When the last remaining location of Kim’s Video & Music announced it was closing for good, most agreed it was just another nail in the coffin, the latest reminder of what the Times called “a downtown culture now largely lost.”
Others were amazed it didn’t happen sooner: “New York City changes so much, so fast,” said former Kim’s manager and buyer Steve Puchalski. “Mr. Kim being able to stay open for 25-plus years is really a tribute to him.”
Yongman Kim opened the first location of Kim’s in 1987, expanding what was then a video nook inside of his laundromat into a proper store, down the block at 85 Avenue A (it lasted until 2004). Kim’s quickly became the place to rent videos that defied mainstream taste, from B horror movies to Czech New Wave films. A second store at 133 Second Avenue (on the corner of St. Marks) was followed by outposts at 350 Bleecker (Kim’s West, 1990-2002), 144 Bleecker (Kim’s Underground, 1991-2005), 6 St. Marks Place (Mondo Kim’s, 1995-2009), 2906 Broadway in Morningside Heights (Kim’s Mediapolis, 2001-2008), and 89 Christopher Street (Kim’s Video, 2005-2009). There was even a Jersey City store.
The last remaining location, at 124 First Avenue, opened soon after Mondo Kim’s closed, sending the 55,000 rental videos that hadn’t been confiscated during copyright-infringement raids off to Italy to waste away. Two years ago — even as he lamented that “digital has hurt my business and so has the Internet; it is what caused me to close most of the Kim’s locations” — Mr. Kim had plans to open a pizzeria for film lovers, but it was not meant to be.
With his last store now set to close Aug. 25, B+B got in touch with former employees and notable customers. We turned up some fantastic stories from people who swore the place changed their careers and their lives.
CLAYTON PATTERSON, gallerist/documentarian
My first memory of Kim’s is when he opened a laundry next to The Pyramid. What made Kim’s unique is he shared the space with Kim’s video rental. At first the selection was small and heavily concentrated on community artists. So one could rent a number of 1/2″ VHS videos and become familiar with different movie makers.
Eventually the movie rental took over a large portion of the floor space in the laundry. Kim always had a great and wide selection of movies. Later Kim’s Video became a full-building space on heavily trafficked St. Marks.
The moment Kim’s opened, it supplanted everything else in the area. It was so much better curated. —Richard Hell, writer, musician (NY Times, 2014)
CHRISTOPHER PRAVDICA, ex-clerk, musician, member of Swans
It was all because of Matt Marello that the whole thing happened.
Mr. Kim used to own Kim’s Laundromat across from Tompkins Square Park, by Odessa. And Matt Morello was a film student who was a musician. He got the idea to put his video collection on the floor of the laundromat, because he knew all the people that came in might be interested in renting. Apparently the videos were gone all the time, so Mr. Kim basically opened up a video store for him to run down the block.
A friend — the singer from Texas is the Reason, Garrett [Klahn] — was working there and said they were hiring. I think I just came in and they were like, “You start on this day.”
When I was working at the Avenue A store (I guess it would have been ’96 to ’98), Matt Marello was still there. So the original idea of just putting up his own personal videos kind of stayed with the place, even when the other stores were opened. Matt would tape stuff off TV, if it didn’t have commercials, and then make a box for it. By the time I was working there most of the stuff came through the proper channels, but if you dug deep in the library there were some things in there.
I remember the copy of Seconds was taped off of AMC. It had the AMC logo on it. That was one of the cool things about Kim’s: if they had the movie but couldn’t get it officially, they would still put it up.
I came along and started helping him put together a collection of tapes. I was a film buff, so it got a good reputation and developed into a hot spot in the neighborhood… We went against every business model that says, “The customer is always right.” But I think in the end, people sort of liked the grungy East Village thing. —Matt Marello, ex-manager, artist, musician (NY Times, 2004)
Mr. Kim was hard to read. He was very Korean and a businessman, so it was way out of anything I can relate to. He had a weird sense of humor, and the other Korean people he hired were strange to me, too. There was a Kim’s catalog every year, and they would show all the new stuff they had on Laserdisc or video or whatever. One year it had this statement on the front that was something along the lines of: “Once there was a boy born in Korea, his name was Yongman and then he moved to New York, and here are the fruits of his labor.” It was very strange, I didn’t know what to make of it. He had some weird complex about himself — self-centered or something.
He barely knew me, because by then it was all about the St. Marks store. When I first started working on Avenue A, the St. Marks Kim’s was further west. And while I was working at Kim’s they moved into that other spot and it was the Mondo Kim’s. Mega Kim’s. All of his focus was over there. Avenue A was just like, “eh, whatever.”
I was so young — 19 or 20. Kembra Pfahler from the band Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black flirted with me very heavy in the porn room once. She wanted to date me in the porn room. I was so scared.
In the porno section in the back, the wall didn’t go up to the ceiling, so it was exposed to the outside. They used to have plastic sheets in there, because that was what would keep the cold out from the rest of the place. It was like walking into a cooler or a meat market when you walked into the porn section. In the winter it was freezing cold back there.
