Bombast: Kim’s Video
I haven’t been by the last remaining Kim’s Video since word of its imminent closure arrived this year with the spring flowers. In point of fact, the store on First Avenue, the last redoubt of an empire which once covered Manhattan from stem to stern and even straddled the Hudson, has never held much interest for me—I believe the most recent purchase that I made there was a copy of Something Weird Video’s double-bill DVD of Joe Sarno’s Sin in the Suburbs and The Swap and How They Make It, sometime in 2010. I was, I suppose, part of the problem.
The Swap and How They Make It
In some small way, however, I was also a part of the Kim’s story. I was an assistant manager at the chain’s location at 85 Avenue A in the East Village, up until a week before its closing in fall of 2004, almost 10 years ago. The Avenue A store had first opened in 1987, when the side business in video rentals that Korean businessman Youngman Kim—I never knew anyone to call him anything other than “Mr. Kim”—had started in his dry cleaning enterprise just up the block became popular enough to demand a storefront of its own. (The beginnings of what would become the legendary Kim’s collection were assembled by Matt Morello, a film student.) It was the first Kim’s Video, and the first to go—its passage was noted in a New York Times piece headlined “The Customer Was Always Right? Not at Kim’s Video on Avenue A,” which began “Some call the shop’s heyday a ‘reign of terror.’ Some say the employees were ‘haughty’ and ‘hostile.’” This was my first real job in New York City, and the best job that I have ever had.
In the decade that followed the decease of Avenue A, Kim’s locations folded one after another—the Bleecker Street “Kim’s Underground,” the Broadway and 113th Street store in Morningside Heights, convenient to Columbia University, and in 2008, the “Mondo” flagship at 6 St. Mark’s Place. It should be noted that the boundlessly self-pitying Kim wasn’t forced out of his citadel. He owned the five-story building—former address of the New St. Mark’s Baths, the setting of Andy Milligan’s 1965 Vapors—but sold it to move a streamlined inventory into the smaller First Avenue storefront. You might ask why, upon seeing that the video store business model was endangered, Mr. Kim didn’t repurpose some of the square footage in this prime piece of real estate as, say, Williamsburg’s Videology later did. That would be a very good question. Anyways, the First Avenue Kim’s was really no replacement for Mondo at all, for it was never in the video rental business. Mondo’s 55,000-piece collection—including the absorbed Avenue A catalog—was shipped off to Salemi, Sicily, to a “Centro Kim” that had been readied to receive it, a boondoggle documented in a 2012 Village Voice piece by Karina Longworth. (At present, it would appear that the vaunted Centro Kim is acting as a shelter for stray dogs.)
While the First Avenue Kim’s was but a shadow of its former self, its expiry has nevertheless inspired a round of media eulogies. New York Magazine’s Bedford + Bowery site held a wake/oral history, in which former employees and customers swapped stories from their time with the chain. I was invited to contribute, but demurred—it’s an admirable piece of work and all, but I’m not in the habit of giving my clicks to somebody else, gratis. The inevitable New York Times obit depicts Mr. Kim suffering from much the same malaise, engendered by a world that expects to be entertained for free: “‘I am the loser,’ he said. ‘Netflix is the winner.’”
The closure of Kim’s is part of an ongoing systemized denuding of brick-and-mortar businesses dealing in media in New York City. This extends even to movie theaters—see my piece on the cinema houses of Queens, from a couple weeks back—and especially to video stores, once as common as the passenger pigeon, and now near to sharing that noble bird’s fate. Since the last days of Mondo Kim’s, I’ve seen one regular video store after another give up the ghost—World of Video on Greenwich Avenue in the West Village in 2012 and, earlier this year, Photoplay in Greenpoint, a far better store than Videology in its prime. These businesses just can’t pay the rents in today’s New York—and it is doubtful that their employees could either.
