The Reeler


December 7, 2006

Losing Their Place

As the Movie Place met its end, it showed why indie video shops still matter

(Photos: Sarah Kaplan)

It was too painful to watch. David Vigdor, a Movie Place employee for the last 12 years, was boxing up the store's VHS tapes to ship to their eBay buyer. Columbia University had purchased all 18,000 DVD titles for the collection at Butler Library and would be picking them up in the next few days. Owner Gary Dennis said he hoped he can use the money from the sales (he would not disclose the amount he received) to help him cover his debts and spare him from bankruptcy. Unflappable despite the store's demise, Dennis still answered the phone, "Hello, Movie Place," in the mock-Moviefone voice he used for all calls. Customers trickled in to drop off their movies for the final time. A few argued about the remaining credits on their account. Most just wanted to express their gratitude.

"Thank you for existing," said Alice, a loyalist for the last seven-years. A former customer had trekked in from Long Island to bring Dennis, 45, a farewell bottle of wine. Others could only express sadness. "Devastating," said another woman as she exited through the steel door onto West 105th street. "It's a really bad sign for the neighborhood," said a gray-haired man before turning the corner onto Broadway.

Three months ago, we would have loitered by the wooden counter, chatting with Dennis about Richard Widmark's Madigan or Charles Laughton's early work like the full-hearted cinephiles we are. Even last week we stuck around to talk movies, though the conversations were tinged with mourning as we prepared to say goodbye. But on this day -- the last day of November and the last day of the Movie Place -- we could only bear broken-hearted witness.

For 22 years -- the last seven with Dennis as the sole owner -- this independent video store had been an institution in a neighborhood of movie lovers. I first encountered the Movie Place in the late 1990s when I was a Columbia University film student. I checked out countless titles over the years, often in line with whatever I was working on at the time: a scratchy VHS copy of an old Miles Davis session when I was shooting a jazz video; Billy Wilder movies when I was writing a satire. While chains like Blockbuster offer a comprehensive catalogue loaded with copies of the latest new releases, their collections have no personality and, even worse, the staff often has no love for -- let alone a knowledge of -- movies. As Dennis told me, "You go into Blockbuster and say, 'I want Kind Hearts and Coronets' and they won't know what you're talking about." (In a bittersweet victory for Dennis, he did manage to outlast the chain's 103rd street franchise, which closed in early September.)

But the Movie Place was more than simply a well-stocked indie shop; it provided a makeshift meeting place for neighborhood cinephiles. As Stephen Padilla, a filmmaker and long-time Movie Place customer, recalls in an email, "When you went in there it always felt like you were part of some film-loving secret society. Even the door, which was often difficult to open, looked like it led more to a secret meeting place than a video store." Thumbing through the movie boxes stuffed into wooden crates, shelves and booklets, scanning the old Robert Mitchum posters on the wall, you almost felt like you were in Dennis' apartment, browsing through his personal collection. Unlike many other independent stores, which generally carry the stigma of abrasive elitism, Dennis offered an inclusive atmosphere for his customer; at the checkout counter, it was typical for Dennis to interrupt a transaction to jump into a conversation. Alice recalls an incident where a man was looking for a comedy with his daughter. She recommended My Man Godfrey and started to describe the plot when Dennis cut her off, saying she would spoil it for the pair. It is what John Woods, co-owner of Reel Video in Park Slope, calls the "barbershop atmosphere" that symbolizes the singular virtue of these shops.

This local, personal service is what distinguished the Movie Place and other (surviving) indie shops like Reel Video (which stocks work by local filmmakers) and Kim's Video, whose outlet near Columbia features titles from the university's professors and students. Dennis often seemed like a community doctor, treating his Upper West Side movie lovers with Peter Lorre and Preston Sturges. He refused to give preferential shelf space to new releases, instead ordering extra copies of old Shelly Winters movies when she died because he knew that's what his customers would want. "It was like he could read you," says Padilla. "You would go in and ask for Kicking and Screaming and one of the guys at the counter would say, "With Will Ferrell?" And he would say, "No, the Noah Baumbach one, right?" And, of course, he'd be right." Dennis recalled one instance when a customer he had befriended walked into the store and said: "I just signed the divorce papers. What should I see?"

