But Where Will the Video Clerks Go?

041607 article smallwood But Where Will the Video Clerks Go?“You used to have career video-store clerks,” said Leah Giblin, a diminutive 29-year-old veteran of TLA, the recently shuttered indie/porn-video store on Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue. Having cut her teeth as a college student (film major, natch) at Waterloo Video in Austin, Tex., she stood behind a TLA counter in Philadelphia for years before moving to the New York branch. While just about anyone can sneer at your movie picks (Kurosawa is so freshman-year) or grunt their grudging approval for $7.50 an hour, it’s getting harder to find a video-store lifer to break your heart or thrill you by validating your own fine taste.

“The video-store clerk is a dying breed in every city,” she said.

It’s certainly not breaking news that as New York gets more expensive—and does it ever—it becomes less habitable for the artist types who have been migrating here from Scranton, Kansas City and Middletown to try and “make it” (or, at least, to hang out with people who are trying to make it) for eons. These young folks don’t just play in the bands that you see on a Tuesday at the Mercury Lounge, or publish the zine that you pick up by chance and cherish forever after. They also curate your life. Standing at the cash register or lurking among the stacks, they influence what movies you see, what sounds you hear, what books you read. They suggest Black Books when I’m Alan Partridge is out of stock, or Rachel Ingalls when you’re sick of Patricia Highsmith. That obscure folk record by the teenage burn victim that you push on all your friends? Admit it: It was a staff pick at Earwax.

But it’s getting harder for New York’s slacker tastemakers to get by. Ten years ago, young musicians and aspiring novelists could scrape by—like the Ugly Video Store Guy in Walking and Talking or Parker Posey in Party Girl—but today it takes two or even three jobs to make ends meet. Rent party? Forget it. Who has enough friends to pay the rent? As stores like TLA fall victim to Netflix, BitTorrent and rent increases of their own, clerk jobs don’t just pay crap: They pay crap, and they’re harder to find. Even a behemoth like Blockbuster can’t survive to employ the castaways from indie shipwrecks—stores on Third Avenue in Manhattan and in Carroll Gardens and Greenpoint in Brooklyn have all closed.

Everyone knows that the 70’s and 80’s were glory days for New York bohemians, living in the Village or squatting on the Lower East Side, lining up around the block with Basquiat and Richard Hell to buy their nose powder and Chinese rocks. (Know? They won’t shut up about it!) Rent was cheap, and streets were dirty. But the 90’s weren’t half bad, either. Money trickled into the arts: Kids cashed in dot-com stocks for rare vinyl—even Charles Saatchi funded Young British Art. Then the bubble popped.

“The entire New York slacker culture is related to the flight of the dot-com boom,” observed lanky, curly-headed Dan Berchenko over drinks at the Pencil Factory in Greenpoint. Mr. Berchenko, 30, is a writer who has paid his bills by working at an online books retailer since the late 90’s. He remembers the bubble years as a time when “it was totally unnecessary [for slacker types] to get jobs at record stores because there was so much fucking money flying around.” Read: If you can pull in $50 an hour in a corporate playland so cushy you can scribble short stories on the clock, why suffer for street cred?

Those flush days were a slacker’s paradise. Mr. Berchenko—who writes about art and architecture for magazines like Prophecy and Mute—heard about companies hiring people just to sit in cubicles when the board of directors showed up. But after 2000, “things got progressively less slackified. I had to start coming in on time.” The doors swung shut, and those pushed out of Internet companies left the city for cheaper pastures, like Philadelphia and even (gulp) Los Angeles.

Office workers turned off their games of online Jeopardy! long ago, and now record-store clerks are tightening the belts of their skinny pants. The humungous downtown Tower Records on Fourth and Lafayette went out of business (along with every other Tower) and, across East Fourth Street, the cultural gatekeepers at Other Music aren’t celebrating. Since 1995, Other (as it’s known)—with its unusual categorization of albums into groups like “In,” “Out,” “Then,” “Psych/Prog” and “American Roots”—has been the go-to spot for assorted music-nerd specialties. It’s, well, other music. But it still wishes Tower, with its Justin Timberlake and Dipset and Rachmaninoff, didn’t have to go.

Daniel Givens, 34, a friendly musician and six-year Other veteran, had his first job at Tower in Chicago. “A lot of our customers who come in feel like we championed over the big guy. But for me, it’s definitely a sign of the times. It’s not really something to celebrate and be like, ‘Oh, we won, we won, we won …. ’ A store like Tower should be able to exist.”

