After 26 years in business, West Chelsea's legendary Alan's Alley Video on 9th avenue between 22nd and 23rd closed on July 15.
Most of Chelsea's local businesses have shuttered for good since the High Line opened in 2009 and turned the neighborhood into a tourist trap. The good news for Chelsea is that Alan Sklar has re-opened Alan's Alley at 164 West 25th street, #5D, near 7th avenue across from Whole Foods.
Alan's Alley is more than a store -- it's a real New York experience, and a precious Chelsea treasure. If you are a New Yorker -- and especially if you live downtown -- here's why you should drop by the new location.
It is true that one no longer has to rent DVDs to watch films. This is an indisputable fact.
It is also true that an algorithm like Netflix or Amazon Instant Video designed to push the latest big-budget movie cannot replace a master of 20th and 21st century film with a library of 40 thousand titles, many of which cannot be found online or, often, even in a digital format. Alan's Alley Video is less like a video store and more akin to a Library of Alexandria of film with a curator there to speak to at any time.
I know this from experience.
I moved onto West 21st street around the corner from the store in 1996. I would describe Alan's Alley as the anti-Blockbuster: the store had the organization and aura of brilliant madness that characterized the New York that I had fallen in love with when I first moved to the city a year prior. Alan's Alley didn't really have what you would call rows - it was more like a labyrinth. The way sections were categorized - "Pre-Code Hollywood"; "Tennessee Williams"; "Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn"; "Midnight Movies"; "Cult Classics"; "Gay Interest", "Girls With Guns" - assumed that you were intelligent, thoughtful, curious, and knew something, or wanted to know something, about film. Whoever was at the front desk was sure to be incredibly knowledgeable. Film was in the ether at Alan's Alley, and whenever I left the store I always knew more than I knew going in.
While most of the Chelsea Boys were discovering the latest Julia Roberts romantic comedy at the Blockbuster on 8th and 17th, at Alan's Alley I was discovering iconic gay classics like Boys in the Band and The Ritz and cult classics like Myra Breckinridge and Valley of the Dolls. From pursuing "Midnight Movies" I became privy to Divine eating dog sh*t in Pink Flamingos; from stumbling on the Bob Fosse section I was introduced to Liza With A "Z"; from studying the Tennessee Williams area I was exposed to characters I would later on in life come to closely identify with, such as Richard Burton's portrayal of the Reverend Shannon in Night of the Iguana.
At Alan's Alley I became a Bette Davis fan. I learned the difference between young Bette (Now, Voyager); middle aged Bette (All About Eve); and aging Bette (Dead Ringer). Below her was the Joan Crawford section, which was where I learned the difference between Joan as depicted in Mommie Dearest, and the actual actress and the films that made up her canon like Grand Hotel, Mildred Pierce, and The Women. And of course I learned where Bette Davis and Joan Crawford met in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
When my dog Ronin entered the picture eight years later Alan would feed him treats at the front desk while I decided what to rent. By that time I knew the labyrinth of the store well, and would wander around letting my inner Alan's Alley divining rod lead me to the films I didn't know I was looking for until they spoke to me from the shelves: Cruising, Soylent Green, Showgirls.
Sometimes I would go up to Alan and ask for categorizes of film that didn't exist: I want to see a film that takes place in New York at night (After Hours); something with an aging Elizabeth Taylor (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?); a sci-fi flick I've never seen (Silent Running). Eventually Alan became more than a teacher and a librarian - he became my film therapist. I could go up to the front desk and simply say, "I'm in a dark mood" (Naked City), or "I'm going on vacation and need inspiration" (Week-End In Havana). During this time I knew, by my lights, three of Alan's in-house cats (the latest of which is the indefatigable orange white tabby DJ), each of whom were major players in the Alan's Alley experience.
