Monday, December 19, 2005
GAME STORE CONFIDENTIAL ~ Caution! Abnormal Blog Ahead
Last week my entry for the blog indicated I’d probably be all sentimental and maudlin for the next two weeks, what with it being Christmas and all. So here’s my sentimental blog about why my game store; Dark Horse Games, was successful and why it enjoyed a lifespan triple that of most of the game stores I've visited.
Dark Horse Games was unique in many ways. Probably the best thing about it was that it had an atmosphere of friendliness. It really wasn’t always the most inviting place physically, though we tried to keep it reasonably clean and uncluttered. But it was operated with the concept that people who came to us for games were people who were like us, our ilk. And if you’re going to be part of an “ilk”, then our philosophy was to treat your own ilk well.
On a business level I consider my personal skills to be average at best, purely stupid at worst and randomly lucky or horribly flawed in between. I can’t even count the amount of mistakes I made in 23 years and looking back, it’s a wonder to me that anything I did worked.
But it worked. There were even spectacular years. Ones where I made enough money to actually imagine that I might possibly be brilliant, or at the very least, pretty damned lucky. No matter though, I spent it all foolishly or pissed it away on wine, women and song.
Over the next 10 days I’ll box up the remains, put it all in storage and slowly dribble it off on eBay for the next couple of years. And for the first time, I’m doing this without the people who are really the reason Dark Horse Games was a great store. My family.
Jaimy, Mel and DW surrounded by Gamer Goodness.
That’s because they don’t live here anymore. My lovely daughter Jaimy lives in Chicago. My handsome son Marshall haunts the redwoods of Northern California in Eureka and my dad, who is also my idol, is still over in Boise, running a VFW chapter, being a money manager of some sort for the Salvation Army and doing errands for his long time companion Evelyn.
The real credit for the longevity of Dark Horse goes to them. My two children because I really, really wanted to give them an opportunity to learn how to work. I may sound like an old fashioned parent, which I guess I am, but I have known several thousands of teenagers over the years and the one common trait that afflicts so many of them is a lack of understanding the basics of work. Timeliness, completion of duties, adherence to a standard, courtesy, acquisition of new skills, the instilling of adequate self-discipline to power them through the drudgery of work they don’t enjoy and a myriad of other traits that are what I believe truly shapes a person’s future.
And to my dad because he was there when I needed him to be. Because he never complained, never asked for anything, was gracious when I compensated him and because he’s a gentleman, a hero of a horrible war and just a fine human being.
Jaimy started working for me when she was 14 years old. She’s very pretty. Her mom is of Sicilian/Italian descent and Jaimy lucked out by receiving the dark Italian beauty that drew me to her mother. Imagine if you will, a pretty little 14 year old running the counter in a game store that primarily deals in RPG’s, Warhammer, war games, CCG’s and other arcane products like alternative comics and tarot cards. She was stunningly successful. Everybody liked her. The kids from her high school who were gamers were in awe. She was hit on repeatedly by many of them and even by some who ought to have known better. I watched her winning ways with them and damned if she didn’t do just about everything right. And Jaimy wasn’t a gamer. Not by a stretch. I tried very hard to get her into Magic when it appeared, but she didn’t care for it. Really, she didn’t care for games at all. But she did love many of the alternative comics like Sandman, Death and anything by Evan Dorkin.
She worked for me for about three years and by then her brother Marshall was ready to take her place and she moved on to other jobs outside of my control. Probably one of the best things that has ever been said to me was when she told me that it was her experience at Dark Horse that helped prepare her for the real world and smoothed out her unwarranted judgments about people based on their appearance or social skills. She thanked me for not letting her go to work at the usual McDonald’s or other job mills for teenagers.
I reckon though that she’s the cause of every success she has experienced so far. She got a tough degree in Biology from U of I, in one year less than the norm. She’s traveled in Europe and deep into Mexico. She speaks Spanish well enough to be considered Spanish-speaking and she is the most determined and unrelenting person in my family when she has a goal in mind. She’s had quite a few really hard decisions to make in the last year and she has held her ground and stuck to her principals. I admire her more than any woman in the world. For some reason she is currently an Agricultural Customs Officer based out of O’Hare in Chicago. Not in a million years would I ever have guessed she’d be doing that. But it’s a great and vital job and I don’t doubt she’ll get exactly what she needs from the experience.
When my oldest son Marshall came to work for me he was a real test. In truth, when my oldest son Marshall was born he was a real test. What a monster. Defiant, smart, stubborn, literate, sneaky, compassionate towards animals and despite the evidence that he is a family-oriented person, he gave us all hell for years. He hated working for me. I started him at $2 an hour and when he asked why so little I told him I figured I was only losing $1.50 an hour that way. But damned if he didn’t take to it like a duck to water. He played Man O’ War, Settlers, and many other games with the guys. When Magic hit in late 93’ he’d just started at Dark Horse and he got hooked. Marshall played the game well and he spent almost all of his money on cards. Betas and Unlimited and Arabians and Legends. Hundreds and hundreds of dollars, all at cost. He devised a plan to make 60 card decks of commons and sell them for $2 each at the store and we sold hundreds of them. He painstakingly put them together one by one and lots of people loved them because they worked so well for casual play.
