The Video Underground, which is celebrating its twelfth year, is both a rarity and a staple. For one thing, it’s an independent video rental store in 2014, a time of Netflix binges and illegal streaming. And yet, the store is still hanging on in the heart of Jamaica Plain, not simply because of the sheer novelty, but because of the devotion to the community and the obvious passion for all things film and television. I recently caught up with Kevin Koppes, who took charge of The Video Underground a few months back, to discuss the store’s move from Centre Street, the difference between Netflix and a video store, and more.
Evonne Wetzner opened the store in 2002, then Josiah Simmons took over, and now, here you are. The store seems to change hands pretty regularly.
“It went from her to Josiah and his two buddies. And now it’s just the two of us. A lot of stuff didn’t have to do with industry trends. Not that kind of thing. I think there were times when maybe not enough was being put into it. When you’re working in a place that’s not a growth industry, you have to really be careful and watch what you’re doing and go the extra mile. If you don’t do that, then things start slipping. You have to be mindful of what people want. You have to be mindful of what you can afford to do and what your place is. You can’t have everything everyone wants. You can’t think that you’re actually competing. In the same way that City Feed isn’t really competing with Whole Foods. Do they provide similar products? Sure. But is it a totally different way of going about obtaining those products? Sure. It’s not exactly the same thing. Just do as good a job as you can. The long-term prospects are fine. It’s just never gonna make a ton of money. But it can be here, and it can be fun, and it can be a nice little community resource and kinda keep itself going.”
When did you get started with The Video Underground?
“I took over for Josiah’s two buddies. I bought them out at the start of March. I was just a customer before, and I heard it was going under. They were kinda done with it. And I was like, well, if there’s any chance you wanna work something out. That process went pretty quickly. As soon as I was fully onboard, then the moving thing started. I mean it’s been a very busy tenure so far. It hasn’t even been six months yet, and it’s been.. I mean, the move was tough. It’s still an ongoing process. And it’s probably going to be an ongoing process as I continue to shuffle things around. Once I’m done fleshing out the back catalogue, because… when things were looking rough, they started to sell stuff off, kinda indiscriminately. I’ve been slowly going back. And sometimes it just takes someone asking. It wasn’t until last week that I realized that we didn’t have a copy of “Gremlins.” I would of course assume we have a copy of “Gremlins.” But, actually, we don’t. So once all that’s done. There’s only so much you can get done during the day, and I’m already here eleven hours a day, no matter what.”
Is it just you?
“Mhmm. For right now. We’ll see what Josiah wants to do and what his future plans are. If he doesn’t plan on moving back to Boston, I’ll probably start looking for a partner and not an employee. It’s really hard for me to imagine someone working here without having something invested. If Josiah came back, even he would need a re-primer. He just wouldn’t know where everything is. I could eventually get to the point where someone else could work here, and it wouldn’t be a total nightmare. The idea of getting a part-timer, it’s just not realistic. It’s not that simple. It’s not that kind of job. It’s not that kind of clientele, I guess. People ask questions. People expect you to know something. Being able to navigate is not super easy all the time. We’ll see though. It is me for now, and I’m totally fine with it. Until everything’s settled, squared, put away. I would end up being here all the time anyway. All I’m doing is not getting lunch. That’s basically my tradeoff.”
Where does your extensive knowledge of film come from?
“Just watching movies. That’s the best way. I didn’t go to film school in any stretch of the imagination. But yeah, people expect you to have answers. People expect you to watch. I mean, I usually fall asleep just trying to watch a new release just so I can try and say something about “Rio 2.” You kinda have to know something. You have to know what people like ‘cause people call about random, random, random stuff. People call about things that they didn’t know were out of print.”
Do most of your customers live in the area, or do you get people from outside of JP?
“Yeah, I mean, it’s a lot of JP, Roxbury, Roslindale, Brookline, but, you know, we have Cambridge, Medford. I mean, again, it’s people who aren’t weeklies, but they have accounts, and they’ll come in maybe two or three times a year if there’s some cult thing they can’t find or if it’s something bizarre or they’re having some kind of party or something. They’ll come in ‘cause we have things that are kind of hard to find. But it’s mostly… 2 miles in any direction typically.”
Why did you guys move from Centre Street?
“This is cheaper. The relationship the business had with the old property owner was always a little bit strained. And then basically when “going-out-of-business” rumors started swirling toward the end of January into February, they kind of took that opportunity to be like OK well, if you guys are taking off, we’re looking for new tenants, and the new rent is this. So then, by the time I entered the picture, they were already kind of set on their new price and weren’t gonna budge. I tried to reason with them, it wasn’t gonna happen. What they really wanted, I think, was someone to come in and make renovations. They knew that The Video Underground was never going to redo the floors or the lighting or any of that stuff. But that’s what they ended up getting. The new tenants basically started ripping out the floors and knocking down walls the day after we left. They were going to do a dog daycare, boarding, grooming? Something like that. They’re great people, but I was like, OK, if that’s what you wanna do. That’s exactly what they got. So we’re saving money being here, but, honestly, I think the location’s about as good. People think that Centre Street is kind of magically wonderful for businesses, regardless, but once you get past Canary Square, it’s a totally different ballgame. And I don’t think this is any further away from most of our current customers or most of our old regulars anyway. Being able to park on Montebello is nice. We’re close to a T stop. Money and not being welcome were the two motivating factors.”
It doesn’t seem like the store is going anywhere any time soon.
“There aren’t that many JP businesses that have been around for twelve years, flagship places. It’s kind of a stalwart JP thing. The Alamo for Boston in terms of video places. It’s a neat little spot. I think it can stay like that just fine. This isn’t rocket science. If you’re nice to people, and you take care of the books, and you don’t go crazy, and nothing bad happens, and you pay your bills, it’s fine. Could you raise a family doing this? Fuck no. You just have to like movies more than money. I’m fine with that. It does well enough.”