As a result, these squirrels used to come in there and cause havoc. You’d open it up in the morning and the boxes would be all chewed up. One day we opened up and there were squirrel body parts everywhere — pieces of squirrel, and blood and guts — because an alley cat or a tom cat had moved into the porn room and nested next to the boiler. They named him Chunks, because of the squirrel chunks, and put out a little litter box and food for him and he just lived back there. He was really big and mean, if you went anywhere near him. If you peaked over the divider between him and you, you’d just see him and he’d be pissed.
One day he died and crawled into the wall. I had to reach in the wall to pull him out — stiff as a board.
Out of hundreds, if not thousands of crazy stories, the one that seems to dominate is the fungal infestation of the “Pee Wee Room”, a cavernous sub-basement at the rear [of Kim’s Underground on Bleecker Street] where the porno rentals were displayed. Around the summer of 1999, mold spores somehow reminiscent of the facehugger eggs from the ALIEN films began to sprout from the cum-spattered, water damaged, cheaply tiled floor. These spores reached sizes in excess of three feet, and ranged from lime green to burnt sienna in color. The room was closed by the order of NYC HEALTH AND SAFETY, and I believe Mr. Kim was fined. Eventually, the room re-opened. I had many nightmares about these spores, and probably will again tonight. Of course, the store was infested with mice and large “Palmetto” roaches. —Gene Gregorits, ex-clerk (Cinema Treasures, 2009)
I was working that day the FBI came in with machine guns because we had some Chinese bootlegs that they didn’t like. They went right to the Chinese section, grabbed specific tapes, and went right out. I don’t know what that was all about.
We used to sell movie T-shirts, and one of the T-shirts had a print for The Born Losers, the original Billy Jack movie — it was Billy Jack with his shotgun, with bikers behind him. They kind of look like Hells Angels, even though they’re just some generic biker gang from the ’60s. One day while I was working the day shift about five Hells Angels, from Third Street, came out. They just went right up to me and pointed to the T-shirt without looking and said, “You gotta take those down. We don’t allow you to sell images of Hells Angels.” And I made the mistake of trying to explain to them, “It’s not the Hell’s Angels… it’s some Billy Jack movie.” It was the first and last time I ever pissed off a Hells Angel.
There was a mythos that everybody was an asshole there — like you would get serious attitude from the clerks. I’m a very jovial and gregarious person, and I didn’t play it like that. I talked about all the movies and all the staff really got along. When I was there, there was never any attitude that wasn’t fun. But I’d make mix tapes and always wind up playing them too loud. The customers would complain — they’re trying to pick a movie and the music’s blasting.
All my connections today come from that job — everybody I work with now. The connections have like six degrees of separation, but it all goes back to Kim’s.
Every once in a while I get recognized in far-flung places. “You used to work at Kim’s.”
It was a rite of passage to go in there, rent a movie and get snobbed on by some disdainful clerk. —Mike Doughty, musician (NY Times, 2005)
STEVE PUCHALSKI, former manager and buyer, founder & editor of Shock Cinema Magazine
I worked at the old St. Marks store, on the corner of St. Marks and Second Avenue. It was above The Gap, on the second floor, before they moved to the bigger St. Marks store and I worked there and I managed. I was also the buyer from 1990 to 1995.
That was the first job I got when I came to New York City. I had gone to Syracuse University where I ran the biggest college film series in the country. I moved to New York City in 1990 and was immediately drawn to Kim’s after stopping in.
After I saw an ad in the Village Voice saying “looking for clerks,” I walked into the Avenue A store, which was where Kim had an office, and they took me right in the back and said, “This is Mr. Kim.”
Mr. Kim found and employed people who really loved films, and he gave them a lot of freedom to make the store into what they really thought it could be.
The interview process was very simple. He basically asked if I had any experience working retail, which I had. And then Mr. Kim asked me, “Can you name any Martin Scorsese films?” I started naming everything, including the most obscure films. And he just went, “Ok, you start tomorrow.” He started me at the Second Avenue store as a clerk immediately and just threw me right into the situation.
Within probably two months, I was working as a manager. That was just a fluke, basically. Kim had walked into the Second Avenue store one day, and his manager was asleep on the countertop and by himself. So he fired the manager and I walked in from my shift and he said, “Here are the keys, you’re a manager now.” And that manager that was fired was the director Todd Phillips, who went on to do Old School and The Hangover movies. So I actually got my first promotion due to Todd Phillips being so exhausted that day.
I was working from 8am to 4pm, but no one would come in at eight in the morning except to return tapes. And [Mr. Kim] walked in and I was sleeping at the counter with my head down. He hit the glass case and he goes, [In a Korean accent] “You’re fired!” And I said, “What?” because I didn’t understand him. My favorite thing about Mr. Kim was he had an accountant called Dr. No, because anytime anyone asked him anything, his job was just to say no. Nobody knew his real name. I would go in and say, “I wasn’t paid for two hours of overtime last week,” and Kim would say, “Just speak to Dr. No.” —Todd Phillips, ex-clerk, director (Timeout, 2011)
Mr. Kim wanted his stores to do well, but he obviously wanted to make money and for them to be successful. So he wanted it to be somewhat professional, but also he gave us a lot of leeway so that it was a comfortable place where the employees enjoyed working (as much as you could for $5 an hour).
