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Meet The Owner: Aaron Hillis of Video Free Brooklyn

The longtime film critic and cinephile has given new life to a Smith St. video-rental store


In the post-Internet age of Netflix, On Demand and live-streaming video sites, some say you'd have to be crazy to open a video rental store. But when Smith St. film shop Video Free Brooklyn announced it was shutting down earlier this year, local film critic Aaron Hillis was inspired to take over the business as his own.

As it turns out, he was uniquely qualified to do so.

Hillis, who lives down the block from VFB and had been a loyal customer since it opened in 2002, has devoted his entire career to film curation and celebration.

He is a film journalist, a former programmer at the reRun Gastropub Theater, has made a feature film and was vice president of the boutique DVD label Benten Films. In fact, years earlier, he had even worked at a Court St. rental store called Hole in the Wall Video and wrote a business plan to run a video store locally in 2003.

But he ultimately abandoned the idea because it seemed like a terrible venture at that particular time.

When signs went up in April announcing that there would be a liquidation sale forthcoming at Video Free Brooklyn, Hillis recalls getting "excited about all of the cheap DVDs I was going to pick up," he says. "Then suddenly the signs came down and I heard that someone had put their hat in the ring to take over the place.

"That got me thinking, 'Well, who would want to run a struggling rental store?'"

At his wife's suggestion, Hillis reached out to then-owner Dan Wu to learn more details. Wu had been living in Kentucky for years, running the shop remotely and simply wanted to start another business closer to home.

"The store was always sustainable," says Hillis. In fact, it was the last rental store standing in the neighborhood. So in some respects, it had a lock on the market.

The combination of expertise mixed with the fact that "Smith Street has the greatest walking traffic of Downtown Brooklyn" encouraged Hillis to take the leap.

But before he could reopen the doors, he had to conduct a major renovation, crowd-sourcing roughly $14,000 in fundraising online over the summer.

Since reopening, Video Free Brooklyn is practically unrecognizable. Walls are painted a pristine white, creating an almost gallery-like setting for the rolling shelving units featuring hand-picked selections from Hillis.

Gone are the dolls from the storefront window. In their place, seasonal displays are based around a single movie theme like The Breakfast Club or The Birds. 

"We wanted to make this more like a boutique, more in line with the Brooklyn brownstone aesthetic," says Hillis, who credits his photographer wife for coming up with inspired window installations. "She just has a fantastic sense of aesthetic and design."  

Likewise, Hillis doesn't intend to employ the stereotypical lazy teen behind the counter.

"Everyone who works here is supremely vetted," he says, noting that all of his employees are cinephiles and that he attends film festivals from Marrakech to Cannes.

But what of that ubiquitous online juggernaut?

"I don't see Netflix as direct competition," he says. "Anything that distracts and entertains is equally a competitor. But Netflix doesn't always have everything, and if you don't feel like watching it, it sits on your coffee table then you have to wait a few days before your next movie while you ship it back."

The shop, he says, is more immediate and provides that neighborhood interaction people enjoy. 

"I'm not afraid of any other vehicle for watching movies as competition," he says.

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Video Free Brooklyn is located at 244 Smith Street, Brooklyn, NY 11231

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