | Indiewire March 31, 2012 at 12:48PM

Perry's interview with Joe Martin, the longtime proprietor of East Village 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.
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ARP: Was this part of your dream of having a store? In the ‘90s, were you excited about being the guy who can provide this to people?

JM: Yes, but a lot of it was just giving myself access to this stuff. Selfishly, I’d be like, I can buy all the stuff I want to see if it’s for a store. But yes, it was also to provide a community because I knew there were other people like me.

ARP: And you knew that Williamsburg was a perfect place to start your first store.

JM: Williamsburg was definitely it. They had two video stores there and they were both really bad. One was nothing but mainstream bootlegs and the other was just not a very well run video store. And I knew that there were a lot of people there who really loved different types of film.

ARP: And you knew that would work here as well. And in the ‘90s, it was not easy to find stuff. Without the internet, you didn’t even knew what there was. So if you’re going to Chiller, or if you are reading the Video Source Miami catalogue and ordering stuff, there’s a chance that people would see it in the store and say that they’d never even heard of it. Now it’s ‘do you have this, I read about it’ or ‘I saw a clip of it.’ But it was important to expose people to those things.

JM: Absolutely. Since we opened the first one in Williamsburg, video stores were going out of business. That was the time that video stores were really going out of business in droves.

ARP: Why was that?

JM: First it was Blockbuster. Just in this neighborhood, there was one on 9th Street called Soundtracks. They had several locations and they all went out of business, right about the same time that we opened this store. I remember going to one store that was going out of business in Brooklyn Heights that had been a video store for something like 20 years. I remember for a used copy of Bob Le Flambeur, I paid I think 60 or 70 dollars because he was going by the Facets catalogue price and he would just seriously knock 10% off of whatever was new. But that was the only way you could find that tape, distributed by CineVista I think it was. And I had never even seen that tape before. I went to this place New York City Liquidators in Manhattan, which would just liquidate video stores from all over the country. And they had these big cardboard boxes that you would pull off shelves and just rifle through. So many of the movies that I opened both stores with came from those sort of sources.

ARP: A lot of my collection is stuff I got from stores that are closing. It’s weird that 12 or 14 years ago, that was already a thing. That was the time where the places that were just rental stores were closing. I feel like even in 2000, a store like this that is just rentals was very uncommon anywhere.

JM: When I opened the first one in Williamsburg, we had posters. Posters, books, and we actually sold stuff. I think we tried to work out with Luminous and a few of the other places that did those sort of grey area bootlegs and stuff. And we tried to sell those. We might have sold some Shock Cinema tapes. Interestingly I had an argument with John Lurie when he found out we had "Fishing With John." It was from a Japanese laser disc and it was released in Japan prior to it being released here. And he called up furious that we had it. And we had no idea that there were plans to release it.

ARP: Selling stuff wasn’t viable?

JM: It became too hard to keep track of. We never had any sort of security situation and stuff just ended up missing and handled poorly. That’s the posters too. The posters were a thing I was really into, and we had a really good poster selection. And we’d come in after a really good Saturday night, when we were open until midnight, and people had been leaning on them. And it became a thing where I didn’t want to be a drag, telling people to get away from them. And then even just rolling them and putting them into a plastic sleeve. Some of the people we had working for us would be a little brutal, and then people would come back saying their poster was creased.

"It took me six months of a layaway at Sears to pay for a laserdisc player, and I spent thousands of dollars to amass even a meager collection of 50 laserdiscs."


ARP: My memory is that DVDs became available everywhere in 1999, 2000. I bought my first DVD player early in 2000 and later in the year I started working at Suncoast Video. And they weren’t very special. Just Warner Brothers or New Line titles with no special features. But then around 2002 to 2004 was the start of when the DVD became a very different commodity for a golden age of product that I believe lasted until 2008. Special editions became the norm. The second disc had 15 hours of stuff on it. This is a lame example, but I remember the first Pirates of the Caribbean DVD weighs about a pound. It has a cardboard sleeve, the second disc has something like three feature-length making ofs, extended scenes, and then the new movie that came out last year, the DVD weighs half an ounce, it has no booklet. There’s not even a single special feature. This decline affected the way people bought, so I’m wondering what affect it had on people’s idea of how much they wanted to rent, or get their hands on one.

JM: I remember it took me six months of a layaway at Sears to pay for a laserdisc player, and I spent thousands of dollars to amass even a meager collection of 50 laserdiscs, I think I had. That was a thing that studios really put into the collectors market. The Criterion laserdiscs, they were very expensive but they had a lot of bells and whistles and stuff. And when DVDs came out, they were pretty barebones. The movie, full-screen, no extras. I think some of the James Bond DVDs are really weird, the interaction and navigation is really weird.

ARP: [at this point I grab a copy of "The Man With The Golden Gun" from a nearby shelf] But it was exciting. This is the edition that I have, and look at all this. Commentary, two documentaries, original TV ads, radio spots, original trailers and a nice booklet. This is a thing that you feel good about.

JM: So then, they start realizing there is a big collectors market for this stuff. Like Anchor Bay is a perfect example of a company that started doing these horror movies that I never thought would ever be released in the United States. I was very excited. Even as a video store owner, I’d go to Suncoast and put my name on a waiting list for various DVDs. It was some obscure horror movie. Everything had an essay. Even the videotapes at the same time had an essay on the backside of the cover. There was that approach of getting some sort of journalist to write some sort of thing for it and really have it be an all-encompassing package. And then the DVDs having whatever sorts of extras they could possibly get. There are some Troma DVDs that have unbelievable amounts of extras. Even shooting new stuff, going back and doing interviews. People were interested in buying those DVDs. Some people would come in and just want to rent something purely for the extras. There was a trade off. People who were hardcore collectors would not want to rent because they want to buy.

This article is related to: Alex Ross Perry







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