When I started. I think Kim’s had been open only 2 or 3 years, so the stores were a lot funkier. They had edge to them. I personally hand-lettered a lot of the signs, and it just looked a little worn. It was fitting for the East Village.
We really encouraged people who loved films to come in there and feel like it was their store also. If it was a slow afternoon, they’d hang at the counter and talk about films until it got busy and we had to get back to work. If you were a cinephile and you walked into Kim’s, we wanted you to think, “I’ve found a home away from home.”
When I was a buyer, I took suggestions from customers, from the other employees, and then I ordered the titles and we’d put them out for rental.
The niceness thing is ridiculous. It’s the East Village. People are insane. I think they will get over their niceness very quickly. —Richard Mailman, manager, referring to the politeness policy at new rival Two Boots (NY Times, 1996)
At the St. Marks store, we were the first store outside of Chinatown that rented Hong Kong movies, just as they were becoming very popular, with John Woo and people like that. We were the only place that you could rent a lot of them. And we’d buy underground films that were made by local filmmakers and we would just buy them straight from the filmmaker over the counter, and put them out for rental so they could get their work seen. It gave the store a very personal feel.
A lot of the clerks were friends, and after we’d close out the shop at midnight we’d occasionally go out for drinks or something. And of course we’d just talk about movies incessantly, and argue about movies– which was half the fun of it. But it was a really good time.
St. Mark’s Bookshop and Kim’s Video are responsible for any and all good input I’ve had in my brain – even more than college. —Adria Petty, director (The Local East Village, 2011)
ISABEL GILLIES, ex-clerk, actress, writer
Around 1992, Jim Jarmusch was in the neighborhood, and all these great directors were around. It’s not like they were in there hiring, but it gave a sort of vibe to the place. It had a cool smell, and it had a cool vibe, and you could play cool music. Kim’s could almost be scary because it was so cool.
I was at NYU Film School, and I wanted to work there really badly. It took me a couple of times to get hired because they were very picky. But because the clerks there were so knowledgeable about independent film, they actually knew me from this movie I was in called Metropolitan. So then they were like, “Okay.” I must have worked there for two years, maybe a year and a half. I definitely felt like a nerd in a sea of coolness every time I went to work, but that was part of the fun of it.
I worked from like 5 p.m. to midnight. Back then you didn’t have movies on your phone and computer, and there was no On Demand, so really your entertainment was going to the movies or renting movies. Because there was no Internet, and few people had cable (expensive), what you chose to watch for the night was important. There was no Rotten Tomatoes or similar sites to inform you, so customers ended up asking your opinion.
I can remember begging people to rent a movie I loved, and feeling so happy and triumphant if they did – but scared also because they trusted you, took a leap of faith and what if they didn’t like it? Their whole night would be blown and it would be your fault. Then I would honestly look forward to seeing if they dug the movie or not. That was a meaningful part of the job – you felt like you could make the smallest impact in the happiness of the community. You can’t imagine how satisfying it was to have a customer come in to return a movie you recommended with a big smile on their face saying, “This was SO GOOD!”
When people brought these big cassette tapes back, you had to put them back in the box. Then – let’s say the director was Kurosowa – you would go to the Kurosowa section and you would have to put it in the right place. Doing that kind of work got your chops good about knowing who the directors were, and what the genre was, what their body of work was. But it was hard. It wasn’t chill. The place was crowded and busy – there were lines going out the door. It was balls-to-the-wall for hours and hours and hours. And then it might quiet down a little bit by 10. It was really exhausting: you’re constantly hauling these drawers. Movies would be on, but we never watched them – because you couldn’t, really.
There was a porn section. Those boxes were double the size, so there was no doubt that you were getting porn. But people didn’t care. Every other person – gay, straight, single, couples – rented a porn. I was sort of prudish when I first got there – I was like, “Oh my god, just renting a porn?” And then by the end I was like, “What? Everyone does…”
Where else are you going to find people who have an encyclopedic knowledge of the pornography of a particular country? There was some attitude, but a lot of it just came from passion.” —Matt Singer, ex-clerk, editor (New York magazine, 2008)
We had these huge, giant computers that were from like 1984. And each member’s account had a page. And if you were bad, or you didn’t return movies, or you had been an asshole or something, there was a little section for comments and people could leave “this customer never remembers to rewind their tape,” or “this customer was sleazy to me.”
You had to be a little careful, though, because Mr. Kim was scary. I didn’t meet him very much. He was hardcore. It was a real business for Mr. Kim: it was well run, it was kind of a big chain, it wasn’t a small little thing.
The people that worked there were very intense, angry film people who had a reputation for being rude and snobby. They had very intellectual, really artistic taste. They were into Jim Jarmusch and all really out-there stuff. I was like this blonde hippie girl (“Yay, I’m going to be nice to everyone”) and my movie taste was a little more When Harry Met Sally. I would beg to put on Dave Matthews or something, and they were like, “ewww.”
Somehow I became friends, for like two weeks, with Joe Strummer, the lead singer of The Clash. I met him at a concert and we just became friends. One time we were going to a party, and I was like, “You know what, I need to pick up my check from work.”
