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Best Video's Hank Hoffman Steps Into Retirement

Lucy Gellman | January 25th, 2022

Best Video's Hank Hoffman Steps Into Retirement

Best Video Film & Cultural Center  |  Culture & Community  |  Economic Development  |  Hamden  |  Arts & Culture  |  Neighborhoods  |  Film & Video

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Hank Hoffman: “We have a foundation. We have a reputation. There’s so much possibility." Lucy Gellman Photos.

Hank Hoffman stepped into Best Video as a starry-eyed graduate student, and made it his home away from home. He helped it become Best Video Film and Cultural Center, welcomed hundreds of artists through its doors, then pulled it through a pandemic. Now, three decades and multiple titles later, he is stepping down as its executive director—while planning to stay involved in its future.

Hoffman, whose name and face have become synonymous with the nonprofit, announced his retirement from Best Video Film and Cultural Center (BVFCC) in a press release and email last week. He plans to officially step down in June of this year, a decision that gives the board time to select and train a new executive director. At 65 years old, he is planning to spend more time with his wife, Jane McNichol, and return to some of the creative pursuits that he hasn’t had time to do while running an organization. 

“I think it’s time, you know,” he said in an interview with the Arts Paper Monday, looking out at Whitney Avenue from one of the center's high wooden cafe tables. “We have a foundation. We have a reputation. There’s so much possibility. And for someone who, maybe they’re in their 30s or 40s, to come in with fresh energy and ideas to build on what’s been done here could be great.”

That he has kept it running through the birth and rise of streaming, crunch of multiple recessions, and most recently a global pandemic—never alone, he is quick to say—is something of a miracle. When artist Hank Paper founded Best Video as a Spring Glen storefront in 1985, the VHS rental business was riding a wave that would rise until suddenly it didn’t. DVDs weren’t even popular yet. The store was well on its way to building a 40,000-video collection, packed performance lineup, and bustling cafe that would leave even the pickiest of viewers excited to stay and browse.

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Almost four decades later, BVFCC is a unicorn that exists somewhere between the last Blockbuster store in Bend, Ore. and the nonprofit Scarecrow Video in Seattle.

Hoffman walked into the store for the first time in 1994, when he was finishing his graduate degree in liberal studies at Wesleyan University. By then, he had become part of New Haven’s cultural scene, including a stint living in Daggett Street and time as a founding member of the band Happy Endings in the early 1980s (the band is still active, including in shows at BVFCC). The year before writing his master’s thesis, he had quit his job in printing and needed to pick up part-time work.

When he walked into Best Video and had Paper show him around the store, “there was a sense of wonder at how much there was here,” he said. “How much I didn’t know existed.” He was at home among the videos-lined shelves and the other staff members, most of them working artists. As he strolled from Japanese horror over to ​​Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma Monday, it was clear that he still is.

In those years, the video rental business was booming. On Fridays and Saturdays, the store was full of customers who rushed there before closing to pick up new releases. When a hit came out—the 1993 Jurassic Park, for instance, or its sequel four years later—he’d watch the store order 40 copies just to meet demand. Even after he began writing for the New Haven Advocate—first as an intern, and then full time—he spent every Saturday among the rows and rows of VHS tapes packaged snugly in their cardstock and plastic sleeves.   

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“It was a throwback to when small businesses were an anchor of a neighborhood,” he said. “People would come in, they’d have conversations with their neighbors, they’d hang out, they’d talk movies, they’d talk politics … a diverse crowd of people with all sorts of different interests, and it just felt like a special place.”

By the early 2000s, Hoffman could see the video store landscape withering as streaming services from Netflix, RedBox, and Apple began to take root. Blockbuster, which started with five video rental stores in 1985 and grew to over 4,500 by 2009, filed for bankruptcy in 2010. While independent video stores were playing a constant game of catch-up, big box companies were able to make the jump from mail-order service to fully online streaming with large staffs and larger budgets. People started staying home to watch movies from their computers. For the first time in decades, the store was quieter on Fridays and weekends. Much too quiet, in fact.

Hoffman knew that Best Video would have to change to stay in the game. While customers often told employees how much they loved the space and hoped it would survive, he wasn’t certain that “would open up their wallets” if Best Video needed the financial help, he said. By then, the store had lived through the 2008 financial crisis (if you need a refresher, The Big Short and Queen Of Versailles should be readily available at BVFCC), and was facing an uphill battle to stay alive. When Paper announced he was selling the building to keep the business afloat in 2014, both Hoffman and then-manager Richard Brown stepped in to discuss a nonprofit model.

They looked to surviving examples that were few and far between, including Vidiots Foundation in Santa Monica, Cal. and Scarecrow Video, which boasts a collection of 100,000 VHS and DVD recordings. When the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent assigned to the application pushed back—weren’t they just a video store, he asked—Hoffman pointed to the role that BVFCC has always played in bringing the community together. In the midst of fundraisers for the evolving nonprofit, he began building out the space’s music and film programming, from student film festivals to concerts that unfolded between neatly labeled shelves and a single, cinematic red curtain hanging on the back wall.

