In 2005, I started working at a local video store in Brooklyn called Reel Life South. Some people—including my (now ex-) husband—thought “video store clerk” was a strange choice for me. After all, I had worked as an Associate Producer at a big magazine’s website for four years, and I’d just finished up a huge creative project. But for me, stepping behind the counter at Reel Life was like coming home.
Through my teenage years and into my early twenties, I’d worked at the video store around the corner from where I grew up, a place called Filmfest Video. Back then, I was young and surly, a somewhat stereotypical video clerk with bleached hair and black fingernails. Asked what I thought of the latest Sharon Stone offering, I was likely to snap, “It sucks.” Of course, those movies usually did suck, but back then I lacked what you’d call interpersonal skills. On the other hand, I was a true movie-lover, a real cinephile, and I was always quick to offer up an off-the-beaten path suggestion based on what I thought the customer might be in the mood for.
Reel Life had special significance for me. On the day it opened, I had spied the new sign from across the street and raced in, babbling to the bemused clerks how thrilled I was to finally have a “real” video store in the neighborhood. There was one a few blocks away, but it had always clearly been a bottom-line enterprise, with no true love for movies evident in the vibe of the store. Reel Life South was obviously the real deal—there were movies organized by director, a voluminous horror section, a great collection of film noir. It looked the way I felt a video store should look—like a shambling library, only with movies stacked high instead of books. It was a far cry from the fluorescent soulless-ness of a bottom-line video store like Blockbuster. I was practically dizzy, I was so happy to be there.
Perhaps if I had cut my enthusiasm short, and been quicker to sign up, I could have been the first member. But an older man, tired of hearing me gush about the great collection, cut in front of me and signed up first. I then became customer 1002—the second person to become a member at Reel Life South.
FINDING LOVE AT REEL LIFE
The owner and founder, Joe, was in the back of the store in his office, taking a break from the anxieties of opening the second outpost of Reel Life (he had opened the first one in Williamsburg, Brooklyn—this was in Park Slope). Joe was like me—he’d grown up a film fanatic, a lil’ cinephile who begged his parents for money to rent movies at his local video store. But we didn’t meet on that summer day of 2001. Instead, four years later, I ran into one of the employees on the street and asked if Reel Life was hiring. He said yes, and I gave him my number. Fatefully, that very same employee injured his knee soon after and needed someone to cover all of his shifts—and that was me. And one day “the boss” came in to check on things, and stopped to talk.
We talked, and talked, and talked… and fell in love. Of course, the situation was complicated, because we were both married to other people. At first, all I knew was that I loved spending time with Joe, and couldn’t wait until he “stopped by” each day to talk. I’d never imagined that I could have so much in common with someone. Joe shared my fanatical love—some might say “obsession”—with movies, as well as my predilection for comics, books, and bad television—and so much more. We shared the same set of values, the same priorities and concerns, and the same sense of humor. And I just loved being with him.
It took a long time and a lot of navigation, as well as a commitment on both our parts to resolve our existing relationships honorably, but when we finally became a couple, the store became “ours.” Our experiences ranged from weird to wonderful, and we treasured them. There were the customers—oh, the customers. Some of them talked movies with us but never got around to renting any, and some just rented without seeming to care what it was they were bringing home. All of that was fine with us. There was the guy who would literally rent any new release as long as it was in English (“I don’t like to read my movies,” he would say of subtitles.) There was the young woman who would only rent horror movies. There was the lady who fainted and I had to call her husband to come get her. There was the little kid who threw up on one of the rugs. There were lovely customers, and there were strange ones. Some of them sang out loud in the store, others threw temper tantrums when it turned out the next disc of Arrested Development was already rented. Some of them paid up huge late charges with a smile, others tried to get out of them with ridiculous excuses. Some of them paid us in nickels, dimes, and pennies, others with big bills—some of which turned out to be counterfeit (after a few incidences, we stopped taking any bills larger than a twenty). There was the mystery customer (never identified) who left adult movies in our drop box. There were the customers who couldn’t find the drop box (it was the big metal box outside with a sign that said Drop Box). There were unwelcome guests like squirrels and the occasional mouse. There were kids who we watched, over the years, turn into grown-ups. There were our own kids—Joe’s three children from his previous marriage, who helped out behind the counter, sold lemonade and cookies outside, or sat on little chairs in front of a movie on the little TV set in the store, rapt. There’s our son, CC, who loved playing hide-and-seek in the aisles, taking films off the shelves and then putting them back, and sitting behind the counter on his dad’s lap.
A LABOR OF LOVE
Reel Life South was truly a labor of love, and because Joe is one of the most big-hearted people I’ve ever met, there was a lot of love in the labor. I loved watching Joe run his beloved store. Every week, he picked out movies to buy for the store with the same concentration and focus as a vintner selecting the right grapes for the perfect vintage of wine. He would come home with not just the new releases that were the bread-and-butter of the store’s business, but an obscure noir or sci-fi flick, a classic comedy that had never been released on DVD before, or a fresh copy of 101 Dalmations for the store’s littlest customers.
