One day in December, down escalators that led away from the sun and into the bowels of a skyscraper just a few blocks from the New York Stock Exchange, Skip Elsheimer suddenly stopped sifting through a sea of musty, mismatched boxes to marvel at a discovery he held in his dust-coated hands. It was a VHS tape of “Apocalypse Pooh.”
To an outside observer, the video holds no great significance. You can find “Apocalypse Pooh” on YouTube: it was an early example of a video mash-up, created in the late 1980s, that laid audio of “Apocalypse Now” over Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons. But for Elsheimer, the find brought back a formative memory: “Apocalypse Pooh” was one of the movies he rented the first time he stepped into Kim’s Video & Music while visiting the East Village around 1993.
“It’s come full circle,” Elsheimer thought to himself.
Ask a certain slice of New Yorkers or film buffs about Kim’s Video & Music, and you’ll be regaled with details that overwhelm the senses: The sound of gruff but knowledgeable clerks convincing you of the virtues of an out-of-print independent film shot in a language you don’t know, subtitles not available (who needs them?); the sight of hand-drawn DVD covers with employees’ comments scribbled on them in lieu of missing, probably stolen boxes (“‘Kung Fu Cock Fighter,’ come on, rent this thing!”); the feeling of your fingertip running down the spines of a hundred VHS tapes, searching for one but finding many.
That experience is in part what Elsheimer has helped to recreate. He is one of several video aficionados working with Alamo Drafthouse, the national chain, on an unlikely project: On Thursday, the company cut the ribbon on a revived version of Kim’s Video inside its Lower Manhattan theater. The store will initially offer some 20,000 physical movies for rent, sourced from a collection that was boxed up after the Kim’s Video flagship store, known as Mondo Kim’s, closed on St. Marks Place in 2009. Rentals will be free, although late fees (late fees!) will apply.
The store is part of a long-running strategy to turn Alamo’s theaters into hangout spaces that offer more physical experiences than the streaming services can. The chain originally stood out from competitors with similar kinds of upscale geekery, including gourmet burgers, reclining lounge seats and memorabilia-filled lobbies. But now that moviegoing has morphed into thousands-of-movies-at-the-click-of-a-trackpad streaming wars, what can a video store even mean in 2022? Who would leave their couch to make a trip to a store to browse through physical objects, not to mention a trip back to return them? Who even has a VCR? (OK, the Alamo team has solved that last one: Players will be available to rent.)
THE RENTAL IDEA is a passion project for Tim League, Alamo’s founder. League has so far acquired the contents of seven shuttered shops, including Le Video in San Francisco and Vulcan Video in Austin, Tex. “I think what’s best about video store collections is that they’re the work of some 20, 30 years of an obsessed human being’s curation,” he explained.
League has been behind similar projects in Alamo theaters in several other cities, starting at the one in Raleigh, N.C., which gave him and his teams their first taste of the challenges of resurrecting old rental movies. (“Part of that collection got a little, you know, damp,” he said.)
But “we’ve always known that the white whale was this crazy Mondo Kim’s video collection,” League said.
That’s because, Elsheimer added later, “it’s this rare, big, amazing thing — but it’s also a white whale because it’s a giant pain in the ass.”
The exalted reputation of the Kim’s collection may be as much a product of its history as of its contents. The founder of Kim’s Video & Music, Yongman Kim, began with a single store in 1987 on Avenue A in the East Village. His business ballooned into a small chain; its glory days lasted until the mid-2000s. Employees included the filmmakers Alex Ross Perry (“Her Smell”) and Todd Phillips (“Joker”), and other creative people like the guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. of the Strokes. The chain developed a reputation as a haven for the work of downtown New York weirdos and geniuses from faraway places, a home for no-budget art films and student movies shelved alongside blockbusters.
“The main concept of Kim’s video,” Kim said, “was connecting from culture to culture.”
In 2009, Mondo Kim’s closed; in an odd, well-chronicled twist, that store’s collection of tapes and DVDs was sent to Salemi, a historic town in Sicily, where plans were made to open a public archive and screening operation as a tourist attraction. Other Kim’s stores’ inventories were donated to colleges. The final location shuttered in 2014.
The inventory in Italy took on legendary status among video collectors. The plans in Salemi never materialized. There were rumors of missing tapes, forgotten boxes and, perhaps worst of all, mold. In 2017, David Redmon, a documentarian (“Girl Model”) and former Kim’s Video regular, visited Salemi. The movies — these subjects of immense passion and intrigue — were in storage.
“To see them sitting there untouched in this remote building, it really made me a bit sad,” he said.
Redmon began working to bring the collection back to the United States. Why was he so determined? “I have no rational answer,” Redmon said. (Consciously or not, he was echoing Melville’s Captain Ahab: “All my means are sane, my motive and my object mad.”) He contacted Kim, who said he would help bring the collection back if Redmon could find a home for it. Eventually, Redmon was connected with League. By late last summer, the videos were crossing the Atlantic.