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At one point close to the end of the interview, Hoffman pointed out Alfonso Cuarón's 2018 Roma, which Netflix wouldn't release on DVD for two years. 

The place became his life. A blog that he kept on the state’s art scene fell by the wayside in 2014, after his responsibilities as assistant manager took over. He put his work for the Arts Paper, a beloved monthly column on the “Artist Next Door,” on the back burner. On November 1, 2015, when Best Video officially incorporated as a nonprofit, Brown was named its first-ever executive director. Hoffman became the program director.   

Rob Harmon, now a video clerk at the organization, remembered that time in a phone call Monday night. In 2010, Harmon walked into the store looking for a job. He was finishing his undergraduate degree at Southern Connecticut State University, and had already visited a few times as a customer. He took to Paper immediately, and then warmed to Hoffman more slowly, learning from this quiet, assured man who made magic happen behind the scenes. Ten years later, he’s still working there and runs the nonprofit’s well-loved “Secret Cinema” series.

“His [Hoffman’s] passion for music and events in the store have just paved the way for the future of Best Video,” Harmon said. “We wouldn't be here without that.”

The nonprofit model didn’t lift BVFCC immediately out of harm’s way. Initially, staff and board members weren’t applying to grants, or gathering around signature fundraising events like New Haven’s Great Give. In August 2017, Best Video launched a call for community help after Brown discovered a debt of over ​​$12,000 to cafe vendors and several thousand more to Paper, who had sold the store to the nonprofit for $50,000 in 2015. Through individual donations, BVFCC raised enough to keep its doors open. Even then, Hoffman said, it was abundantly clear that it needed to find other ways to do so. 

Hoffman took over as executive director in 2019, with no inkling of the earth-shaking pandemic on the horizon. In a normal week, he found that the job encompassed everything from deep cleaning the bathroom to running social media, liaising with board members and customers, and bringing musicians, writers, filmmakers and academics into the space. He planned bluegrass shows and klezmer concerts and CD releases that kept the space hopping. He organized membership drives and worked to spread the word about the space. He also started looking at grant funding, which BVFCC was new to. Currently, BVFCC’s operating budget is roughly $350,000—meaning it needed outside help.

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Movie picks from Rob Harmon, who started at BVFCC when it was still a store in 2018.

Then Covid-19 hit. For the first time in decades, everything stopped overnight. Hoffman, who was used to being at BVFCC three or four nights a week, pivoted yet again to save the organization. Working with BVFCC’s board, he applied for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding, an effort that resulted in two payments of $37,000 each during the program's second round. In May 2020, the nonprofit brought in $50,000 during the Great Give, enough to build out a deck for live music in front of the shop. Those concerts launched in late summer 2020, when many music venues remained closed.

He also worked with Spring Glen Church, Ignite The Light, Elm City LIT Fest and the Hamden Department of Arts & Culture to launch an outdoor, late summertime Black Film Mini-Series where the community could gather and watch movies in a Covid-safe environment. Ignite The Light Founder Shamain (Sha) McAllister, who now sits on BVFCC’s board, said she’s been consistently moved by Hoffman’s dedication to not simply the space, but the community it holds.

“Hank is a person who truly devotes himself to this organization,” she said. “He’s a student of life, and he's not close-minded at all. He's somebody who has poured into the community. I encourage people to give this brother his flowers.”

Last year, he managed to do it all over again. With outdoor concerts up and running, Hoffman, staff, and board members spearheaded 2021 Great Give efforts that brought in $60,000. He worked with the board to write and submit an operating grant to Connecticut Humanities—a first in the organization’s history—that brought in $25,800 late last year and will be used to expand the center’s film programming. By the end of 2021, BVFCC had 460 households enrolled in its membership program, a number that translates to between 1,500 and 1,800 movies in circulation every month. 

Something else happened during that time too, Hoffman said. He realized that he liked being at home with his wife of over 35 years (“It turns out we still really like each other!” he said, his eyes sparkling). The two have a 33-year-old son who just moved to Los Angeles, and Hoffman likes the idea of being able to visit him. He thought deeply, not for the first time, about how no one else in his nuclear family had made it past the age of 60.

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Hoffman announced to the board in November of last year that he would be stepping down in June 2022. Monday, he said that the timeline is meant to give board members ample room to open a search, appoint a new executive director, and give that person a few months to train with him in a mentorship role before he leaves. He praised board member Crystal Rose Cathcart, who is leading the search committee to find an executive director.

In a phone call Monday night, Cathcart said it “made so much sense” to her that Hoffman had decided to retire, and that she supports both him and the organization fully in that decision. Since March 2020, she, Hoffman, and fellow board members have had deep, sometimes stressful conversations about how to keep BVFCC up and running while protecting staff, customers, performing artists and members from potential exposure to Covid-19. They’ve talked a lot about work-life balance, she said. 