Joe was equally lovely with the youngest visitors to the store—kids who wanted movies with, say, dogs and spaceships—and the oldest, obligingly (and with a straight face) retrieving “sexy movies” for one customer who was born in 1918, walked with a cane, and preferred adult fare.
Everyone knew that if they had a late charge or some other business to take care of, to wait until they could speak to Joe—he was such a soft touch. (They knew better than to deal with me if they could help it; when it came to collecting late fees, Joe called me his “Little Pitbull,” and I called upon the surliness of my teenaged years to help me collect.)
In the last five years, the technology of movie-watching seemed to develop rapidly—and began to catch on like wildfire. And like wildfire, scorched earth was left in its wake. Not only were mom-and-pop video stores closing all over Brooklyn, they were closing all over the country. Even corporate monsters Blockbuster and Best Buy were feeling the heat (Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy in 2010, and Best Buy recently announced they were closing 50 stores nationwide). We knew the store couldn’t last forever, but surprisingly, it wasn’t Netflix, streaming movies, or On-Demand that did us in. The left hook that felled Reel Life came from our landlord in the form of a rent hike that was almost double what we had been paying. Joe and I had to discuss it, but the writing was on the wall, and we decided to close up shop. The weeks following were heartbreaking for me as I watched Joe dismantle his baby. We put the movies on sale and people snapped them up, which was a good thing—but also hard to watch. “I feel like the store is disappearing before my eyes,” Joe lamented to me via text one night when I was at home with CC and he was manning the store. Thank goodness we had each other—and our friends, who brought us cake (and beer, and whiskey), helped us haul boxes and take apart shelves, and wept freely and unabashedly as they left the store for the last time. Handing one of our young customers—a teenaged boy who loved films, just as Joe had when he was a teen himself—a stack of movies he had just purchased, I noticed his chin quivering, and asked if he was all right. He put his hands up to his face, but not before I saw tears begin to roll down his cheeks. It was terribly sad, but also profoundly moving, that this little video shop could inspire such strong emotion in the people who loved it.
And that was what it was all about for Joe, why he had started the store—for the love of movies and the love of movie-watching, loves that can prevail even after a shambling little video store closes, just as our love for each other—a love sparked and nurtured behind the wooden counter that Joe built himself—can and always will remain strong, steady, and enduring.
OUR TOP FIVE MOVIES ABOUT LOVE (THAT YOU’VE PROBABLY NEVER HEARD OF)
One of the many things that brought Joe and me together was our love of off-the-beaten-path (some might even say twisted) cinema. So it’s no surprise that our fave romantic picks are a tad… obscure. In honor of Reel Life and Real Love, here are five of our favorite movies about love that you’ve probably never heard of.
Some might say that Joe and I “met cute,” but the term is redefined by this twisted 1968 movie that stars Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld (two of my personal favorite actors in the whole wide world). Dennis (Perkins) reels in pretty majorette Sue Ann (Weld) by pretending to be a CIA agent. But who is really pulling the strings in this relationship? Dennis and Sue Ann’s love affair is marred by murder and betrayal, but manages to provide the two of them with a few poignant—albeit wacky—moments of happiness in this cult masterpiece.
Before Faye Dunaway’s chic gunslinger in Bonnie and Clyde, there was Peggy Cummins in a beret in Gun Crazy. Bart Tare (sensitive actor John Dahl) has had a passion for guns his whole life, a passion that is only surpassed by his consuming love for carnival shooter Annie Laurie Starr (Cummins). Sure, their love is doomed, but while it burns, it burns very, very bright. (A hint about how things turn out? This 1950 classic noir was originally titled Deadly is the Female.)
They Live By Night
A great double feature along with Gun Crazy, this 1949 black-and-white beauty is also about two young criminals in love and on the run. Delinquent Bowie (soulful Farley Granger) and the woman who loves him, Keechie (lovely Cathy O’Donnell) hole up, hide out, and play house, awaiting an inevitable ending to their passionately abiding love.
The Shop Around the Corner
Lest you think Joe and I only favor films wrought with blood and betrayal, check out this absolutely charming 1940 film from master filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch. Alfred (James Stewart) and Klara (the husky-voiced Margaret Sullavan) meet in a little shop, just like Joe and I did! Their meeting, however, is laced with humor and mix-ups, as they clash at work but unknowingly fall in love as anonymous penpals. (If that sound familiar, it’s because it was remade in 1998 as the tremendously inferior You’ve Got Mail.) This sweet, funny movie will steal your heart—and also happens to be perfect for watching over the holidays.
You know about the four seasons, but did you know there was a fifth season… called Love? So claims the breathy narrator of this 1957 tearjerker that was a box-office sensation. Some of the scandals occurring in this New England town are ho-hum by modern standards, and the ensuing melodramas are decidedly giggle-inducing. But other plotlines are truly shocking, and the forbidden desires that roil under the picturesque surface of the little hamlet range from sympathetic to downright criminal. But the movie really is about love—the love between mothers and daughters, the love between friends, and the love between a rigid, repressed single mother (Lana Turner was nominated for an Oscar for her role as Constance MacKenzie) and the newcomer who turns her world—and her way of thinking—upside-down (reedy-voiced Lee Philips is no match for Turner, but their budding romance is still fun to watch).