Marshall, his beautiful wife Michele and some extremely excellent dogs.
One of the best trips in my life was when he and I went to Origins together when it was in San Jose. He went wild, packing his backpack with Legends packs and selling them for $5 each. He kept $1.50 from each one, gave me the rest and he probably made $400 during the Con.
Then one day he asked me to sell all his cards on Usenet for him. He said he was done and wanted a computer, a nice guitar and a mountain bike. When I sold them Marshall probably netted about $3500 pure profit. Not bad for a 14 year old kid. He quickly blew $1,000 on a pc from some local loser who was building total crap. The junk pc Marshall bought broke so often that he got mad. So mad in fact, that he fixed it. And then he made it better. And then he got my approval to get internet access. I never heard the sounds of pc games from his room. All you ever heard was him playing blues on his guitar or cursing at his array of computers or typing furiously on this or that hidden hacker site.
Marshall always treated every customer like they were special and he never once uttered a negative word about geekiness or misfits, he just seemed to understand people, why they were there buying games and that "normal" is a myth. He also went to U of I but he only lasted two years. He had a summer internship at a defense contractor in Washington and they asked him to stay on… at $45K per year. He told me about it after he turned them down. Seems he had ethical considerations about what the feds wanted and what he was good at. He had decided that networks deserved privacy, not incursion and he was morally inclined to deliver defense rather than attacks.
As a dad it was hard for me to bite my tongue. That’s a lot of money for a 20 year old kid. He was right, of course. I have no idea what he makes today but its way more, even adjusted for inflation, than I did when I was 25. I guess he’s some sort of Unix savant and he gets to live in a remote coastal town and take care of servers that are hundreds or perhaps thousands of miles away.
Perhaps that $2 an hour was the right thing to do? Perhaps. Or maybe he’s just smarter and more mature than I was at his age. I choose the latter and I suspect all I did was give him a place to learn what he needed to learn so he could move on to what he really loved.
My dad pretty much saved my store. He retired, sort of, in 1987 and moved up from New Mexico to help me with my kids. They lived with me and only visited their mother twice a month. When I got strapped for help at Dark Horse my dad stepped in. That was 1988 and he was there until the middle of this year. 17 years. After retirement. Everybody… and I mean everybody loves Mel. Gamers would come by just to talk to him. Or perhaps to talk at him. We had a substantial military contingent and they saw the real thing in my dad. It took him a few years to get over some of the odd habits, social ineptitude and strange behavior of the RPG and CCG crowd, but despite having been born in 1926, Mel overcame his Depression era, military-haircut, Texas Gentleman prejudices and he never missed a chance to work the counter. It had to have been odd for a newbie in the store to be greeted by a gray-haired older man who frankly, didn’t have clue one about anything we sold. He never showed any interest in any of the games either. None. Mel is just not gamer material.
No matter what trouble I got in, no matter how distressed I might have gotten financially or during a divorce, or whatever, my dad was like a rumbling diesel engine, never stopped running, always there when you needed him, never complaining and totally skilled at making any human being who walked in the store feel good.
In retrospect folks, the reason every gamer ought to have a local store like Dark Horse is not because of people like me. I was pretty much just a facilitator. I wouldn’t have had squat without the three people who really made my store work. My two kids because I needed to have a place to school them in ways that traditional school doesn’t offer and my dad because I’m pretty much a flaky goofball and he is the frickin’ Rock.
The main thing that makes great local stores great is they are filled with gamers and hopefully with people behind the counter like my dad and my kids.
Bottom line for me, the reason I don’t want to own a game store any longer is that the goals I strived to achieve with the store have now been met. My kids have grown up (well, except for the new one, but that's another tale), my dad is loving life as he approaches his 80th birthday and I have a whole new set of goals and some unfinished business that I want to tackle.
My advice to those who want to own a game store is to have a really good excuse to embark on that particular adventure. If you happen to have one or even several local stores but find yourself critical of them, give them another chance, try looking at them as people like you instead of as mere merchants. I’m convinced that retail stores are the foundation of board gaming and its recent and past success. I’d hate to be without one and even though many things can be bought for less online, there are plenty of good things that a nice local store offers that aren’t about the money.
Being a game store owner is truly a blast. It's very, very difficult to suceed at it but if you surround yourself with family or good friends, treat the customers as you want to be treated and are willing to buy used instead of new for a decade or so, the pay-off trancends money by quite a bit. To be honest, I have ten times more respect for someone who owns a really crappy game store than I do for the gamer who does nothing but complain about how crappy that particular store is.
In the end, it's just games... we're not talking about vital medicine for sick babies here. Be nice to your local store and if they haven't learned how to be nice to you, have the courtesy to tell them so... and perhaps even ask them to change.
Have a damned Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukah, and a Kool Kwanzaa and for you atheists, have a nice holiday and I hope you get many fine lumps of coal.