She added that BVFCC is a big part of why she loves living in Hamden. When she and her boyfriend moved to Spring Glen in 2016, they missed the coffee shops and restaurants that they’d been close to in New Haven’s East Rock neighborhood. To fill that void, they started coming to the cafe at BVFCC, where they could always find a coffee in the morning or a cheap beer at night. They still stop by before work to get their caffeine fix, and then come by again for live music.

The couple also made a game out of BVFCC’s video rental program: each movie they rent has to have one actor from the last movie they rented. She said it’s a great way to sample the breadth of the center’s collection. So when Brown asked her to consider joining the board two years ago, she said yes. Now, she and fellow members of the board are taking a beat to make sure that it gets the hiring process right. She said that it’s especially important to find someone with fundraising and grant writing experience.

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Barista Matthew Elliott, who has worked at Best Video for two years. "I think he'll be missed for sure," he said of Hoffman. "It's such a weird business, to find someone who can do it all is going to be hard."

“It's gonna be really hard to find another Hank,” she said in a phone call Monday night. “But we can take little pieces of what he was, and have a plan in place for mentoring the next person, filling in and strengthening the gaps. We’re thinking about all of that.”

Hoffman said that he hopes to remain involved in the organization’s life, from a potential board membership to involvement in the music programming. While he lives in Wallingford, he doesn’t plan to be a stranger among the shelves that he has so carefully helped build and care for for over 25 years. He’s leaving with the same sense of wonderment he had those years ago, when he stepped through the doorway for the first time and found his way to the director section.

“The only reason we’re here is because of change, and our willingness to accept change and creatively adapt to the difficulties that the changes in the media business have presented,” he said. “So I think people should welcome it. I’m proud of the role that I’ve been able to play, but we have a staff that people also come in to spend time with. It isn’t just me. It’s a whole bunch of people, and it’s the place, and what the place means.

“It’s a vision of a different way of living,” he continued. “There’s a large nostalgic element to it, but it isn’t nostalgic to want to be in a real, physical space with other people enjoying music or enjoying film and talking about it … that’s life. That’s beautiful energy, and this place speaks to that need.” 

McAllister, who first met Hoffman in 2018, said she wants him to get some well-deserved love before June. Four years ago, she walked into the store on the eve of a giant snowstorm, hoping that a few movies and a friend’s repurposed playstation could get her through a few days. She was fresh out of college, and already a self-described film geek. Just past the doorway, her eyes fell on a giant cutout of Blaxploitation star Pam Grier. She decided right then that she liked the place. Hoffman was an immediate part of that.

“I was like, this dude's kind of spunky,” she said in a phone call Monday night. “He’s cool and he knows what he's talking about, and he wants to learn … Where I'd like to see Best Video go is to really be seen as an archive, as an educational resource, as a learning sace, for people to see the power in films.”

“This Is Another Form Of Education”

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Friends Tom Morrill and Bill Duffy.

Monday, the low buzz of conversation filled the space, warding off a bright cold outside. Sunlight streamed through the front windows, falling over cafe equipment as Matthew Elliott brewed tall, steaming cups of coffee. At a table by the cafe counter, friends Tom Morrill and Bill Duffy chatted, their hands curled around tall, slowly-cooling paper cups.

For years, the two have met at Best Video to catch up, often taking their coffees to go. Morrill joked that “I’ll drive by Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks any day” to come to BVFCC, because he likes to support its independent model.

Across the room, musician Peter Menta sipped his coffee and read. Menta, who plays with the group Washboard Slim and the Blue Lights, started coming to Best Video six or seven years ago, as Hoffman built up its slate of live music shows. He’s played there several times, and returns to both listen to music and check out films and documentaries, mostly on music.   

“The audiences are great, and they treat the bands well,” he said. He was especially excited to return to the space in fall 2020, after Hoffman built the deck outside, he said. 

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Top: Menta. Bottom: Raizine Bruton, who has worked at BVFCC for six months. "He's been really good to me," she said of Hoffman.

At the register, staffer Raizine Bruton said that BVFCC has been part of her growth as a cinephile and budding writer. Growing up in New Haven, Bruton watched “a lot” of Turner Classic Movies with her stepdad, an interest that grew into foreign films, a deep knowledge of the DVD collection at the New Haven Free Public Library, and part-time work at the Criterion Cinemas movie theater downtown. As a student at High School in the Community, she started writing scripts  after realizing “I wanted to tell stories.” Years after graduating, she’s still writing.

Six months ago, fellow BVFCC employee and artist Jules Larson told her that there was a job opening at Best Video. Her reaction when Hoffman showed her around the space was close to his own 28 years ago, when Paper welcomed him into the store. Her heart leapt in her chest. She’s since fallen in love with the work of director Chantal Akerman, who she gravitates towards with a pull that feels instinctive, organic.

“The first time I walked around here, I got emotional,” she said. “Really, I just love the access that I have to be able to see things I’ve dreamt of seeing. The other part is being able to introduce new films to people, and having people teach me about films. For me, this is another form of education.”   

She’s a little in denial about Hoffman’s retirement, she added. But she’s excited to see what he’ll do next.

“I know he’ll still be around,” she said. “I just can’t imagine not having him here.”