In the middle of Smith Street, the main commercial drag of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, sits a small retail space with a garish yellow sign that reads like a manifesto: Video Free Brooklyn. It is among the last of the video rental stores in New York City. And it just got new owners.
Aaron Hillis is a sort of cinematic man-about-town here in New York. Journalist, critic, distributor and curator are just a few of the titles he has gone by in the past. As of this summer, along with wife Jennifer, he is now the proud owner of one of the few remaining video stores in New York City. Not too long ago, that might have seemed like an excellent investment. Today, with interest in physical media dwindling and even institutions like Blockbuster and Kim’s Video disappearing from the landscape, it wouldn’t be out of line to tell Aaron he’s out of his mind. He knows it.
“I don’t think this curated venture would necessarily work in a Nebraskan suburb,” he told me recently, “but in this media-savvy, progressive-minded Brooklyn neighborhood, we’re able to make a bigger splash than a typical video store.” Nestled between two subway stops on a street known for its night life, Video Free Brooklyn is right in the middle of an artistic hotbed. The best way to describe the vibe around Cobble Hill is to use recent Brooklyn-based HBO series: it’s more Jonathan Ames’s “Bored to Death” than Lena Dunham’s “Girls.” In fact, in an early episode Hannah Horvath calls the neighborhood “grownup Brooklyn,” and that about nails it.
After my meeting with Aaron, I took a stroll around a few blocks and stopped in BookCourt, a popular little bookshop I used to visit when I lived in the area. When I turned the corner in the shop’s second storefront, I was amazed; in the years since I’d been there the cramped store had expanded, majorly, with an expansive new event space. Paper books may be dying, but not in this neighborhood. And just up the street is Cobble Hill Cinemas, which, according to the theater’s Web site, was purchased back from Clearview a few years ago making it one of the few independent cinemas in the city. It’s currently playing Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli’s A Cat in Paris alongside The Dark Knight Rises.
In Cobble Hill, it seems, trends are made to be bucked.
Hillis decided to run an Indiegogo campaign to help raise funds for his passion project. Offering items like free rentals and t-shirts all the way up to having your name etched into the store’s window and free rentals for life. From the campaign, here’s what they want to do with the $50,000 they are asking for:
Beyond repairs, upgrading equipment and stock, and revamping VFB to look more inviting, we plan to install and lock down moveable shelves to make better use of the room as an intimate event space. Imagine panels! Readings! After-hours screenings! Saturday morning children’s series! With $50,000 worth of renovations, VFB will be able to realize its fullest potential and offer extra incentives to both older and future generations of moviegoers, in a time when film culture itself is becoming a niche hobby.
Though Aaron didn’t give the store its call-to-arms name, he is clearly running with it as a theme. Video Free Brooklyn, in other words, feels like more than a store; it feels like a cause. “In comparison to Video Free Brooklyn, Netflix offers a sterile, impersonal and flat-out incomplete experience,” Hillis told me, speaking about his biggest competitor. The video store is meant to bring a certain sense of surprise, of curation and even whimsy back to the process of deciding, “What are we going to watch tonight?”
I am about to leave New York City, but I have long bemoaned the lack of decent video stores in my neighborhood. Before they started closing all across the city (and back when I was in Philadelphia, where even TLA Video couldn’t stay above water in this climate) I used to haunt video stores, sometimes for hours, before I would pick what it was I wanted to watch. At my favorite stores, videos would be set up in a way that jibed with how I view cinema: by country or director or year, rarely by oblique genres like “Drama.”
And that’s where Aaron and Video Free Brooklyn come in. The hope, of course, is that this project will become a template for other stores to succeed. With a proper attention to detail and a focus on local tastes, maybe video stores can have a resurgence anywhere. But let’s help Aaron make Brooklyn a success for starters.
[Editor's Note: as we publish, VFB is far short of their stated $50K goal. This being an IndieGoGo flexible funding campaign, however, means even if they don't hit the goal they will receive funds. What that means we'll leave for a follow-up.]