When film critic Aaron Hillis made the decision to purchase a video store in 2012, it seemed like a shocking decision to many people. A year later, Video Free Brooklyn is still open 7 days a week and bringing in new members off the street. We spoke to Aaron about the store, and the general world of modern film distribution.
The entryway to video bliss, on Smith St.
How long has Video Free Brooklyn been in operation and when did you take over?
Video Free Brooklyn launched in 2002. It was actually my local video store because I was living in Cobble Hill for a great many years. It wasn’t until 2012 that I took it over. It happened in such a bizarro way too. I came in one day in the Spring of last year and there were signs saying “We’re closing down at the end of the month. All rentals have to be back and the fire sale is forthcoming.” At first I was like, “Oh goody. Cheap DVD’s.” The sign went down a few days later and I asked one of the employees what happened. They said, “We’re not really sure, but we think the owner is going to sell off the store.” I wondered why someone would want to buy a failing video store . Unless it’s not. It was my wife Jennifer who said I should get in touch with him and see what happened. So I contacted him, I’ve known Dan for years, and he said sure enough someone wanted to buy it. I threw my hat in the ring. It made sense to me on paper. It made sense to my accountant, it made sense to my lawyer. So… I bought the most expensive thing I’ve ever bought in my life. It’s been a lucrative investment, and a fun one.
Aaron in the store, discussing the power of movies.
Due to space limitations, how do you decide what is important to keep on the shelves?
I’ll say this. The store had what I like to call good bones. They had a really good foreign film section. They had a lot of great titles. It needed work, it needed curating, and I think that’s what I’ve been really doing over the last year is trying to figure out what we’re missing in the catalog that really belongs there. Especially films from the canon. Space is limited. We’re 375 square feet of cinematic bliss, but I’ve been using the basement and eventually I’ll probably have to use offsite storage to be able to grow the library since I can’t grow the room. I’m not gonna get rid of FORT APACHE, THE BRONX even though people aren’t going to be asking about that one every day. Cuz I’ll be damned if I’m gonna get rid of a Paul Newman movie. I think that’s really it. Just trying to figure out what belongs on the shelf now, and when space starts to run low I’ll figure out what’s not renting well but still needs to be here. Those films may not stay on the shelf, but we can still get them for you within a few hours if not tomorrow.
A sampling of the ever-growing library.
You took over the store after online distribution had already exploded in popularity. Were you worried about operating a brick and mortar rental operation in a digital world?
I’m not worried about that. I think people watch movies in a lot of different ways these days. I think part of the appeal of Video Free Brooklyn is that we’re a boutique. I use Netflix streaming. I use some of the different ways that technology has afforded us instant gratification. But you really can’t take away the nostalgia for the old school video store experience of being able to browse and discover. To be able to talk with a knowledgeable staff. Everybody who works here knows film and loves film. Most everybody who works here works in the film industry. And that’s part of the experience. No computer algorithm is going to tell me what I want to watch. You need that human interaction to feel out what you’re into, what do you like, what do you not like. It’s detective work, a little bit. I think there’s something inhuman, maybe even kind of dehumanizing, about how reliant we’ve become on digital technology. There’s something kind of counter-intuitively refreshing about the analog experience. People collect things. People want to touch things. The tactile experience of finding something, judging a book by its cover, flipping over a DVD case, reading the synopsis and saying, “Wow. This sounds crazy. I have to watch this right now. I never would have found this otherwise”. I’ll go toe to toe with Netflix streaming. I think we’ve got a better curated selection and we’ve got tons of titles that aren’t available on both their disc service and streaming.
Each month brings a new movie-themed window display.
Do you think the success of the store is dependent on the culture of New York City or would the store find the same audience in another city?
Not necessarily. We’re right on the heart of Smith Street, which is the “restaurant row” of this neighborhood or even downtown Brooklyn, frankly. We have the excellent walking traffic and also here in Brooklyn its a more progressive, open-minded, educated crowd. They’re more media savvy. They read The New Yorker. They read Manohla Dargis in the Times. A store in Nebraska has seven copies of MAN OF STEEL, but we don’t necessarily need seven copies of MAN OF STEEL. But…. we’d better have three copies of AMOUR or NO or HOLY MOTORS. That’s our idea of a blockbuster, and those are the ones we can’t keep in stock. I got three copies of THE INTERNSHIP and I got three copies of FRANCES HA. THE INTERNSHIP doesn’t rent and FRANCES HA doesn’t stay on the shelf. Our clientele here really loves cinema. Some people may have more mainstream studio tastes and that’s great. We have that too. But, rather than offering a bazillion copies of whatever latest superhero nonsense came out this week, I’d rather have diversity and make sure there is something for everybody and then some.
One of our favorite films, currently on the new release wall.
Why do you feel the video store is an important business and what will be lost if it ceases to exist?
The video store industry as a whole is just not a sustainable model. People are busier these days and they need the flexibility of being able to click something on video-on-demand or stream something from Netflix. But, what’s really missing is the appreciation for cinema. I think it’s a matter of keeping hope for film culture itself alive. Again, I use Netflix streaming and I look through my queue and I don’t really value the things that I watch. I channel surf, really. I dip in, I dip out, I watch twenty minutes of this, forty minutes of that. Not only does the quality look like junk, but there isn’t a sense of “I’m going to find something new here that I never found before”. For us, we’re a boutique. I would even compare this to the vinyl store resurgence. There is so much great stuff out there, but you’re not going to be able to turn somebody onto it if you’re doing it through some of these newfangled technological means. It just doesn’t work that way. We’re signing up new customers every single day. I hear from people all the time that they’ve just stopped their Netflix account. That’s terrific. It means that I’m not the only weirdo around. There are plenty of other people who feel the same way. There is just something more direct in the interaction between the knowledgeable video store clerk and the customer, as well as being able to look through a curated library and know there’s going to be more hits than misses.
Another view of the lending library.