The Last Of The Video Stores


Jennifer M. Wood is excited they still exist:

Hop the F train from Kim’s final location to Brooklyn and you’ll find Video Free Brooklyn, a tiny storefront touting the tagline that “Video stores didn’t die, they just had to evolve.” Originally opened in 2002, the space was taken over by the husband-and-wife team of Aaron Hillis and Jennifer Loeber in 2012. While the decision to purchase a video store at the height of streaming’s assault on the traditional rental industry seemed counterintuitive, Hillis calls it “a labor of love that, surprisingly, also made economic sense.” …

Though the store measures just 375 square feet, basement storage allows Hillis—a noted film critic in his own right—to keep approximately 10,000 discs on hand. But rather than compete against the same wide-release films and television series that one can watch with the click of a button and an $8.99 streaming subscription, Hillis is curating a library of hard-to-find fare. “After the floodgates of the Internet opened, we’re now drowning in content and especially mediocrity,” Hillis says. “Video Free Brooklyn’s model is almost a no-brainer: My inventory is heavily curated, but so is my staff, all of whom work in the film industry and have extensive, nerdy knowledge about cinema. Coming into the shop is about nostalgia, the joy of discovery, and getting catered recommendations from passionate cinephiles. It’s a hangout, like the record store in High Fidelity.”

How others are surviving:

[T]alk to any two independent video storeowners in the city and they’ll offer a variety of reasons for their success. The common denominator? A deep understanding of their neighborhoods and customers.

That insight is what has allowed Video Room, an Upper East Side mainstay and Manhattan’s first video store, to keep going for over 35 years, according to its manager, Howard Salen. He has worked there since 1986, and describes the store’s customers as “intelligent Manhattanites” who tend to be older. So they curate to just that: offering a wide array of foreign and classic films, as well as new releases by the Woody Allens and Wes Andersons of the film industry as opposed to the Michael Bays. They also have a secret weapon–a video transfer service. Customers bring in home videos of their families that were filmed on VHS and Video Room converts them to DVDs or other updated digital formats. For Video Room, appealing to a younger clientele is a lost cause. They see video stores as antiques. “Ten years ago they’re everywhere,” said Mr. Salen. “Now they’re from a time capsule.”

Will Malitek, who opened his Greenpoint video store Film Noir about ten years ago, would disagree. His business survives off young customers – those of the artsy Bedford Avenue scene. Mr. Malitek is the type of cinephile who thinks Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu is mainstream, and his collection mirrors that mindset. Though he has the occasional big film–a copy of Cowboys & Aliens, for example–he specializes in cult movies and obscure foreign films. He used to have a new releases section but got rid of it once Netflix arrived. But he doesn’t see Netflix or on-demand as huge competitors since most of the films he offers simply can’t be found elsewhere. “Even if you do find some of them, you’re not going to find all the extras and that’s what my customers want to see,” said Mr. Malitek.

(Photo by Wally Gobetz)