The Strange Fate of Kim's Video

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.

The Strange Fate of Kim's Video
Illustration by Kyle T. Webster

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.'"

Photograph by Rian Johnson
Mayor Vittorio Sgarbi and Yongman Kim had expansive (if strange) plans.
Courtesy Castelvetrano News Italy
Mayor Vittorio Sgarbi and Yongman Kim had expansive (if strange) plans.

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.

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12 comments
max555
max555

Most of the comments here are more interesting than the article, this person found out about kims in 2003 that's just not enough history, I'm not against recent New Yorkers at all but if you are writing an article and everyone reading it knows more about the place than you do, it just doesn't work out.

rawcuzima
rawcuzima

I remember when Mr. Kim owned a dry cleaners on Avenue A with his wife. He started his VHS rental video business there. I remember thinking "Movies and dry cleaning? Come on!"

MIPC
MIPC

Cassidy, "armpit of Europe" : yes Kims Video VHS collection is now in the new Kim's centre in Salemi Sicily Italy, some interns are digitizing it all !!! I've seen them.

kelvinpeeterson
kelvinpeeterson

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walkerp
walkerp

I was a regular at Kim's back before Mondo when it was on the other side of St. Mark's and to the east a bit (later turned into a clothing store).  It was quite a scene and I made some good friends through that place, including one of the employees.  They had an awesome collection of movies.  It was back when HK movies were all the rage and though there were still two theatres still going in Chinatown, Kim's was the place to get everything that you had missed.  It wasn't just the collection, but also that all the people that worked there were super into the movies and would tell you what next thing you should check out.  

 

They also had tons of great stories about the place.  My favourite and most outrageous (and possibly totally apocryphal) was the Halloween story.  Mr. Kim had a bodyguard and driver that would ferry him from store to store where he would check on the goings-on and take deposits.  One Halloween, the story goes, he forced the driver to wear a clown costume.  The driver happened to have some kind of stomach flu on that same day and he kept having to go to the bathroom.  Mr. Kim got fed up with waiting and wouldn't allow him to go so that he ended up shitting the pants of his clown suit.  He was sitting in the back of the store with his shit-stained clown suit pants while Mr. Kim berated him for being a "disgrace to the Korean race".

 

Good times.  It's the kind of funky, punk-rock, crazy small-businessman place that can no longer exist in New York.  It's kind of surprising how long it did last actually.

irvoneil
irvoneil

Loved Kim's Video and went there often and had to take a train ride just to get there, it wasn't in my neighborhood. Just going there to get obscure films made me feel like I was tapping a kind of fountain of eternal youth, recapturing over and over my gusto for movies. I couldn't understand why in a city like NY, with all the big money here, all the cinema luminaries and cultural hotshots, that NOBODY could take on that collection and make it perpetually available HERE, not on the other side of the world. Well, this article explains why. A sad tale. @irvoneil 

TheRTTC
TheRTTC

Hey cinephiles. I've recieved sad news from my girlfriend in Trinidad and need to go there asap. This seems a good place to announce this. I have my collection of 60's - 80's exploitation dvds which I am willing to part with to make this trip. Tell me what you want and I'll tell you if I have it, as the list to too long. Some are opened but most are not. I'm in Brooklyn. You don't have to buy the full collection, but I prefer you spend a minimum of $50+ at a FAIR OFFER! I'm collecting for a plane ticket so I need an amount that is going to take a big bite out of that cost. (average prices right now are in the $600 range) Dvd's are 'special ed', unrated, etc. email your request to retro.trash.theatreco@gmail.com  Also, for those of you intersted, I have back issues of Make-Up Artist and Fangoria Magazine availble for sell! Thanks!

marieepstein
marieepstein

Sgarbi and Toscani yell at each other on Italian Radio Zanzara (Mosquito) -- here Toscani calls Sgarbi impotent and Sgarbi says Toscani is a drug addict. http://video.corriere.it/cultura/index.shtml

 

What was the video rental around Houston and 6th?  They had foreign, vintage, indy and they were very nice.

Cassidy
Cassidy

Wait a minute...so this legendary thing I've been hearing about off and on through the years, this "Kim's Video," this "Mondo Kim"...is just some Korean guy's extensive and eclectic tape and disc collection????

 

And it's now in some closed-off if not entirely abandoned facility in the middle of nowhere in Sicily, the armpit of Europe????

 

Sounds like the premise of a student film project!!

Binkconn
Binkconn topcommenter

I heard of its reputation when I was at the NYFA in late '01, but thought the $150 deposit to join was outrageous (still do). RIP Kim's but not really missed.

LisaKS
LisaKS

 @walkerp OUTRAGEOUSLY untrue and frankly defamatory.

Mr. Kim drove a Jeep himself for 10 years during the peak of the Kim's stores success. His "bodyguards" would work at a single store and monitor the place for shoplifters.

 

Want to hear a funny story? He kept on most of his employees on staff long after he knew he had to get rid of his rental section all the while hemorrhaging $$ just to keep them paid.

katherine.gleason
katherine.gleason

 @marieepstein It was Evergreen Video. They moved to Carmine Street and then they closed. They had great stuff. I always intended to rent the 8 part serial of The Master and Margarita, but I never did. Boo.

 

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