The King of Comedy
My job history in the months after I arrived in New York City was not auspicious. I’d put in some time working for a since-defunct Franco-American film festival in New York and Provence and, upon returning stateside, had managed precisely two shifts at a frozen yogurt chain that hoped to imitate the success of the then-ascendant Tasti D-Lite—showing up for my third, I was told that I didn’t have “the right attitude,” and sent on my way. When my friend called to tell me that she’d seen a “For Hire” sign on the vitrine of 85 Ave. A, I was employed as a foot courier—the same job that Rupert Pupkin has in The King of Comedy—my daily wages just enough to keep me in street meat. (I’d applied at the Blockbuster Video that then existed at Broadway and 10th, but no dice.) I hightailed it up to the store from Red Hook, where I was then living in a jerry-rigged plywood “loft” created by a Hungarian ceramic artist who’d decided to save rent on her studio/living space by taking in boarders. (I eventually moved out under a cloud of acrimony, after she’d left me a lengthy note the tenor of which was that, yes, I lacked the right attitude.) Not a week later I was behind the counter at Kim’s, learning the archaic program through which you called up customer accounts and checked titles out of the library, on a computer that would’ve had trouble running Oregon Trail. As long as I live, I will always remember the first movie in the system, arranged by reference number, whose title I would have occasion to look at maybe a million times during my tenure, highlit by a cursor every time I rang up a rental. That movie was called A Cum Fucking Whore Named Kimberly.1
My attitude was not a problem at Avenue A, where surliness was part of the uniform—in the space of six weeks, my attitude had even improved, and I had rocketed up the ranks to the post of assistant manager, thanks in large part to my aggressive, enthusiastic expansion of the Auteurs section. (I added “André de Toth.”) The concurrent pay raise kicked my salary up to the princely sum of $6.00, paid weekly in a crisp white envelope, cash on the barrelhead. On a 40-hour week, that meant take-home pay of $240, and astonishing as this now may seem, this was somehow enough to live off of in New York City, thanks to my being possessed of a young person’s ability to contently live like an animal. I was sustained by an affordable cheese slice across the street, twofer drinks specials at Opaline, a neighboring basement bar whose claim to fame was their underwear dance parties, and 99-cent, 16-ounce Hollandias—a pissy Heineken knockoff lager—at the bodega on the way home. Immediately above me in the chain of command was a fellow named Steven Oddo, perhaps best known as the rail-thin young man who carves the word “WAR” into his chest at the beginning of 1992’s War Is Menstrual Envy, a film by ex-Mondo employee Nick Zedd, who in the Bedford + Bowery piece refers to Mr. Kim as “a petty business tycoon and tinhorn dictator.”2 This connection might not mean very much to you, but it did to me—as a kid frequenting Video Vault in Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia, where my mother lived, I’d worked my way through the entire Zedd filmography, and now here I was, brushing elbows with fame! (White Reindeer director Zach Clark, a former Video Vault employee, has written a few words for the departed institution in his eulogy for Something Weird Video founder Mike Vraney.)
I later learned that Alex Ross Perry, a filmmaker who turns up in all of these Kim’s pieces with depressing inevitability, had worked with Mr. Oddo on the sales floor at Mondo after the death of Avenue A, and that our marvelous mentor had exposed us to many of the same films: Florida exploitation maven Barry Mahon’s maladroit 1970 stab at a children’s picture, Jack and the Beanstalk; a pair of TV movies (Bill and Bill: On His Own) in which Mickey Rooney portrayed a mentally retarded adult named Bill Sackter; and, above all, William Edwards’s 1969 Dracula (The Dirty Old Man). Perry, who left Mondo during its “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic period,” belonged to the last graduating class of Kim’s alums, who through the years are a distinguished company. Their number includes Garrett Klahn of Texas Is the Reason (Ave. A), whose “Nickel Wound” I spent much of 1997 getting emo to in a Mazda 323 hatchback, and Hangover auteur Todd Phillips (Mondo), whose dismissal for lying down on the job, detailed in the Bedford + Bowery piece, sounds remarkably similar to my own.3 Apparently Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs also worked at Underground at some point—I remember that the page for her account in the Avenue A system said something startlingly vile in the Notes section. (This was essentially a space for clerks to leave shit-talk about customers for co-workers to see. It was something of a sport to keep a straight face while ringing someone up when you’d just pulled up a page calling them a “PIG FUCKER.”) Perry’s Mondo classmates were cinematographer Sean Price Williams—who was responsible for the hiring of documentarian/ gadfly Robert Greene—as well as actor Kate Lyn Sheil, and Michael M. Bilandic, whose Hellaware will be opening next month at Cinema Village and who, disconcertingly, is the first person I can remember ever recognizing my name as a byline when I was renting something or other.