So I came up the stairs, and all these guys were so indie and thought they were so badass, with shaved heads. They were all gay, I was straight. Somehow they thought I was this kind of nerd and they were all so cool. They’d spent their entire lives listening to The Clash and worshipping them. And then I brought in Joe Strummer to pick up my check and they freaked out so hardcore. They couldn’t believe a) that Joe Strummer was in the shop and b) that I had brought him there. That was my moment of glory at Kim’s Video.
The first summer I worked there I was the only female among six or seven male clerks ranging in age from twenty-one to thirty. All of them were a whole lot more knowledgeable about movies and music than me, and one of the older, senior clerks had a reputation for making every single girl who worked there previously cry by making fun of their taste in movies… That guy who boasted about making all the girls cry knew so much about French film that someone from the Criterion Collection actually called him up one day to solicit historical information for a Godard film they were looking to rerelease.” —Emilie Friedlander, ex-clerk, editor (The Fader, 2014)
Everyone visited Kim’s. I sold Beck one of Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master films. I signed up Rick Rubin and Irwin Winkler for memberships — they actually came in together. Winona Ryder used to come in with Dave Pirner when they were dating. Bridget Fonda and Eric Stoltz also used to come in when they were dating. Larry Clark frequented the store with the cast from Kids.
I waited on Brad Pitt (via his assistant – Pitt waited by the door as his ass’t. made the actual purchases), Eric Stoltz (very friendly and chatty) and Jennifer Jason Leigh (the two were an item at the time)…various other NYC luminaries and personalities of the time – Harmony Korine and Chloe Sevigny were regulars at the time (this was circa “Kids”)…otherwise, customers were typical Lower Manhattanites, perhaps a little on the artsy side. While I was working at Kim’s, the store was written up in the NY Press as “the meanest service in New York”. I was proud. —anonymous former employee of Kim’s Underground (The Video Store Project)
David Lee Roth signed up for a membership when he was staying in Gramercy and rented samurai films. He had such a rock-star autograph that we hung up his membership application. Lady Miss Kier and Dimitri came in all the time. Mark Burgess from The Charlatans came in and browsed around, as did Barry Miller from Saturday Night Fever and Mark Metcalf, who played Neidermeyer from Animal House and Twisted Sister video fame. In the early nineties, Neil Patrick Harris rented Mr. Bean.
I worked with actors Jamie Waterston and Isabel Gillies. Ethan Hawke used to come in all the time to visit Isabel. Dylan Kidd, the director, was a coworker. MCA from the Beastie Boys used to come in and visit one of my coworkers Lila Lee. Downtown legends Flloyd, Linda Simpson, DJ Tennessee, RuPaul, Johnny Dynell, Chi Chi Valenti, and Taboo were always in.
Anthony Michael Hall came in one morning completely out of his mind. Peter Weller of Robocop fame came in and rented a German porn, Pissy Teeny.
We had a large supply of PAL converted movies which attracted a lot of people as well as our Hong Kong film selection. Barry Long, who managed the St. Marks location after Steve Puchalski, curated the section and wrote a book about Hong Kong cinema. One day on my day off, I was walking past Kim’s and Harmony Korine asked what I was doing and we went to a cast reading for the movie Short Cuts at a Barnes & Noble uptown.
Chloe Sevigny said about me, “Once someone meets you, they will never forget you.”
When I was a teenager, I would only watch obscure films from Kim’s or Film Forum. —Chloe Sevigny, actress (Paper, 2003)
DENNIS DERMODY, head film critic of Paper magazine
I went to every Kims. I used to go there every couple of days, and go through the bins of used films and things like that. Occasionally I’d do a project for John Waters and had to get rentals—and they would be the best place to get them, because they had obscure stuff that nobody else would carry.
They were really good at having European titles. If you have an all-region player, which I do, they had stuff there that you really couldn’t find in any store. They had the Andy Warhol films, like Chelsea Girls and Lonesome Cowboys and Nude Restaurant. You can’t get them in America! They were, I think, an Italian label. And Lost Highway, the David Lynch film—they had a DVD from Europe. I just found a Blu-ray of Querelle, the Fassbinder film.
My friend would call me and say, “They have three copies of this at the store, you get down here right now!” You’d be turned on by other people, who would say, “Oh, you should go to Kim’s for this thing, you’ll never get it anywhere else and its really fabulous.” How do you do that now? You can’t get everything on Netflix, I’m sorry. They don’t have that kinda stuff. It was a really communal experience and I really will miss that.
I think I did once see two guys fighting over the last copy of Battle Royale, and that really made me laugh, because I thought, “Oh, I understand their plight”—I got why they were fighting. It was really funny to watch! I thought, “Oh brother, battle of the nerds”… at an intellectual level I respected it.
I’ll never leave my house again when that store closes. Every time I go in now I just get this heartsick feeling like, oh great, another thing taken away from my life. It was like an open classroom. Much better than college. You really got film, basically, at Kim’s. It was an intellectual learning experience. That is going to be sorely missed. It breaks my heart to see that end.
