Editor's note: The last of the Kim's closes for good today at 124 First Ave.
By Kelly Sebastian
As any job-hunting 19-year-old in New York City might, I became a bike messenger. Yes, one of those. On a soggy summer day, fate threw me a delivery in the Empire State Building. It felt cool to have this job; that said, it also felt completely fucked up when I walked out of the building to find my bike … missing. Through a crackly-sounding payphone my delivery dispatcher told me to take the rest of the day off. I was sad. I was unemployed.
With my head hung low I began an aimless walk away from Midtown hell, eventually ending up on St. Mark's Place in the East Village. After passing the Astor Place cube and crossing over Third Avenue I spotted that unforgettable purple and yellow sign with it's aggressively playful font. Kim's. I needed a dose of salvation from my shitty day and, as I was beginning my flirt with filmmaking, I decided to get lost in something I loved. In that beauty … film. On the third floor of 6 St. Mark's, the video rental floor — as I was reading VHS sleeve after VHS sleeve, getting lost in the cover art and other people's stories — a clerk from behind the counter asked if I needed help. I told him about my stolen bike, he told me he was a vegan and the next day I started a job a Kim's. If you loved film, you knew Kim's. One word: KIM'S. It was THE place.
I realize now how lucky I was to have been a part of the experience of Kim's, the Kim's culture and the Kim's community. Kim's stores were an anomaly in the cluster of chain-store clutter with a curated collection of film (and music) way beyond the underground. I worked at a destination. A spot people went to discover films, to talk about films (with clerks or other customers). A place where travelers who had heard of the legendary stock, would pop in for a look, as if they were admiring a piece of high art in a gallery.
Working there on occasion I would chance a glance of the mastermind himself standing at the other end of our video rentals floor, beyond the maze of his meticulously categorized collection. I would see Yongman Kim, buttoned up, well-dressed in a suit with arms folded and his smiling eyes observing from a distance — watching his masterpiece perform. I always wondered if he did this at all his store locations. Mr. Kim was passionate about the art of film and the art of business with the spirit of a risk taker having wild ideas from first renting movies out of his original laundry cleaning store to that very brief third floor Smoke Cafe. It's hard to explain Kim's to the plugged-in youth or non-film'centric folks, you just had to have been there.
Kim's was my film school and I know many others could claim this same core-curriculum. The breakdown of cinema history — organized by genre, by sub-genres, by niche and Country, by decade and Director — was any cinephile's dream. Sure, we carried mainstream flicks, but the majority of Kim's customers would be waiting for the newest Herzog film to be released. I would come to understand any given Director's journey by working my way through their catalog. From Godard to Lee, Varda to Linklater. Our organization style could often receive heated friction from our customers. Some loved to complain that True Romance should be excluded from Tarantino's section because he only wrote the screenplay. My out? The sale of that script gave us Reservoir Dogs. We all had our tiffs. I was forever annoyed that Bigelow didn't have her own section yet and that Hitchcock was shelved with American Directors. I wonder who among the contemporary crop of Directors, film movements and episodics would have enough titles and thunder to secure their own tag. The Dardenne Brothers, both Anderson(s), Lisa Cholodenko - surely. Mumblecore and "Peep Show" would have end caps. Orange is the New Black would be in Cult filed under "Women in Prison" alongside Caged Heat.
Being a video store clerk in the East Village was the most interesting public-facing job I would ever make a buck from. Through a customer's rental selection, us clerks got to know our clientele. We got to know your taste in film and what your girlfriend hated. Your Saturday night suggestions came from me, a person, not an algorithm or paid suggestion. A place in time before the Internet had touched and tagged every spec of existence. There was no IMDB — just a clerk who, when you attempted to rent Almost Famous, asked if you'd seen Crudup in Grind or Without Limits.
Soon enough you'd be tossed down a rabbit hole that took you from Crudup to Prefontaine to Leto to Requim for a Dream to Aronofsky to Connelly, which led you back to Crudup, who she shared the screen with in a beautiful movie called Waking the Dead. Remember the times you dashed to Kim's right after work on a Friday night to grab that new release but shit, all the copies were already rented. You instead ended up with the obvious double-feature of La Jette and 12 Monkeys. Or how about that time you realized it was a cinema verite night with Kopple after all. It was a time when the Criterion Collection was just becoming the original viral video everyone wanted to see with, GASP — a commentary track (a groundbreaking idea at the time). Also, a place in a time where you got a same-day porn rental for a dollar and would return the tape warm.