War Is Menstrual Envy
That people gravitated to Kim’s is no mystery. It was the best reasonably attainable cinephile job in New York. You could watch and re-watch while you were on the clock, and delude yourself into thinking that this was some recompense for the inhuman pay, because you were getting to make up for it in accrued cultural capital. Time at work wasn’t wasted, the justification went, if you’d been watching Linda Blair in Roller Boogie (79). In fact, I’m not entirely certain that this isn’t true. Avenue A had the additional appeal of not being under the direct supervision of Mr. Kim and the front office, which was headquartered in the Mondo megaplex—a bit like living in the same building as your landlord—and this allowed such amenities as the hour-before-quitting-time beer. About an eight-minute walk from Mondo, it nevertheless had the feeling of being a frontier outpost.
New York City’s loss of 55,000 titles to a Sicilian backwater is tragic—one of the many examples of Mr. Kim’s disastrous, ill-considered, and short-sighted decision-making—but not intolerable. What’s worse is the dwindling and disappearance of the clerk caste that goes with the passing of the video store. Some folks made a career out of it, and this bestowed on them a sort of regality in their chosen workplace. For others, it was a flexible, low-stress way to make a little steady under-the-table cash—I think of the Canadians living illegally in the States, or one wastrel co-worker who regaled us with tales of his other job, fisting guys out on Long Island for cash. For still others, it was a way station en route to the next thing, a chance to orient yourself with regards to art that you knew you wanted to have some kind of professional relationship with, even if you weren’t certain what exactly that relationship was going to be. Nothing has emerged that can serve in the stead of this kind of transitional job—it’s either indentured internship servitude or the white-collar working week, which doesn’t lend itself to play, or offer aspirational space.
The clerk was a cultural gatekeeper on the intimate, local, village, Employee’s Picks level—since supplanted by the algorithm, which keeps taste safely within self-defined limits, or the voted-by-committee Best List. Once awe-inspiring men and women, the clerks were a sort of first line of defense against dilettantism, inspiring humility in those willing to learn it, conferring knowledge on those who proved themselves thirsty for it. I am, of course, idealizing this transaction, but when I was young, I can remember wanting desperately to win the respect of the people behind the counter, whose encyclopedic genius was seemingly boundless and who, some of them, had attained the venerable age of 24, with all the wisdom that came with it. This humbling fear seems to me a good thing—it’s impossible for me to imagine a formative experience entirely free of this intimidation, in which inexperience can be masked by search-engine quick-draw and the protection of an online persona.
Dracula (The Dirty Old Man)
When I eventually found myself on the other side of the counter, I had another experience entirely—the acquisition of a sense of status, which up to then my life in New York City had been seriously lacking. For better or worse, the very layout of a Kim’s store demanded interface with the clerks beyond shoveling money across the counter. The cataloguing system, an ongoing collective improvisation undertaken by a revolving door cast of employees, cubbyholed the collection into an infinity of categories and sub-categories. This was not designed to serve the needs of a customer to find “exactly what they know they’re already looking for,” as Perry put it to me during a recent discussion of the store’s end of days. Instead:
All the Kim’s locations were idiosyncratically organized, and by virtue of the confusing nature of the store, every employee was placed in a curatorial position of delineating the seemingly boundless options. And giving the employee that much power fundamentally annoys some people. When you have to walk in a store and say “Where is this?” instead of being able to find it in the Comedy section puts people on edge, unless they’re the sort of person who wants that experience . . . The specificity of clerks at Kim’s being different and having a different attitude comes from the fact that they are guarding material, which makes them seemingly better than other people, or seem like they think they’re better.
The money, as I think I’ve made very clear, was chump change, but the prestige of being a Kim’s video clerk was worth a price above rubies. This was sergeant’s chevrons, the doorman’s uniform in The Last Laugh, a status symbol, my first. Before I got the Kim’s gig, I had not been doing too well on my own and at loose ends in a new city. Afterwards . . . well, my life was still objectively horrible by almost any standard, but I felt I’d established a beachhead in New York, socially and otherwise. My circle of friends expanded, and I had female companionship commensurate to my new position. I still own and treasure a makeshift birthday card—done in marker on a sheet of lined notebook paper—presented to me by my co-workers on the occasion of my 23rd birthday, which I spent on the job. It has a lucky penny taped to it.