Back when I worked at Kim’s Underground, I used to have knockdown drag out fights about movies all the time. I once got so upset during a “discussion” of Lee Marvin that I threw a plastic soda bottle. —Annie Frisbie, ex-clerk, writer (DVD Panache, 2008)
PAUL SEVIGNY, musician, nightlife impresario
I live on St. Marks, the same block as the original Kim’s, which was ground zero for video rental probably in the fuckin’ world. It’s just a New York staple. It was one of the things that kept New York City cool, and gave everybody access to things. It was incredible, and I was probably there three days a week. For me it was more about the access to records. I bought probably hundreds of records there and spent weeks, probably, at their listening stations.
It was really like nothing else in the world. It’s a huge loss, and basically another nail in the coffin.
It is the CBGB’s of video stores. The Mecca of Clerks. The Sultan of Cult. When I came to the city 109 months ago, I had no idea what Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party or High School by Frederick Wiseman were, but Kim’s put me on. I browsed the aisles, talked to the people, and got put on to sub culture I never knew existed. —Eddie Huang, writer, restaurateur (Based FOB, 2014)
RICHARD FOREMAN, playwright
All of my evocative memories were at the Bleecker Street store. The other one was like a big supermarket –it was a little harder to relate to. But the one on Bleecker Street was smaller, even though it had pretty much the same amount of foreign films. That was really my introduction to foreign films, which became my dominant interest.
The repertoire was vast – they had pretty much everything that I was interested in. They had a big Godard section that was just identified with a big G,O,D – God. Without Kim’s, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to get familiar with Godard, Antonioni, Jean-Marie Straub, all these filmmakers that meant so much to me. I don’t remember when the Anthology started showing films, but that was never as convenient, because they weren’t available on a regular basis.
There was nothing else like Kim’s. It was really something that made it worthwhile to live in New York.
The guy who was behind the counter most of the time was always playing music of an evocative sort of all periods while films were showing on the monitor over his head. The music inevitably, just by accident, fit.
It was a tragedy when [the Bleecker Street location] closed. He left because the rent was jacked up, like in many places around SoHo. It really was a national treasure almost. It’s like if the New York City Public Library decided to close up. Now I have to spend so much money getting all the films from various sources, including from abroad, that I feel I have to see.
I don’t know what NYU students do nowadays – without Kim’s I don’t know how they get to see all those films that I think define the grammar of a kind of filmmaking that’s pretty much disappeared.
I learned everything there. I learned more in my three years there, working 40 hours a week than I did at NYU, no question. Just the people you get to talk to, both co-workers and the weirdoes that come in off the streets and the type of interaction you’re having with people. Someone asks about a movie you’ve never heard of, you look it up for them and now you want to see it. —Alex Ross Perry, ex-clerk, director (The Moveable Feast, 2011)
CHRIS VANDERLOO, ex-manager, owner of Other Music
I started in 1992. Kim’s had just opened the store on Bleecker Street, between Laguardia and Thompson. It was called Kim’s Underground because it was literally in the basement. In the back of this very low-ceiling place was an even lower-ceiling nook where the main video buyer wanted to do a music shop. He hired Jeff Gibson, a buyer for Dutch East India.
I knew Jeff because I used to run a store in Wilmington. When I came to New York, Jeff, who had already been working at Kim’s for six months, hired me to work with him. Josh Madell, who is also an owner at Other, was already working there part-time as well.
I was there for three years. At the time there weren’t a whole lot of options for indie rock in New York – most people went to Pier Platters in Hoboken. There wasn’t much in Manhattan – Venus had moved from their Eighth Street location to St. Marks and it wasn’t the same, it was more classic rock.
We got a reputation for doing this really cool indie stuff. We had a couple of in-store performances – I remember going to see Barbara Manning there right before I started working there. Chris Knox from the Tall Dwarfs was playing there. Indie rock guys would come and look around and pick up some stuff, bands would come in when they were in town.
In 1992 or 1993, Drew Barrymore was in the shop with Eric Erlandson from Hole. At that point Hole was pretty big and they were dating. They were looking at videos and then some music. Kim’s had these legendary security guards – most of them were Jamaican – who would work from the moment the store opened till midnight, six days a week. One of them thought Drew or Eric had shoplifted something and he starts accusing them of shoplifting and a kind of fight ensured.
“What are you talking about? There’s no way I stole!”
“Lemme see your jacket!”
I had to come in and say, “I’m sure they didn’t steal anything.” I remember having to calm them down about it.
Mr. Kim definitely knew film but he didn’t know anything about music at all – he left that in our hands. He and I generally got along. I could have a conversation with him. Him and Jeff didn’t get along as well. If Mr. Kim felt like you weren’t respecting his position, he didn’t like that at all.
In late ’94 or so, the three of us had all been working there a while. We thought we had a following and people were coming in regularly. This was the beginning of that whole indie scene – it was starting to get bigger. We thought we could definitely be doing this for ourselves. Jeff and I put some business plans together and by the middle of ’95 we hit up some friends and family and got enough money together.
