Saturday, October 17, 2009

Antique Reflections

As of September, Antique Reflections, a jewelry and antique emporium on Columbus Ave closed and moved to Chelsea across the river. The store’s focus has intensified on jewelry – Fine Antique & Estate Jewelry – Sterling Silver & Enamel Objects -- Bought & Sold – Jewelry & Sterling Silver Repairs.

Visit the new Antique Reflections at 40 West 25th Street/Gallery 232 (2nd Level). Call: (917) 674-7812,

I bumped into proprietor Pat Bustamante, (pictured here with Eric Chiampas, a business partner), who told me that had closed. She explained: “There wasn’t enough action on Christopher Columbus, and in Chelsea, you get more of the tourist trade.”

Made me sad, and like the name of the store, reflective. I’ve known Pat and her husband, Joe (also a partner in the new establishment), for more than a decade and a half, not because I was a jewelry or antique customer, but for videos. Movie rentals. They operated Video Rent-All, they were the mom and pop behind this mom and pop business, the best one in the neighborhood during this now bygone era.

Like the advent of the automobile meant the demise of the blacksmith, Net-Flix, movies on demand, and all the rest of the new ways to access film, meant the demise of the video store. It’s a change I’ve accepted, but seeing Pat made me feel wistful about the recent past. See, when I moved to Jersey City in the early 90s, it was also the first time I had a VCR. Now, I’ve always been a film buff of sorts. Kind of a close third in terms of interest after literature and music; but that interest seemed well enough satiated by the films on television, the revival theaters that used to be in Manhattan, and the VCR that the girlfriend had at her place. My first place in J.C. was with another girlfriend, and the VCR became a central part of our lives for a few years or so.

Video Rent-All was the best of the half dozen or so video stores that were in the downtown neighborhood. The original location was across from the Grove Street path, a little shanty strip that included a disgustingly dirty gym and a check-cashing place and a space that kept turning over businesses—a chicken place, a jewelry store, a clothing store are the ones I remember. For whatever reason, the businesses seemed always badly run. There were hardly any customers and who ever was working seemed unenthused about being there.

Video Rent-All was different. Pat and Joe and the kids that they employed were always nice and fun and loved to talk movies. Their inventory was huge and diverse. Yes, they had the new releases but they had a very health stock of horror movies, foreign movies, classics. I would rent three movies at a time, several nights a week. I got my first Leonard Matlin Guide. Almost all of the films I had heard about, and more that I hadn’t heard about but had some sort of importance—either by some Film Commentary article or other scholarly mention or the fact they featured an actor, director or screenwriter that were better known in some other classic.

Video Stores were like re-imagined libraries. Browsing through the aisles, looking at titles, reading the copy on the boxes, many of them dusty. What an enjoyable experience it was. Sometimes, you knew exactly what to rent. It was in and out. Other times, you had to dawdle, speculate, try to remember the review you saw about the new French film that came out earlier in the year.

So many film memories come back. Finally seeing Fassbinder’s Querele, and finding it awful, even though in my younger years, Jean Genet was a favored author. The Paul Wegner’s Golem, a silent classic of German expressionism that was basically ripped off for Frankenstein & Bride of Frankenstein and the entire look of the Universal Monster Film Genre; Laura Antonellie films. Good lord, they had all these Humphrey Bogart films. A Touch of Evil. And what was that Kurisawa flick, Down There? one of his films set in contemporary times and based on an Evan Hunter novel if I remember correctly, about a kidnapping of the son of a wealthy man but the kidnappers mistakenly kidnapped the son of the wealthy man’s chauffer. Oh God, another film I rented a few times, the French contemporary classic, Baby Blue. Fellini, Passolini, a lot of Bergman, Persona stands out.

One film was only in the store. I can’t get any info on it, even as a google. I believe it was a student film. The budget was minuscule—they got change back from their sawbuck. Entitled Desolation Angels—no relation to the Kerouac Novel—it was filmed in Hoboken, where it was set and featured Christian Bale (I’m pretty sure it was him, if not, his doppelganger), years before American Psycho. This was a fantastic noir flick. The main character returns to town and his girlfriend says she was a raped by the Bale character, a rich kid. It seemed to be a case of date rape. The guy is not even sure if he should believe his girlfriend, but eventually hires a thug to beat up Bale, except the thug mistakes the guy’s best friend as Bale and beats the crap out of him. There’s emotional fallout, lots of guilt and jealousy and class conflict. Cassavettes-styled acting and realistic sounding dialogue. I’ve never seen this movie anywhere else and it was back in the VHS days. If you know anything about it, email me.

