For anyone who hung out in the East Village between 1987 and 2010, the various Kim’s Video locations, which would sprout up and disappear depending on the economic vagaries of the moment, constituted an essential cultural landmark. Founded by Korean businessman Yongman Kim, initially when he rented out part of his Avenue A dry cleaning store to a fellow with a large collection of VHS tapes and then opened up a store down the street for him to manage. Kim’s Video lasted through the days when Napster reigned supreme and even after LPs made a comeback. When you stood in a Kim’s Video, it was easy to imagine that you were existing in an idealized community of punks, freaks, and artists, you could watch Stranger Than Paradise, After Hours, The Brother from Another Planet, or Do the Right Thing and know that those movies were shot in this same city and that the filmmakers themselves might walk through the door any minute.
Yesterday, August 25, was the last day of the last remaining location of Kim’s Video, at 124 First Avenue. For a certain kind of scruffy video-literate New Yorker, it was a sad day indeed.
Kim’s was one of the country’s great video stores, part of a community that included such hallowed places as Four Star Video Heaven in Madison and Scarecrow Video in Seattle. If you wanted to watch an Ozu movie or a Kenneth Anger film in the days before DVD, you had to go to a store like Kim’s. Kim’s ordered their shelves by filmmaker—the Godard shelf had a sign that read simply, “God”—and for hard-to-get movies that had never had an official release, they were perfectly content to stock bootlegs (this tendency would eventually get them into trouble). The only time in my life I had a 9-to-5 job in New York City was between 1997 and 2001, and those were also, not coincidentally, my prime Kim’s years (not that I used Kim’s for videos all that much—I lived up near Columbia University, where there were more convenient options). I can remember renting, over a period of a few weeks, the entire oeuvre of Errol Morris as well as selected early masterpieces by Wong Kar Wai. In my mind the quintessential Kim’s movie was Superstar, Todd Haynes’ 1987 movie that used Barbie dolls to tell the Karen Carpenter story and ended up getting withdrawn from circulation after Haynes lost lawsuit filed by Richard Carpenter.
In the late 1990s and into the 2000s it kept getting raided by the FBI for bootlegs, which were often displayed blatantly. I remember visiting one of the stores one day and learning the next day that a serious raid had occurred a couple hours after I left. Kim’s was legendary for its condescending clerks, but my only good Kim’s story involved a considerate and helpful clerk, so whatevs. (I received my share of eyerolls, I’m sure, but I must have shrugged them off.) I was visiting the Kim’s Underground location on Bleecker (formerly the site of both the Bleecker Street Cinema and the Cafe a Go Go), and at the time I was obsessed with the band Spoon, who disappeared for a couple years there after Elektra dropped them in 1998. I made it a habit of checking the CD bins for Spoon releases, and I was invariably disappointed. On this occasion I asked the music clerk (this location emphasized movies more than the others, and the CD section was pretty small) about Spoon, and he indicated that he had a stack behind the counter of perhaps a dozen copies of a newish promo, the “30 Gallon Tank” maxi-single, that Elektra had obviously given up on. The clerk reached back and gave me one, no charge.
Be sure to check out this detailed oral history of Kim’s at Bedford and Bowery. It does a far better job of filling in the blanks than I ever could. I didn’t realize that so many prominent people worked there as clerks—for instance, Todd Phillips, director of the Hangover movies. Here’s a choice quote from Louis CK about Kim’s you can read in there:
“When I first moved to New York there was a place next door to my apartment called Kim’s Video which was a sort of artsy video store. Instead of arranging the videos by title, they had them arranged by director or even photographer, so I educated myself. I went through the Godard section in one week and then Pasolini.”
Today the huge Kim’s video collection is languishing in Italy and the last of the stores is no more. I moved away from New York City last December for related reasons. New York’s still a great city but without places like Kim’s around, I’m not really sure who it’s there for anymore.