Right before I left, Mr. Kim came into the store and said, “I just bought this building on St. Marks – it’s going to be a Kim’s superstore and you’re going to start the music department over there. I think he was disappointed when we left that we weren’t there to do that new shop, but I never got an inkling that he was upset. Soon after we opened up at the end of ’95, Mr. Kim called (he came in here, too) to congratulate us. I respected him for what he accomplished and I think he respected us for what we did as well.
I ran into Mr. Kim a few years ago — at the bank, of all places. We were shooting the shit about how bad the music business was these days – commiserating on how things have changed – and he was like, “Yeah, the only thing worse than the music business is the video business.”
Obviously the challenges are tough. The fact that Kim’s is closing is not good for me. It’s another spot where people would make the rounds on a Saturday afternoon. They’d go to Kim’s, Academy, Good Records, In Living Stereo… Now it’s one less spot to hit, one more reason someone might go to Williamsburg first as opposed to this area.
I was a clerk at Kim’s Video & Music, the one on LaGuardia. I had a manager called Gene Suicide, I wonder where he ended up…” —Karen O, musician (Daily Intel, 2013)
ROBERT GREENE, ex-clerk, filmmaker
I was hired by Sean Price Williams, who would go on to shoot my own movies (Kati With an I, Fake It So Real and some of my new film Actress) and shoot films that I’ve edited (fellow Kim’s alum Alex Ross Perry’s Listen up Philip, among many others) and I remember clearly that we immediately started to compare our potentially conflicting repertory film schedules within minutes of my hiring. We connected over an about-to-begin Jean Eustache retro, our mutual enthusiasm for seeing Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes for the first time, confirming that we were both in the right place. Later Sean would casually tell me that I would only make documentaries and it pissed me off but, truth be told, it probably didn’t even crack the top ten of most annoying things he said to me that week. He was right, of course, and I continue to be a little miffed.
Sean was, and continues to be, my brother in the most contentious sense of the word. We both arrived at Kim’s with the idea that we were fully formed cinephiles, but with the passionate discussions of new sections in which to organize tapes, the mutual thrill of stocking illegal 12-hour masterpieces and the heated arguments over who was going to get to schedule what day off to go see which Czech New Wave film playing at the Walter Reade. I like to think that dirty third floor of the St. Marks Kim’s was where we became the people who wound up too obsessed and myopic to do anything other than make films.
It was a dark period in my life. —Dylan Kidd, director, who once rented a video to David Lee Roth (Village Voice, 2004)
LESLIE STEIN, ex-clerk, cartoonist, musician
Mondo Kim’s was my first job in New York City after moving here from San Francisco in 2002. I was 19 years old and totally intimidated by the staff, selection of music and videos, and probably just New York City itself at that point. However, right away I made one of my best friends and current bandmates, Bruno, who was playing with Dan Melchior’s Broke Revue at that point, and Brad Truax, also in the Broke Revue, when he ended up playing bass with us too. Our drummer, Steve, actually worked there as the country buyer, but that was before my time. Thanks, Mr. Kim, for putting my band together.
It was a good and exciting time in my life, despite the measly $6.25 an hour. The funny thing was that it was considered so hip to work there at that point that most people I met would ask how I managed to get a job there. I walked in off the street the day they had to fire two people for stealing. The staff was an eclectic mix and we were known for being your average record store snobs. Some were, some weren’t, I never took any attitude personally on my end, though. I worked the night shift on the second floor; it was vinyl, porn sales and some books and comics. I’d sit and read comics and listen to Swell Maps records until midnight, then go party at Lit, or the now defunct Mighty Robot or the Right Bank.
Getting a job at Kim’s Video was harder than joining a band. It was ridiculous: You had to know someone. But I had just moved from L.A., trying to get away from my friends who were slow and didn’t want to do anything but get fucked up. I finally met this guy name Aurelio from the band Calla, and one day he called and said, “Hey, there’s a position for you, do you want it?” I was like, “I’ve dropped off tons of résumés, now I can just get the job?” —Albert Hammond, Jr., clerk turned musician (New York magazine, 2009)
SEAN PRICE WILLIAMS, ex-clerk, cinematographer
We have all the fondest memories of bonding, brotherhood, learning, teaching, laughing. But some of my friends who would hang out at the end of the counter on the third floor remember it very differently. They remember, with amusement, observing petty squabbling, jealousy, bickering, eye-rolling, and even a fistfight or two. Whatever the truth is, many of us are still extremely close. Several of us that worked together on the third floor of the St. Marks location still get together every Sunday night at KGB and screen our favorite moves in the Kraine Theater downstairs. Still keeping the torch burning. Several older customers come by, too, from time to time.
It was a rich experience. Most of my NYC friends I met in my five years working there. It was a perfect job, except for our fear and suspicions of Mr. Kim. He was so intimidating! But for those of us in our early 20s, during the George W. Bush era of protest, which many of us were actively engaged in, Mr. Kim was the perfect scary overlord. I respect him a lot now, and I am grateful that he fired me. Otherwise, I would have never seriously pursued my worthless career as a penniless cinematographer.