It seems to me now that my time at Kim’s, a lucky penny that I carry with me everywhere, was the closest that I came to experiencing the New York City—specifically the Lower East Side—of my imagination, in part because I was still rather new to it all. This New York City of the mind was a place of grandiose squalor and decay, where the filth acted as a kind of creative ferment. The former was certainly on display at Avenue A—I remember having to nudge the occasional puddle of puke left on our threshold the night before into the gutter with a bucket of water, and a whole host of Morlocks passing through the swinging saloon doors of the adult section. (By then the Internet had begun to chip away at the over-the-counter trade in smut, the mom-and-pop video store’s one dependable moneymaker, so most of the pornography enthusiasts were either Luddites or born before the Korean War.) We even got remnants of New York’s days as a smut capital—one regular, often happily squiffed, was a former hardcore queen who, under the nom de porn “Helen Madigan,” had done battle with John Holmes’s notorious, loofah-like schlong in the far-off Seventies. She was one of the more well-adjusted customers, though a whole parade of psychopathologies came marching through the door.4 As for the creative ferment, I felt like there was still enough proximity to it that I could at least perceive what I’d missed from a slight remove. One regular at the store had been the drummer for John Lurie’s The Lounge Lizards; another had been an intimate of Arthur Russell. We even got Gustav Mahler’s grandson.
Of course, the New York that I was thinking about was over long before I arrived, if indeed it had ever existed. As I understand it, some date the decease of the neighborhood as far back as the day that The Gap opened a store on St. Mark’s Place in 1988, the year after Avenue A Kim’s opened. (The first St. Mark’s location was on the second floor of the Gap building.) Come 2003, Friday and Saturday nights brought out stampedes of horrible bros living that Jägerbomb, Coyote Ugly life, lurching their way towards notorious bro-hole Nice Guy Eddie’s at Houston and A, which today has, disconcertingly, been priced out by more upscale bro-holes. Most of the notable regulars were of another order than that mentioned above—we got Shannyn Sossamon, then at peak intermediary-level fame, Sam Rockwell and his father (very nice!), and Paul Banks, front man of then-band du jour Interpol, part of the Return of Rock which did ever so much for re-building the NYC Brand. (The Strokes’ Albert Hammond Jr., I will note, also worked at Kim’s, though he surely didn’t need to.)
Now it’s all gone, gone the way of Tammany Hall and the Mudd Club and Misshapes (lol). And like all of cultural history, the story of Kim’s is bound to replay itself sometime soon as an entirely unnecessary talking-heads documentary—maybe even a Netflix original!—in which The Folks Who Remember When trot out their over-rehearsed anecdotes for posterity. Should my ever-spreading, ruinously lined, rosacea-speckled face appear in The Story of Kim’s Video, probably directed by someone who’s a current sophomore at Tisch, take pity on me—I lost the job that I wanted most.
1. In the course of editing this piece, it was pointed out to me that the title of the film is in fact A Cum Sucking Whore Named Kimberly. The “S” on the box art looks a bit like a cursive “F,” and was undoubtedly entered into the system incorrectly.
2. There is something to this. Like Walter Huston’s cattle-baron potentate T.C. Jeffords in Anthony Mann’s The Furies, who printed “T.C. notes” for his employees to use on his land, Mr. Kim had his own currency, KimMoney. Christmas bonuses came, when they did, in the form of store gift certificates. And any discrepancies in the drawer were taken out of the cash envelope, down to the last penny. Perry posits that most of the famed surliness of Kim’s employees sprang from such routine minor insults: “As long as I’m being treated like a piece of shit, I might as well act like one.”
3. Mr. Kim, for reasons no one could ever fathom, insisted on opening the store at 10 a.m., despite the fact that not a single customer ever came in before noon. As one who frequently had to open the store, I can attest to this fact. I could, for example, throw on the then-newly-released Paris Hilton sex tape as background, as I did one morning, with full confidence that no one would come along to notice, much less be offended.
Two guys, at least in their early seventies, who would come in. They only came in on weekends. They were the absolute worst-smelling men I’ve ever encountered. I’ve never experienced anything like it before or since. They would come in and be around for two hours. They had gigantic jeans knotted with haphazard belts. They spent lots of money, but just took such poor care of themselves. And . . . on the rental floor, everything rented came back. Being on the sales floor, I had to wonder what these homes looked like that they could sustain a weekly influx of merchandise that takes up physical space. There was another guy who we called “The Fisherman” who, 12 months of the year, would wear a rubber jacket. It would be 110 degrees and humid in July and he would come in dressed in this rubber jacket. Also, a short, rotund Asian guy who only spoke in one volume, which was quite loud. He had OCD and was afraid of pens, and he would stand very far away from the register when he came in and announce in his only voice that he needed all the pens taken away and hidden from the counter area. He really liked Louis Jourdan.