By any measure, it’s a weird business model: equally predicated on marijuana and outlandish plots of men hell bent on revenge.
It’s James Bennett’s livelihood. The 48-year-old from Mattapan, along with business partner Aaron Crawford, runs Kung Fu Video & DVD in Downtown Crossing. He estimates he sells about 5,000 kung fu DVDs a year, good for about $50,000 in sales. He claims he has the largest selection of kung fu movies in New England.
However, it’s smoking accouterment -- pipes, grinders, e-vaporizers and the like -- that has allowed Bennett to keep his doors open and pay his $2,500 rent for the shop’s space on Washington Street. He said about half of his shop’s sales are now smoking products.
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Thanks in large part to the Internet – “People can find a lot of what they want online” – sales of his kung fu DVDs has fallen 50 percent since he first opened the store in 2001, after Bennett said he was tired of going to New York City to seek out obscure martial arts titles.
He thought there was a niche in Boston for a shop that specialized in the kind of movies he grew up watching, so he left his job working construction and painting and opened the store.
Back in the 1970s, Bennett used to watch kung fu titles at the Publix Theatre in Chinatown. You could see three movies for $1.50, he said. He’s loved the movies ever since.
Any good martial arts movie, he said, is predicated on revenge. Someone disrespects someone else. Someone’s family member is killed, land is taken, the wrong person is accused of a crime or their honor is otherwise impinged. The offended party then sets off to make things right. That’s pretty much the plot arc for most of the films, he said.
About four years ago, it became clear that movies about violent men visiting violence on other violent men in an attempt to restore their honor wasn’t going to cut it anymore. That’s when Bennett, along with his business partner, Crawford, a 44-year-old from Dorchester, decided to diversify. They started selling rolling papers and slowly expanded to include other smoking products. They do a lot of sales in e-vaporizing products, said Bennett.
Asked if authorities ever give him a hard time, given the products he’s selling, Bennett deadpans, “Nope. It’s all for tobacco products.”
He’s told the products he sells don’t seem like they necessarily jibe: gas mask bongs and a bunch of films starring a young Gordon Liu – the guy who played the martial arts master in Kill Bill Vol. 2. It all seems weirdly random, he’s told.
“They go hand-in-hand, most definitely,” he said. “If you want to chill out, watch a karate movie, listen to some Wu-Tang, all of this is a no-brainer to me.”
The shop itself smells like a college freshman dorm – some sort of incense is burning. The space – located atop a jewelry exchange -- overlooks the construction of the new Millennium Tower – a skyscraper development that will feature luxury condos and is expected to be a lynchpin project that could revitalize Downtown Crossing. Bennett has mixed feelings about it.
Yes, it could change the face of the neighborhood for the better. The block has seen a significant increase in homeless people and panhandlers since he moved in in 2001, said Bennett, and the area tends to be a ghost town after 7 p.m. More young professionals could breathe vibrancy into the area, he concedes. But it also may up rents and force him out. If that happens, he said, he would most likely move to someplace like Jamaica Plain – far from downtown.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “I’m hopeful we’ll be able to stay.”
Most of his kung fu clientele, are, no surprise, martial artists themselves. On a random recent Thursday, none of those guys are in the shop. There are, however, younger men who want to buy the smoking products.
They are more interested in the glass pipe shaped like a bear clutching a honeypot than “Perils of the Sentimental Swordsman.” There is a young guy in cargo shorts, white socks and beat-up sneakers asking Bennett about which grinder works the best. This is the part of the gig he likes the best, he said: talking with customers about the products.
He switches smoothly between topics: the surprising playoff run of the Boston Celtics, the intellectualism of the Wu-Tang Clan rapper GZA, the genius of the kung fu movie The Raid.
“I’m still a kid myself,” he said. “And this job allows me to be a kid.”