But as the old photographs of 106th Street and other nearby intersections that hung on his walls suggest, Dennis is more than a movie lover -- he is an integral part of the larger community. He spearheaded an effort to have the block of 103rd Street between West End Avenue and Broadway, where Humphrey Bogart grew up, named after the star. This past June, the stretch was officially renamed "Humphrey Bogart Place," a fitting contribution from Dennis to the neighborhood; The New York Times covered the ceremony, noting his remark to the crowd, "(Bogart) was the man that we boys wanted to be." Less than five months later, the same newspaper disclosed that despite 2,500 locals having signed a petition to save the shop, the new landlord's rent increase was just too high. Gary Dennis was going out of business.

We have become a Web culture. We love the steady stream of content without ever having to leave our apartments. Netflix reported 5.7 million subscribers in its last quarterly statement and projects 6.3 million by year's end. Additionally, independent filmmakers like Caveh Zahedi refer to the service as an unparalleled tool for distribution and believes that more people have seen his most recent film, I Am A Sex Addict, via Netflix than in theaters. As a movie watcher, he says that renting online has undercut the relevance of brick-and-mortar shops. "I, personally, rarely go to video stores anymore and almost always use Netflix," he wrote to me in an e-mail. "It's just way more convenient, and (it) eliminates all of the anxiety about having to watch a video before it's due and having to return it in time to avoid the late fees. I only to go video stores when I want to watch something specific that same night."

Movie downloads have also become a more powerful force in the marketplace. Since Apple made movies available for purchase from iTunes in September -- for as low as $10 -- it has sold over 500,000 downloads. Wal-Mart, the world's largest DVD retailer, is getting into the online act as well, announcing its own video download service. According to the 2006 Claritas Convergence Audit, a survey of 35,000 people, 53 percent of digital cable households are using video-on-demand and 69 percent of those surveyed say they go to brick-and-mortar stores less than once a month or not at all. Zahedi said that once video-on-demand becomes even more prevalent, "I don't see how [independent video stores] can survive."

Meanwhile, a recent study by Kagan Media Research found that online rentals made up approximately 10 percent of the $8 billion rental market for 2005 -- a figure that the study's authors expect to climb to 15 percent by the end of the year. But Jonathan Marlow, the head of business development and acquisitions for GreenCine, a San Francisco-based mail order and video-on-demand service, argued that the impact of rent-by-mail services is overstated. He cited numerous economic factors like the cheap prices of DVDs, Blockbuster's elimination of late fees (previously a major source of revenue for independents) and the increase in real estate prices, but emphasized that convenience itself -- namely, television -- is the biggest culprit. "The combination of digital cable and/or satellite services, multiple pay channels (HBO, Showtime and so forth) and time-shifting devices (either a DVR or the existing cable Pay-Per-View option) essentially provides enough viewing options for most Americans, therein keeping them away from the corner video store," he said via e-mail.

A late convert to this culture of convenience, I have come to rely on a new disc of The Wire arriving in my mailbox every few days without having to think about it. Watching TiVo'd episodes of The Daily Show has replaced some of the time I previously devoted to watching movies that I rented from my local shop. Certainly these options have their undeniable benefits, but when confronted with the loss of the Movie Place, I realized how vital -- how irreplaceable -- this personal connection is. Dennis told me that independent stores like his fill an important need for all movie lovers because, at base, we are social animals and coming to the store "gives (us) something to do" -- an experience that can't be replicated by adding another title to one's Netflix queue. Browsing the shelves provides an immediacy that allows for happy accidents. Said Brian Jackson, a longtime employee at Kim's Video's location on St. Mark's Place: "It's kind of a more ideal experience. There's more of a chance for surprise, more of a chance of broadening your cinematic horizons."

Dennis thought his Movie Place customers had come to realize this purpose as well. Despite losing one third of his business to Netflix, he had seen an upswing in business this fall -- particularly in the steady stream of customers in the days before Thanksgiving -- and believed he could have lasted a while longer. Now he plans to start a Web site under the Movie Place moniker where he can offer offbeat recommendations like his favorite tawdry melodramas and film noirs. He said he hopes to create an online community, but he doubts he can duplicate the one he has fostered in the physical space of the store. "The Web is so impersonal," he told me.

But, for those who doubt the enduring value of the Movie Place to film lovers, perhaps it's best to return to Dennis' refrain whenever he rented one of his favorite titles to a customer: "I wish I could be you watching it again for the first time."

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