About 550 boxes arrived at the Alamo in Lower Manhattan. League hired Nick Prueher, a co-founder of the Found Footage Festival, to spearhead the task of sorting through the boxes and working out how to turn the piles upon piles of movies into a functioning rental operation.
“It’s really been figuring out how to run a video store in 2022, basically,” Prueher said.
The challenges were immediately obvious. Many of the VHS and DVD cases were locked with archaic security devices meant to prevent theft. After some trial and error (“I cut myself with a screwdriver trying to get those open”), Prueher found a company outside Los Angeles that had the magnetic gizmos needed to disarm the locks. Like many video stores, Kim’s kept the actual movies behind the counter; the cases with the artwork were empty inside. This meant that most of the tens of thousands of movies and cases were all mixed up and had to be paired again.
Prueher led a team of five people, each of whom experienced both the magic and the grit of the collection. Roodi Langs, once a Kim’s customer, recalled finding organic matter — including what appeared to be dried spider eggs — in some boxes: “At one point they were infested with something that was alive.” Sabrina McDonald, who moved to New York right before the pandemic and never visited Kim’s in person, enjoyed the tactile experience of handling the movies and reading the write-ups on the boxes. “I’ve discovered a new love of silent films doing this project,” McDonald said.
FOR ELSHEIMER, flipping through covers, studying the artwork and reading the back of the boxes, is a — maybe the — fundamental part of a video store visit.
“If people can experience that and experience what it was like to go to Kim’s in some regard, that’s a success,” he said. “If they rent something, that’s great. If they get a Kim’s T-shirt or sticker, that’s great.”
But at Alamo’s rental operation in Raleigh, Elsheimer said, many customer visits would begin and end with browsing. “They’d get a beer and they would just browse,” he said. “There’s something that feels really good about it. It tickles your brain.”
The idea that browsing is the main event hints at a basic difference between the new Kim’s Video project and the original idea of a video store. In the VHS heyday, the home viewing experience was the point. You would stop at the store after you picked up a pizza. Or you would throw a coat over pajamas and make a quick trip to get a video. You might spend some time, maybe longer than you expected, scanning the shelves, unsure what to settle on. But for most people, the store was not the goal; hanging out at home was.
At Alamo, the rental operation is intended to be an experience, part of the larger one of moviegoing. And as most stores have disappeared — with the exception of a smattering of big, respected ones like Movie Madness in Portland, Ore., and Scarecrow Video in Seattle — that may become a more common way for video stores to be understood by modern audiences, especially younger generations who never visited the stores in person.
For example, the Vidiots Foundation, a nonprofit in Los Angeles born from a long-running video store of the same name, is in the process of building a similar operation, with a rental shop attached to a theater. (The organization also talked at one point about housing the Kim’s collection.) The executive director of Vidiots, Maggie Mackay, said that combining rental operations and theaters could turn these businesses into something more than the sum of their parts: Community spaces with the potential to serve as incubators for intense fandom, in a way that digital services are less equipped to do.
“I don’t think that streaming services are adequate as a tool for making fans — like really deep fans — out of young people,” Mackay said. “You have to make superfans out of them. You have to make them fall in love with the medium.”
With a theater-cum-video-rental store, Mackay said, “you have something completely new — and I think something that can reinvigorate film culture when it desperately needs to be reinvigorated.”
Reinvigoration might be necessary for Alamo too: The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection early last year, when the movie theater business was hit hard by the pandemic. It emerged from bankruptcy last summer. A novel experience like the Kim’s collection could be a tool to draw audiences back.
JUST A FEW DAYS BEFORE THE REVIVED KIM’S was to open, League, Elsheimer and Prueher stood in one of the lobbies of the Alamo downtown, discussing how they would lay out the rental space. The air tasted of sawdust: League himself had been cutting wooden shelves, each one measured to the depth of a VHS tape. On the floor waiting to be hung was a vinyl banner modeled after an awning from one of the original Kim’s stores. There had been a graphic design meeting about whether to put bird poop on it, Prueher noted.
The theater was open; movies were screening. And as the group worked, music played through the lobby. It was hard not to be amused when the playlist landed on the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna,” and Paul McCartney sang, “Who finds the money when you pay the rent?” The scene seemed to speak to the charming improbability and scrappiness of the whole endeavor — and, perhaps, to the challenges faced by theaters in 2022.
It reminded me of a visit some weeks earlier, on a slushy weekday in February when, in a warm back room, Prueher and company were deep in the movie-sorting process.
That day, progress had been made on the F’s: “Flight of the Phoenix” (2004) was next to “Flightplan” (2005) was next to “Flying Guillotine, Part II” (1978). As the group worked, the room rattled. Explosive bass tones were coming from the other side of the wall, Theater No. 7, where a matinee of the latest Marvel superhero movie, “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” was underway.
From the sorting room, it sounded — and felt — like the muffled thumping of a giant’s footsteps.