But in order to make it as a bricks-and-mortar store these days, you’ve got to wage war online. (See Blockbuster’s recent Netflix mimicry.) That’s why Other is launching a digital outpost in mid-April. The site will have high-quality MP3 downloads, exclusives and a lot of writing—a bigger, better version of the famous Other Music e-mail update, a weekly bible written by employees that clues its readers into what’s hot at the store. It’s where you read about Japanese noise freaks you’ve never heard of, the latest Numero Group collection of unreleased soul sides or reissues from Joanna Newsom’s folk hero—the one with the good version of “When a Man Loves a Woman.” People from all over the world read the e-mail and—this is the important part—buy what’s recommended.

“A lot of our customers in the store come in with that printout,” said Josh Madell, 36, one of Other’s owners, as we sat in his cluttered back office, surrounded by boxes of stock and promo posters. But in the online store, reading and purchasing are only a click away. Pitchfork, meet Amazon.

Mr. Madell’s not cutting his staff anytime soon. In fact, the Web site means hiring opportunities. But it’s not just a simple matter of moving clerks up the ladder. “We always try to promote from within, but the reality is that writing and managing a site, those are not necessarily the same skill sets that are involved in being on the floor and selling.” In other words, the shy savant who introduced you to Josef K., like, years before Franz Ferdinand ripped off their style, might not make the best reviewer or editor.

“I think about some of these guys out here, and I’m just like, ‘You can’t stay here forever,’” he said. “These are guys who I think are great, and I hope that they stay here forever, but … I know that there’s a limit to what we can pay our staff, and I know that there’s only so much we can do for people.”

The Pros and Cons of Slackerdom

It’s not the end of the world. Humans do adapt (hello, opposable thumbs). And if every record and video store in every borough closed, our beloved clerks would find another hustle. But something would be lost.

“I feel like, educationally, I’ve grown just by being here,” said Other Music’s Mr. Givens. Besides, there are more immediate perks to the retail grind. “Working in a record store, you save on other things,” explained former Other Music employee Rob Hatch-Miller, 25, over iChat. “Like, you can buy music for yourself pretty cheaply, and for entertainment you can usually go to shows for free …. Plus you get to know people at clubs who’ll give you free drinks and stuff. There are incentives.” Even a big city has small celebrities.

Let’s be blunt: “There is a cachet to working at the cool video store,” Ms. Giblin said. Sadly, though, “TLA was not the cool store. That was Kim’s.”

But what misery is borne by the elite! Employees at the St. Mark’s Kim’s stare out from behind the third-floor counter with dead eyes. Kim’s, where vinyl and DVD’s for sale wind around the second floor, where the small staircase that creeps up to the video store is lined with to posters for Automatons and The Exterminating Angels. Kim’s, where you might overhear a director explain that she wanted to disorient the audience, or spy someone from a competitive video chain combing the shelves—perhaps for the anime that only Mr. Kim stocks?

Anime, let it be known, doesn’t come cheap. Mr. Kim must put all his profits right back into the stock because, according to one former employee, he only starts his clerks at $6.70 an hour. Benefits are reportedly nonexistent. And the security guards are apparently treated even worse than the floor staff—Mr. Kim doesn’t ask them to feed the meter for his rented S.U.V.’s. Why would anyone stay at such a “sweatshop,” in the words of one bearded, shaggy-haired former Kim’s clerk who now pays his Bed-Stuy rent as a freelance reviewer for iTunes?

Maybe it’s because of the solidarity shared by the last video-store samurai. Brian, 28, a skinny, shaggy-haired bike messenger in a ratty white T-shirt who has done five years of Kim’s time, explained that “ever since I was a kid, I’ve always gone to a video store.” Asked what he’ll do when he eventually leaves, his eyes blinked back blankly behind his rectangular black glasses. “Ride my bike some more,” he guessed. Netflix might eventually kill Kim’s and force Brian to reconsider his fate, but it won’t happen tomorrow: Brian thinks business has been up since TLA went under. A sign on the door advertises free membership for former TLA and Tower Video members.

The moral of this story might just be that it sucks to work at Kim’s, and that Manhattan is cruel indeed to independent stores and the Brooklynites who staff them. (Bruno, a longhaired, bearded Brit, said of Kim’s: “It kind of destroys your self-esteem.” He now bartends in Williamsburg when he’s not playing with his band, the Woods.) Across the East River, video-store clerks are happy, well fed and downright optimistic. At Photoplay, a shop on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint down the block from where the new Starbucks is going in, Jayson Green—vocalist for the MC5-esque rock band Panthers—has been content for three years. In fact, he left a better job as a video editor for the freedom to take time off to tour. He tossed his shaggy-brown hair aside and scoffed at the idea that the city was getting harder for artists like him. “I’ve never had a problem finding a way to make money here. There’s lots of opportunity to. If you can’t find a way to make money in New York …. ” He trailed off. A pregnant silence hung in the air.

