After succumbing to the demise of physical home entertainment and then being housed in a mountain village in Sicily, the eclectic holdings of New York City mainstay Kim’s Video have returned home.
Alamo Drafthouse has launched Kim’s Video Underground, a new outpost of the downtown indie film temple, which closed for good in 2014 after a years-long death rattle amid the rise of streaming. It occupies a site on the bottom floor of Alamo’s new Lower Manhattan location, which opened last October beneath an office building near the World Trade Center.
Tim League, founder of Alamo, joined with iconoclastic retailer Youngman Kim and officials from New York and Salemi, Italy (population: 10,000) for a reopening ceremony Wednesday evening. About one-third of Kim’s total collection of 55,000 discs and VHS tapes are available to circulate, with plans to rotate the rest over time.
Nodding at a tradition begun by soldiers in Napoleon’s army in the 1700s, Kim used a sword to cut open a bottle of champagne. “Nobody died,” League quipped. “Kim’s Video will live forever!”
As with similar home video ventures in North Carolina, Austin and LA, Alamo is allowing patrons to rent discs or tapes for free, though they must put a credit card down and agree to cover late fees. Video, like the food and cocktail offerings at Alamo, offers customers a reason to spend more time at the company’s spaces.
“Today is a homecoming. Kim’s Video is part of New York’s historic film and indie culture,” said Anne del Castillo, Commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. She added that she lived early in her career on Avenue A, near one location of Kim’s in the East Village. But given she lacked the professional notches in the belt she would later get as a producer and exec at PBS, she added with a laugh, “I felt quite intimidated and did not feel quite cool enough to walk into Kim’s! But I did know that it really formed my sense of culture and community. It was a place for creative people to gather.”
The quixotic move to ship discs and tapes to Italy as the final Kim’s locations wound down operations only enhanced the shop’s colorful legacy. Collectors were soon alarmed, though, when plans for a tourist center and screening room in Sicily fell through and boxes languished in a warehouse.
The original Kim’s first opened in 1986 on St. Marks Place in the East Village and soon added a handful of additional locations. Originally a grocer and a dry cleaner, Kim decided to start offering videocassettes as VCRs began exploding in popularity in the 1980s. In its heyday, Kim’s was a public square for cinephiles, amassing a collection that encompassed a breathtaking array of styles, eras and countries of origin. Staffers, some of whom attended Wednesday’s ceremony, were known to be discerning, verging on haughty. Quentin Tarantino, legend has it, was once turned away because he didn’t have his membership card and couldn’t recall the number.
The store’s ascent paralleled the emergence of independent film as a thriving sector. It also mapped to the waves of gentrification that altered Manhattan’s streetscape. Ultimately, Kim’s fell victim to the drastic shrinkage of the physical home entertainment business as streaming became the default film delivery system. Unable to find an acceptable alternative that would keep the entire collection intact, Kim entered into an agreement with Salemi.
In an interview with Deadline, he said he never felt completely at ease with the discs and tapes he had spent decades collecting being in such an unfamiliar, remote setting. “I visited about 10 times over the years,” he said. Ultimately, the collection did not suffer from the journey, he said.
League said he had “tons of doubt, the whole time” that the Kim’s trove would make it intact, and he still frets about the fragility of VHS tapes, which are gradually being digitized by Alamo’s non-profit archiving arm. He said the Lower Manhattan site proved an ideal home because it has vast amounts of temperature-controlled storage space. Once the repatriating plan was set, he recalled, executing it was like solving a “100,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. The covers didn’t match the physical media, so we were just trying to pair them. It took four months of work, from a team of five.”
While League readily acknowledged that “it would be an insane idea to open a video store” as a general proposition, Alamo had the advantage of having existing real estate and staff. He wants the thousands of ticket buyers coming through Alamo to be able to “take this adventure” and explore Kim’s, just as indie filmgoers did in decades past.
At the same time, he conceded with a grin, “The whole thing is so weird. I didn’t know if the whole thing was an elaborate scam.”
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