I remember the day I walked in and saw that I got a section. That was a big moment.” —Darren Aronofsky, director (NY Times, 2014)
AIMEE BIANCA, ex-clerk, publicist
Kim’s Video on Avenue A was the best/worst job I’ve ever had. $5 an hour cash (even in 1995 this was obscene), but I worked with some of the most brilliant, creative people I’ve ever known (artists, musicians who had the job because they often needed to leave on tour, filmmakers, playwrights, Europeans without working papers, students like me). But this was also when no one had any money in the East Village and all lived by some sort of barter system. So I knew almost everyone in the hood, and especially who was a bartender to slip free rentals to.
As this was also pre-everything-on-the-Internet, I often knew what type of porn people were into, too, from the famous “Tunnel of Love” section in the back.
My favorite thing was the comments employees wrote about customers on their membership. Someone would be renting a film, impatiently tapping his fingers on the counter, and I’d pull up their info and up popped on the screen, “If this fucking guy doesn’t stop tapping his fucking fingers on the counter, I am going to kill him.” Everything spot-on. Sometimes brutal observations I remember like, “Please go down to Canal and West Broadway, and have a rat gnaw that thing off your face.” And my personal favorite, the simple, “Thad, are you a serial killer?”
We had a couple of Jamaican security guards at our location. I liked both of them. One of them was famous for standing outside the store, asking customers what they wanted, going inside, stealing the item, going back outside, and selling the item to the customer. Everyone knew him.
Most of the staff was stealing too. From a manager’s POV, it wasn’t “if” but “when,” and I had to fire them by the truckload. Give a hipster college kid who pretends he hates money the key to the store room and he will rob you blind. Of course, my fellow manager was stealing too. When we had a big meeting about store theft, she loaded two shopping bags with laser discs just in case she got fired. She didn’t, and she took the two bags home anyway. There was no way of stemming this corruption, which is why I finally quit.
The sweatshops conditions weren’t the only thing that motivated the staff to steal. Kim’s was basically a criminal operation, with four duplication machines running in the back room. We rented and sold VHS tapes that came with “Please turn disc over” messages halfway through each tape. The illicit activity began at the top and went to the bottom. —Gregory Lamberson, ex-manager, filmmaker, writer (The GL Files, 2014)
Andrew WK on getting fired from Kim’s for stealing
An outtake from The Regulars
NICK ZEDD, ex-clerk, director
I started out as a customer. Some of my actors worked in different Kim’s stores, all for very low pay. Later, I worked there myself, which was an absurd experience. I liked their hard-to-find movies, the variety of weird stuff you couldn’t find anywhere else. It was good for expanding one’s education until they demanded that all customers and employees leave a credit card deposit as insurance, which gave preferential treatment to the yuppies who invaded the neighborhood and took over everything. Mr. Kim, being a yuppie businessman, preferred that sort of clientele, which probably hurt business since yuppies and NYU students were clueless regarding the best stuff in their stores.
Kim’s Video was a manifestation of niche marketing in a cutthroat environment that erases any business that doesn’t pay exorbitant rents charged by ruthless, greedy landlords; responsible for the death of the old Lower East Side (I hate the term “East Village”)… Plenty of businesses have symbolized something unique in the city, then closed. It’s nothing new.
For film fans in NYC it means less readily available fetish objects to cherish…which is sad. I myself used to visit the store whenever I’d return to NYC over the last three years and pick up stuff I’d never see anywhere on earth, like a DVD reissue of Alexander Korda’s Things To Come with beautiful extras. They even featured my movies in their cult section and the manager would buy some of my own hard-to-find artifacts for customers with refined taste.
I have strange memories of employees at Mondo Kim’s shaking in fear at the prospect of incurring the wrath of Mr. Kim; a deranged dictator on a giant ego trip who showed them no respect. He was a predatory capitalist with little sense of ethics and no respect for the underpaid employees who kept his stores running.
I have to say I liked [Mr. Kim]. Everybody in New York has heard of Kim’s Video but not many people know anything about the guy behind it. (A lot of people still think it’s a woman named Kim.) Mr. Kim just loved film, like I did, and he wanted to be a part of the industry in any way he could. He was pretty young, too – about my age now when I worked there. And he was not a mean boss, like some of his workers say. —Jeff Williams, ex-manager, author of Alphabet City Blog (2009)
(Admittedly, most of Kim’s video clerks were assholes with condescending attitudes toward customers seeking simple answers. The fact that a lowly video clerk would imagine himself superior to a paying customer always struck me as absurd, kind of like the way door people at nightclubs think they’re better than the people whose attendance keeps them employed. Bogus snobbery is a sign of genuine insignificance and Kim’s clerks epitomized this form of neurosis.)
During its heyday, all Kim’s employees were paid in cash, below minimum wage. This resulted in inventory shrinkage as a form of revenge. One employee absconded with an entire collection of VHS tapes which he now hordes in his own “video grotto” on the Upper West Side.
After my first week, Mister Kim upgraded me from my position as a video clerk on the third floor in order to exploit my talents as a writer to assist him in the making of a screenplay for a pet project, a perverted psychodrama involving a Buddhist priest and some Asian schoolgirls which made no sense whatsoever. After signing a contract to pay me $5,000, he had me spend hours transcribing incoherent ramblings in an upstairs office… After two weeks of transcribing his gibberish, when I asked for the $500 he’d promised me as upfront payment, he fired me.