Jayson’s soft-spoken boss, Mike—one of few men interviewed for this story whose hair cannot be fairly described as “shaggy”—stood by, reshelving. A former programmer at Film Forum, he opened Photoplay six years ago. His 22 years in New York have been “a migration east,” from Bleecker and Macdougal to Houston and Prince to Sixth Street and Avenue B to South Third and Berry to Manhattan Avenue. He can’t imagine how anyone could survive on a clerk’s salary in the city today.

Williamsburg: Cheap Labor Camp?

Perhaps the consummate stomping ground for New York City slackers seeking a steady paycheck is the Strand. Its miles and miles of books, wound around the stacks at 12th and Broadway, occupy a score of, yes, shaggy-haired boys and girls who wear glasses. It’s often the first stop for those looking for clerk work—and given the frequent turnover, maybe the easiest place to find it. But there’s a catch.

“You have to work a lot of overtime just to get by,” explained Ryan, 26, who has been there a little over a year. (Pseudonyms have been used to protect the identities of Strand employees.) Employees have health benefits and a union (take that, Mr. Kim!), but they have to work at least 40 hours a week (part-timers need not apply) and can barely even live on that. His colleague of eight months, Seth, 26, agreed. “It’s a nice halfway point. It’s a hobby job.” But “it kind of consumes you.”

Ryan and Seth, like other young men with soulful eyes, spend a lot of time talking about how the cost of the city is the biggest impediment to getting anywhere in it. Sometimes, Ryan said, it feels like he “moved up here just to work and pay rent. It gets really frustrating.”

Who can be blamed for these hardships? Greedy landlords, rich bastards, Bloomberg? Maybe. Or perhaps it’s something more nefarious, and much harder to stop, let alone slow down. Maybe it’s the scene.

The scene demands a lot. But the scene also eats a lot, and so you’ll find musicians, filmmakers, photographers and tattooed hangers-on behind the counters of fine restaurants all along Williamsburg’s Bedford Avenue. Autry, 24, is a waiter at Diner—no, not an actual diner, it’s just called that—and plays bass in the up-and-coming soul-punk-freakout group Dragons of Zynth and guitar in Shock Cinema. (He also does time at a bookstore and is a band consultant.) He thinks it’s harder to find time to make art than it should be, but he doesn’t hold some invisible economic hand to account. He blames the johnnies-come-lately who have driven up rent in Williamsburg and made it into a “cheap labor camp” where artists and musicians must “serve” their hangers-on.

“It’s almost set up: The roles are quickly reversed, and we have to work harder for the people who are driving the rent up,” he explained in between customers during the Friday lunch rush, his voice pushing against the Neil Young that Jeff Hanson, Diner’s photographer-bartender, used to soothe his hangover. “We’re here to basically support those who came here to drive up the rent.” Autry’s lived in the neighborhood for six months.

At some point, people tend to cut their hair and get a job. “This is a tough town,” Other Music’s Madell observed. “You know, you move farther into Bushwick, and then farther out and farther out, and share a place. The thing is, when you get a little bit older, that becomes less and less appealing to a lot of people. It’s one thing if you’re 19 and you’re just in town and you don’t care, you’re just psyched to be here, and if you’re making 10 or 12 bucks an hour, and you’re sharing a place with a bunch of people. But, you know, when you get to be in your 30’s and you maybe are settling down with someone—some people are thinking about having kids—it becomes different.”

The slow death of work for slackers, artists and general nogoodniks is not a distinctly New York phenomenon. Small shops are closing in every city, pushed out by global conglomerates, squeezed tight by new technologies. But the distinctly New York rental market, and the distinctly New York light-speed pace of gentrification, are making the city harder to live in for cinephiles, musicians and philosopher kings. Some day, it may get too hard. They might move back to Austin, decamp to Iowa City or pack up for Berlin. They don’t necessarily need New York—but New York needs them.

Still, opportunity might lay waiting outside the glass doors of the corner video store. The thing about inflated rent is that it might be able to do what no fit of maternal rage can: motivate a chronic underachiever. For, in the end, making $7.50 an hour is not something to hold onto forever. Working for film festivals or nonprofits, or going off to travel in Thailand, or becoming a mailman at Pratt, as former TLA employees have done—things could be worse. It’s a big world. Clerks can do lots of things. “There are tons of options for them,” Mr. Hatch-Miller typed. “I mean, they could start blogs, they could write for any number of publications.”

And if blogging doesn’t pay the bills, there’s always American Apparel. The Williamsburg branch is hiring.