It was always worth taking a chance on a film at Video Rent-All because of these rare moments when you encounter a film without any knowing anything about it, completely pre-condition free, and being blown away. That intensely pure feeling of discovery is something that makes life worth living. I had similar experiences with Tarintino’s Reservoir Dogs and Kevin Smith Clerks. Although not as free of hype as Desolation Angels—I had read about them when they were released and both directors were considered young and hip. By the time they were on video I had forgotten why the reviewers raved. When I watched each of these films, I was completely engrossed. When the final credits rolled, I immediately pressed rewind and watched them again. I’ve been fans of both aueters ever since.

My experience with movie rental probably follows a common pattern. At first you are a huge customer and that fades after several months, then you just didn’t rent as often. The good thing about Pat & Joe, they would replenish their stock not with just a full selection of new films, but they would buy a lot of re-issues and such. They were like video courtesans—they knew how to entice and satisfy.

Gradually, I went from renting 10-20 films a month to 5-10, or many months, 0-5. It wasn’t that consistent though, there would be periods where the renting would go up again. Then there would be months without anything. It just depends on what was going on in your life. In recent months, Net-Flix has been in the news for awarding a $1 million prize to a team who wrote a new algorithm to improve its recommendation system to 10 percent success. I’m not going into all the details, but basically the company found that once someone is a member for a few months, their rentals decline. They have seen all the films they had in their mind, indifference sets in. Net-Flix hopes a better recommendation system will improve customer retention. I was a big customer for Video Rental then went wavered between steady and inconsistent. I’m not sure if a recommendation system would work for me, but I do know that looking at the computer screen and counting stars is not as much fun as browsing with the aisles of cases and seeing what sparks my interest.

Video Rent-All moved to Columbus Ave right before they knocked down that shanty strip and replaced it with Grove Pointe. The store gradually switched over to DVD and eventually I was informed that VHS would not longer be available. Stores were practically giving away the damn machines so I too switched to DVD.

Soon after, Net-Flix began. I’ve never joined Net-Flix. I need another monthly bill like I need another hole in my head. Maybe if a sizable back log of films I need to see still existed, maybe I would join. When I was renting 20 films a month, it would be the thing for me. I’m no longer in that place.

I know a lot of Net-Flix members, they all are happy with the service. For me, I don’t find the whole mailing system appealing. I hate the lack of spontaneity. I don’t like the idea of planning a Woody Allen weekend that far in advance, scheduling while waiting for the discs to come in the mail. I liked the what I am going to do this weekend Friday and then just going to the video store on the way home from work. I also liked the atmosphere of Video Rent-All, it was cool place to kill some time, a kind of respite.

When I ran into Pat, she admitted that the store could not compete against Net-Flix. But she made a better point too. “It was the movies. They just aren’t as good as they were in the 90s.”

True that. There have been a lot of entertaining movies, a lot of good ones, many interesting and even a few great ones. But seriously, how many must-sees have you seen made in this century? Anything ground-breaking like Reservoir Dogs or Clerks? I haven’t. You miss something in the theater, there isn’t that sense of urgency to catch up.

Video Rent-All kept up. They replaced a lot of their VHS library with DVD versions, they maintained their quirky, cinephile instincts with foreign films, indies, reissues of classic films and had the TV shows, like Sopranos. They started some incentive deals, like extending the return by date, rent two, get one free. Finally, it was not enough and they added an antique and jewelry store, phased out the rental business and now moved out of the neighborhood. The new customers, the young and heavy renters, were joining Net-Flix and steady but inconsistent ones like myself were insufficient to sustain a business.

Within ten years, you won’t have to wait for the discs in the mail. With the click of the mouse, any movie ever made will be on your screen. Why argue with progress? Personally, I don’t think it’s progress to replace neighborhood businesses with national monopolies. That’s just me, I guess. Through more than a decade of renting at Video Rent-All, I never returned a movie late. Pat said I was the only customer to hold that record. I’m in now in the same record book as Chariot Race winners, Catapult champions and Blacksmith of the year.

1 comment:

  1. Nice memory of Pattie & Joe. As soon as they opened up I became a member. We all miss them both. they were good buddies and one of the few businesses that had lasted.