Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Requiem for the video store, part 2

Last week I posted a link to a conversation between filmmaker Alex Ross Perry and video store owner Joe Martin about the home video market, video stores in general, and Martin's Brooklyn store, Reel Life South, in particular, which is going out of business. As someone who spent over seven years working in four different video stores (from the mid-90s to the mid-00s), there were so many things in this article that I found I could relate to and recognize from my experiences, and I just wanna highlight a few. 

For instance, I, like Perry, worked at Kim's Video in Greenwich Village, though at a different location, and if I recall correctly, I think there was a girl there who might have also worked at RLS at one point. Don't remember for sure. I've never been in RLS; I sometimes pass by the place whenever I'm in the Park Slope neighborhood and I knew its reputation, but I never knew it was in danger of closing. I vividly remember when the St. Mark's Place flagship location of Kim's closed and as a former Kim's drone, I can verify Perry's statement that mismanagement led to their downfall.

Re: VHS-to-DVD transition: I was working at the Third Avenue store at the time and among the first DVDs we picked up that were big renters were Fight Club and Austin Powers. I remember an afternoon flicking through the latter's extras, amazed at all the peripheral items to choose from. We started out with maybe fifty or so DVDs lined up in a box behind the counter. VHS was our bread and butter, not only for regular customers, but for a number of corporate accounts we kept for years - ad agencies, magazines, TV networks, places like that. They'd order 20, 30, 40 tapes at a time and we'd deliver them as well. These accounts were immensely profitable, as you can imagine, but they didn't order DVDs in anywhere near the same amounts.

I remember we had to work at keeping DVDs relatively clean and usable. They were rentals, so they'd be handled by who-knew-how-many different people a week. We would apply this cleaning goop to a DVD whenever somebody brought one in claiming that it wouldn't play past a certain point or whatever, which happened all the time of course because DVDs were still very much a new technology and people didn't know how to treat them properly.

Also, DVDs were priced to own; i.e., there was no period where it was rental only; the street date was the date for both renting and owning. We began selling off used VHS tapes in larger numbers than usual to compensate. Eventually they filled up an entire cabinet. As I recall, the only new VHS movies we'd sell tended to be Disney and other children's movies, because they generally hit the street priced to own as well as to rent. (Those over-sized "clamshell" containers - never cared for them.) We special ordered stuff for daily customers as well, though that was never a big business for us; VHS rentals were always the big thing. When I worked in the video department of Tower Records, the product there was strictly to buy only, but then I don't think Tower ever trafficked in the rental business.

Personally, I started getting more into buying DVDs. One of the last notable things I did while at Third Avenue was special ordering a DVD box set of I Claudius, which I was pretty excited about. By this time I owned a desktop computer and would play my DVDs on it. By the time I came to Kim's, my DVD collection had grown significantly. I usually went to the Virgin Megastore to buy them because they had a Criterion section, and it wasn't long before I discovered how special Criterion DVDs were - and are.

The clientele at Third Avenue was more sophisticated than your average Blockbuster crowd in terms of movie taste, but we had very little of the hardcore, scouring-the-city-for-rare-editions collector. That was much more of a Kim's thing. I consider myself fortunate that three of the four video stores I worked at were very much neighborhood stores. At Third Avenue, our everyday customers were mostly middle class families and aesthetes looking for a wider range of movies than what Blockbuster offered; the Film Forum/Angelika-type.

Oh, and of course, the porn watchers. Porn was another steady source of revenue for us, another service that Blockbuster didn't provide. RLS' Martin says in the interview that a good video store should specialize in horror, noir and foreign films. To that, I would also add porn. While I was at Third Avenue I was always a bit uncomfortable with porn, but by the time I got to Kim's, I was cool with it, but in both places, the porn section was always well-stocked and well-trafficked, and having it absolutely made a difference.

Perry says later on, in comparing the video store experience to Netflix and online streaming, that spontaneity, the ability to come into the store wanting one thing and end up leaving with something completely different, has a value. At Third Avenue, we had a section where, on one end were the boxes for about five or six new releases, and next to each one were older movies that were similar thematically, that one could conceivably choose from if the new release was out. For example, on a shelf next to, say, Magnolia, one could put movies like Boogie Nights and Hard Eight (other Paul Thomas Anderson films), or Short Cuts (PTA has often been compared to Robert Altman). To be honest, not everyone understood what we were trying to achieve with this section, even though we had signage explaining it, but those that did often took advantage of it, and I personally enjoyed helping to put it together (though I enjoyed arranging my staff selection shelf more).

I always liked recommending films to people. I don't think a day went by at Third Avenue without somebody asking, "What do you suggest?" when the new release they wanted wasn't in. Often times, we tried to steer them towards other new releases, but we also would suggest older movies, of course, and both Perry and Martin agree that this ability to talk to an actual human, an expert, is something we as a society are moving away from as online services make ordering products easier, perhaps too easier. I can't argue that; at both Third Avenue and Kim's, we established and maintained relationships with our customers that were as important as anything else in our businesses, maybe more so. Not every customer was pleasant to be around, naturally, but those that were made the job fun and easygoing. And that's something you can't possibly put a price on.

Requiem for the video store


  1. Back when I still had video stores to frequent, I remember a few that had both recommendations section and rotating sections spotlighting actors or directors. Those were always my favorites.

  2. I was kinda obsessive with my recommendations shelf. I was always changing and adjusting it based on all the films I saw - mostly classics, but also a few foreign and indie ones as well. This was when I was just beginning to really get into movies, so everything was new for me, whether it was fifty years old or five weeks old.


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