Down the rabbit hole at Alan's were actors and entertainers represented in the store who lived in the neighborhood and were regulars: Ethan Hawke, Sandra Bernhard, Minnie Driver, Deborah Harry, Teri Hatcher, John Cameron Mitchell, Christina Ricci. Strolling in on a Saturday night I could easily spot a producer, pop star, director or actor like Joel Schumacher, Jim Czarnecki, Jeff Goldblum, Brian Cox, Gretchen Mol, Sam Waterston, Kate Pierson, or Matthew Modine. Regardless of who was in the store - whether local artists or A-List celebrities -- what we had in common is that we were all Friends of Alan.
In recent years as Chelsea's local businesses were being replaced by a desert of chain stores and banks and its residents - under siege by outrageous rent hikes and an invasion of tourists -- evacuated en masse, I knew time had to be ticking on Alan's Alley. So I set out to formalize my film education with Alan in order to maximize the time I had left with the master.
We began to pick categories together and, over weeks and months, he would feed me the films that would provide my education. Categorizes included the Golden Age of Hollywood; Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire; Greta Garbo; Marlene Dietrich; Billy Wilder; Lana Turner; Spencer Tracy as an individual and Spencer Tracy with Katharine Hepburn; Film Noir; Cary Grant; Tippi Hedren; Rita Hayworth; Clark Gable. Alan taught me about important actors whose names had not crossed the century barrier into popular culture, like Charles Laughton, Alice Faye, and Norma Shearer.
After each rental Alan and I discussed the films. If you think listening to Robert Osborne on Turner Classic Movies is good stuff, imagine being able to have a conversation with him. And Alan doesn't charge extra for it: you get it all for 4 dollars a pop.
During this time my mother had gotten me a Netflix account as a birthday gift. Netflix was never going to compete with Alan's Alley for me -- having a personal film librarian had spoiled me rotten. And the fact of the matter was that Netflix often didn't have what Alan did: The latest Transformers film? Of course. The Noir classic Stranger on the Third Floor? Shirley MacLaine in The Sheepman? Kismet with Marlene Dietrich? Rita Hayworth and Henry Fonda in Tales of Manhattan? Zero search results.
I let it expire.
And Alan's advantage over online alternatives was not known just to amateur film-freaks and locals who loved the store. NY1, TODAY, The Colbert Report, CBS Sunday Morning, Inside Edition and ad agencies you'd know by name regularly call on Alan for clips of films and television shows that simply cannot be found online.
As for charges that the store and the man are anachronisms, I would retort that masters of their craft are only anachronistic if knowledge is no longer valued.
I would also add that a human touch is only antiquated if algorithms are the paradigm, and that being served by someone following his purpose has no meaning if all we have are minimum wage slaves pushing the same crap you can buy at any strip mall in Idaho. This is something film makers Alessandro Magania and Max Tannon captured perfectly in their 2012 documentary on Alan, There Were Always Dogs, Never Kids.
This point was illustrated in real time in July when dozens of volunteers from the neighborhood helped Alan pack up his library of film and television and move to the new location. People do not rally around anachronisms. Very much like the moral of the Tracy / Hepburn classic Desk Set that a computer research program cannot replace a researcher who understands the subject, Netflix does not understand film, nor understand you. Alan does.
As other iconic Chelsea businesses that made the neighborhood so valuable - such as, most recently, the world-renowned 8th avenue men's clothing boutique Camouflage - have been replaced with chain stores (Camouflage is now a Subway sandwich), the term "gentrification" has been used to justify and explain their ousting.
And yet, nobody seems to have pondered the obvious fact that landed gentry don't shop at 7-Elevens or eat at Subway. Chelsea's long-term residents -- its landed gentry, so to speak -- shopped at Camouflage and Alan's Alley.
The good news for Chelsea is that Alan's Alley has a new lease on life -- and film is still in the ether there (and ether, I'm sure you will agree, cannot be found online). So if you want to learn everything about film for 4 dollars, and get an authentic Chelsea experience while you're at it, I highly recommend going to his new location. (If you don't have a DVD player you can invest in one for less than the price of a watered down cupcake-flavored martini in what used to be the Meat Packing District.) You might even catch Alan advising me on whether I should rent the next title on my Film Noir list (Strange Impersonation), or watch All About Eve ...again.
...something Amazon Streaming and Netflix can never do.