Our daily crowd resembled the poster art for Rock 'n Roll High School. From behind that melamine purple counter four clerks faced a line of genuinely nice folks, sarcastic pot-heads, painfully shy people, everyday assholes, hardcore film nerds and cinema elitists alike. We served established directors, actors and all the pivotal crew members who made film, and really any art, come to life. Oh, and of course those aspiring filmmakers too. We served the ever-changing street kids staying in the rehab facility across the street and the die-hards who came back week after week checking to see if our copy of Two Lane Blacktop had been repaired. At Kim's your celebrity status didn't matter, it was more about if you were renting Van Sant's Ma La Noche.
Of all the eclectic renters there was only one customer who could get me to place any title on hold for him, and he was the mightiest of film aficionados — a guy named Dukkor. Standing high at 6'4", skinny as a beanpole, tucked in a trench coat with his shoulder length, and always wet, jet black hair. Dukkor. An older, ageless man drenched in a cologne called tobacco. Dukkor gave me Dogme 95. When he learned that I was binge watching Von Trier titles he said "Kelly, you MUST watch The Celebration tonight. Not tomorrow but tonight, so that we can discuss Dogme 95 tomorrow." Dukkor, a man with a double-digit membership number, The Duke of all film knowledge, deeper that any Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide.
Our third floor staff was also a cast of characters. There was Matt, Mike (the vegan), Maria, Mike B., Mike P., Sam, Fred, Jeff and other floor employees like Aurelio on the music floor, Igor on the sales floor and Kenny in security. If you knew Mondo Kim's in the late 90s to the early oughts then you know these people. They influenced you and you influenced us. Sure the rumors of rude clerks is true. Do you know how many rude customers we had to deal with? It's fine, we learned to laugh it off and I hope you have too. Maybe I recommended Rosemary's Baby to a pregnant woman; perhaps I ushered a student to the Nick Zedd section when they asked for Citizen Kane in order to fulfill a homework assignment; and yeah, I totally refused to stop watching Poor Cow on our in-store television so a customer could rent it.
Matt, my first manager at Kim's, once told me that our rental floor at Mondo was the East Village's own "Town Hall." So true. Before neighborhood blogs, word on the street, like the lineup of hardcore bands playing at Matinee Sundays at CBGB's, the shuttering of Coney Island High, and Dojo's Soy Burger seventy-five-cent increase, traveled via Kim's. Neighborhood people would come and go. Some never to be seen again. That guy Daniel, for example, was in some band called Interpol who hit the ground running. Oh, and that really nice dude Zoriah, who worked across the street at Joe's CDs, left the city to pursue war photography. The news came through Mondo Kim's doors and echoed from there forward, out into the world. Or at least through the East Village.
I quit my gig at Kim's twice. First, to start working in production and to make more films and projects of my own. The second time I left was for good — a bittersweet exit to again work deeper in the film industry while also taking a job building and curating a new video shop in that triangle below canal — Tribeca Video. I left to apply all my Kim's knowledge and education elsewhere. Over the years I'd stop in to various Kim's locations, an alumni of sorts, to say hi to whoever was still working there and hello to the new round of clerks. I would dig through the genres, see what was new and check on that copy of Two Lane Blacktop.
Now with the heartbreaking news of the final location closing today, I felt it time to share my little slice of the legend that is Kim's. There are endless rumors about the various Kim's locations closing one by one. Was it the skyscraper high rent hikes or was it another case of the Internet slamming it's tsunami of instant gratification down on the slower, organic avenues? Perhaps the Feds were circling back to make another bust on suspected bootlegs. When Mondo Kim's closed the complete rental collection flew off to Sicily
after a deal was struck to keep the collection available to all Kim's members. But how do we access that portal? What came of that deal? Could there be a grand dream allowing access of the complete collection online?
Kim's is a cherished experience. One that is shared by all who knew it. When I look inside my memory files I see Mondo's third floor, its physical layout of black wire racks crammed with boxes, precisely labeled - the big purple and yellow genre signs — the maze in all its curated splendor. A place and a time I sadly miss. My years spent at Kim's deeply influenced the person I am today and anyone that new Kim's surely has this personal sentiment as well. Kim's gave us a lot of things, including a neighborhood go-to, a cultural phenomenon, and a film school education for the taking. Thanks, Mr. Kim.
Kelly Sebastian is a former video store clerk at Mondo Kim's (@kel_sebastian)
Previously on EV Grieve:
[Updated] A really bad sign outside Kim's Video & Music on First Avenue