(In the next ten years, all of the Kim’s Video stores but one closed, following FBI raids for bootlegging. Mr. Kim had a giant inventory of Japanese toys that made the store no money, upstairs in a room. His “film editing studio” languished upstairs in the soon-to-be-closed Mondo Kim’s. For some reason, Mr. Kim imagined that he was something more than just another petty business tycoon and tinhorn dictator on Saint Marks Place. Apparently he wanted to be a filmmaker so he made an unwatchable action movie based on the script ideas that I’d transcribed which played once at a theater on Avenue A. In the words of the employees in his last store on First Avenue, “it sucked.”
Now that its doors are shuttered, I can reminisce about the rise and fall of Kim’s mini-empire as one might romanticize the existence of communist dictatorships behind the Iron Curtain. They all sound better than they must have been but their removal makes the world a little less interesting.
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. —Louis CK, comedian and director (Vulture, 2010)
AJAY NAIDU, actor, fimmaker
When I first went to Kim’s it was on the east side of St Marks, on the corner of Second Avenue, and it was kind of like fast food – there wasn’t even a vibe in there, really; it was kind of like, “Come and get it.” It felt really rugged.That was the time I threw the cassette at the guy. I was trying to rent either Time of the Gypsies or Black Cat, White Cat, and I didn’t remember Emir Kusturica’s name – it was a tricky name unless you knew. I was trying to explain it and the guy kept on going, “I don’t know who you mean, I don’t know who you mean.” You had to ask by director back then — you couldn’t ask by title which I thought was kind of amazing and incredibly stuck-up, which everyone knows is the way they were forever.
I was holding Beat Street or whatever I was looking for and the guy was saying, “I don’t know what you mean,” and I was like, “I don’t want to rent shit in here,” and I got so riled up I just threw the cassette quite purposefully, but by accident at the same time, toward the counter. It fell and exploded, and in order to not break character I stormed out. Every time I walked in after that they were like, “Break something, Ajay – throw these flyers.” So I’d always grab whatever was on the table and throw it.
Once I gave them a piece of my mind, the clerks were cool with me. And I understood I had to know what I needed to know and had to learn it: they felt strongly about their opinions or relationships – whether real or not – with the filmmakers. They didn’t know them personally but they knew their work personally. After I had my episode of throwing the cassette back and having them respect me I realized it’s good to learn, I turned into one of those hoity-toities.
When it moved down the block next-door to my house, I would practically set up shop and study in there.
There was a lot that caught my eye, and a lot that I learned – particularly about anime and other forms of filmmaking that you would never consider because they were never in in your face. I remember renting a copy of Heavy Traffic and because I lived on the very block where Ralph Bakshi conceptualized it, it blew my mind about what you could do with a cartoon.
I was able to find this incredible version of Days and Nights in the Forest by Satyajit Ray that you couldn’t get anywhere in the world. They were also the only place in the city that had a copy of Salaam Bombay, which was my favorite movie of all-time. The Indian section was very comprehensive and that made me feel very at home; they were representing Indian cinema in a way that none of the Indian stores were even doing.
For a while they had this awesome smoking deck over St. Marks. It didn’t last, but it was great while it did. There were so many beautiful people that came in and out of that place.
We tried calling over and over, trying to appeal to her social conscience, but it didn’t work. In the end, I charged $650 on her credit card —ex-manger Ricky Sutton on trying to get out-of-print Jane Campion films back from Mary-Kate Olsen (NY Post, 2008)
Bobby Pastorelli, one of the most incredible actors, was always up in there – we got really close. Rick Linklater came in and by that time I had already worked with him but Jim Jarmusch I had never known who he was – to me he was just some white-haired punk-rock dude that lived on St. Marks and he was really nice and talked to me all the time.
I’d be talking about movies with my friend Sean [Price Williams], who was my favorite clerk who worked there and now he’s an incredible cameraman, and Jarmusch used to come up and start talking. I didn’t know who he was but he’d let me throw in my two bits again and again and finally Sean was like, “You know who that is, right?” and I was like, “No, I don’t,” and he said, “It’s Jim Jarmusch.” And I remember my knees buckled – I started hyperventilating about it because during that time he was my all-time favorite director. I was trying to emulate him (obviously everyone was). Finally when I saw him again I was like, “Hi, Mr. Jarmusch,” and he was like, ”Ajay, why are you calling me Mr. Jarmush? I’ve seen lots of good things you’re in.” He was a really nice guy.
And the clerks were really supportive. At one time there was a note on the VHS of Suburbia that said “our friend Ajay is in this movie, check it out.” They even talked about variations in performances I was giving.
At one point my accountant was like, “What is this bill?” because I was writing off an incredible amount – it was mostly late fees from Kim’s even though I lived next door, but I mean I wrote off like $6,000 to $7,000.
It certainly served as my film school – doing it and renting from Kim’s, that’s how I learned.
As told to Kate Beaudoin, Nicole Disser, Daniel Maurer, and Kirsten O’Regan. Interviews were condensed and edited.