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The best video collection in New York was shipped to a Sicilian town with a promise that it would be kept accessible to cinephiles. Here's what really happened to it.
From 1995 until January 2009, a music and movie megastore called Mondo Kim’s took up the bulk of a five-story building at 6 St. Marks Place in the East Village. The top floor was rented out as apartments, and the fourth floor was used by Yongman Kim—the owner of the building and of Mondo Kim’s—as office space. The third floor held what was widely considered to be the best, most diverse video-rental collection in New York City.
And then there was a basement, a dank, moldy, low-ceilinged space. At some point—around the summer of 2007, according to former employees—Kim had the idea to turn this basement into a dungeon.
"Kim was like, 'It'll be like jail,'" remembers filmmaker Alex Ross Perry, who worked at Mondo Kim's for three years. "'There'll be couches and beds in this room. And TVs. And someone will walk around with a cart, like in prison, and distribute movies that you have ordered. You'll rent it by the hour. You bring food in; you watch a movie.'"
Kim's staff was not exactly enthusiastic. "I think someone was just like, 'That sounds really dangerous,'" Perry recalls. "And Kim's response was, 'Imagine the press we'll get for this!' It was like, 'Yeah, bad press.'
"That was his outside-the-box thinking," Perry continues. "Not like, how can we make this collection accessible to more people, but how can we make money [by] locking people in a room and having them sit on a cot and watch their movie in a basement? That was really where his head would be at when it came to business decisions like that. It was just like, 'What fucked-up, crazy stuff can we do that'll be totally nuts, and people will go crazy for it?'
"That culminates," Perry adds, "in what happened with the collection."
The closing of a video store is not news. With Web streaming, the vanishing DVD sales market, and Netflix, it's an inevitability. Usually, the fate of the physical videos after the store's closing isn't news, either. Maybe there's a dollar sale. Maybe employees smuggle home the dead stock. The customers adapt. They find another video store. They use BitTorrent and YouPorn.
This is how it happens. If you've ever had a video-store membership, this has probably happened to you.
This is not how it happened with Mondo Kim's.
It's not surprising because Kim's was never your typical neighborhood video store. A former employee gleefully remembers the time Quentin Tarantino came in looking to rent Mark Rappaport's experimental documentary From the Journals of Jean Seberg. The Pulp Fiction director couldn't remember his membership number, but the clerk was adamant: no membership number, no rentals. The Oscar winner left sans VHS.
Kim's employees had earned the right to check credentials. Obsessive cinephiles with unique areas of expertise, including made-for-TV horror flicks, Turkish remakes of Hollywood blockbusters, and vintage sexploitation, Kim's clerks helped curate the insanely wide-ranging collection and served as mentors, gatekeepers, and pushers to the store's clientele. The store became a meeting place for New York's hardcore cinema obsessives. I became a member in 2003, when I was a cinema-studies graduate student at New York University. Kim's had films—on VHS tapes and out-of-print DVDs—that I couldn't get at school.
Filmmaker Perry remembers first visiting as an NYU undergrad. "They had these region-2 DVDs of '80s Godard movies, and I was like: 'Well, this is amazing. Now I can see this.' And then people behind the counter would be like, 'Yeah, get that, but there's also stuff here that you don't know about that we should make sure you're aware of.'
"It just made it totally accessible to people to have gatekeepers explaining things and alerting any customer, 'Oh, if you like that, you should get this, too.'"
When Mondo Kim's closed shop, the DVD-and-CD-retail business moved to a single-story storefront on First Avenue, a few blocks away. The new store didn't have space for the rental collection's estimated 55,000 DVDs and VHS tapes—by design. Although the retail business was profitable, the rental business barely took in enough income to pay the salaries of the four employees needed to stay open.
In fall 2008, Kim warned his patrons via an appeal to the community that the end of his rental business was coming. Posted in the store, his message quickly made its way around the Web: "Kim's Video is offering a collection of approximately 55,000 films to institutions, schools, business owners, or individuals who can accommodate Kim's full line of film collection."
The catch? "The condition to accept this collection requires 3,000 square feet of space, commitment to give access to Kim's members (charging minimum membership fee), and maintaining the collection. The exclusive film collection should still be available to the public, especially film students and film-lovers. We hope to find a sponsor who can make this collection available to those who have loved Kim's over the past two decades."
Near the end of 2008, signs announcing that December 31 would be the last rental day were posted inside the store. Kim had struck a deal—but not with a local institution, a school, a business, or an individual. Instead, Kim opted to send his rental collection 4,448 miles away, to Salemi, Italy.