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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Independent Video Game Stores Are Here to Stay

When I walk into J&L Games on 6th Avenue in New York, I feel as though I’ve entered something between a time capsule from 1998 and a dive bar where everyone knows my name. Lit with hard fluorescent overhead lighting, J&L Games is practically a video game museum: lined with rows of display cases brimming with old-school titles, walls decorated with hanging retro consoles, and a giant plastic Pikachu at the entrance to welcome guests. Before I get a chance to introduce myself, Kevin H, an MTA transit worker, comes in to pick up his copy of Hitman 3 for the PS5. Kevin practically knows everyone in the store, especially Kit Chiu, a long-time employee who first met Kevin when he was a regular at J&L’s old Chinatown location in the early 2000s. In fact, Kevin bought his Playstation 2 from Kit in March of 2000, at J&L’s original storefront on Elizabeth Street in Chinatown, and distinctly remembers “a giant line of people looping around the building” waiting for the new console. Twenty years later, Kevin now works as a bus driver for the M20 MTA bus line, and still makes regular treks to J&L in midtown whenever he doesn’t have anything to play.

For some, this entire scene might sound a bit whimsical, or even antiquated. Today, anyone can easily purchase a digital copy of a video game online through their console, PC, tablet, or phone. Indeed, digital sales now make up the majority of video game purchases. The pandemic has deepened this process of digitalization, as even fewer people are interested in heading into a GameStop or big box chain to pick up a new game, much less a tiny walk-in store in midtown Manhattan.

While many have spent the early months of 2021 speculating—sometimes for great sums of money—whether or not stores like GameStop would survive, less attention has been paid to how smaller video game stores have weathered the challenges posed by digitalization and a global pandemic. I talked with four independently owned video game shops from around the US, to see how they’ve fared during the pandemic. While each of these stores has faced significant obstacles in the past year, they’ve survived—and even flourished—by catering to a community of gamers seeking nostalgia in a precarious time.

Josh Hamblin, owner of Side Quest Game Store in Portland, Oregon, is a good example. The past few years, Josh hasn't been too concerned by the digitalization of games and big box competition. In fact, selling retro games in a storefront had been so profitable, it made him quit his original day job: working as a car salesman.

“Seven years ago I was operating out of an extra office in my car lot, selling games for fun,” Josh says. “It just continued to grow and grow, and after about a year, the car industry slowed down, but my video games kept getting better. So I quit the car business and started working from home. From then on, my business just started snowballing.”

Later, at the behest of his wife—who was concerned with the mountain of used games devouring their garage—Josh transitioned to a storefront in Portland. From there, Josh found his niche in retro gaming, attracting nostalgia-hungry gamers hoping to accumulate extensive libraries of old titles. Over the past few years, selling retro games has become an extremely lucrative endeavor and unopened games from the early 1990s like Super Mario Bros. 3 can sell for tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes even reaching six figures. While these sorts of high-end retro sales are important for shops like Side Quest Games, everyday repairs and lower-end retro game sales are their bread and butter, keeping Josh’s business safer from big box competition.

Likewise, Josh claims that he has found a somewhat symbiotic relationship with stores like GameStop. Whereas Side Quest Game Store might not have too many newer titles, the store’s console repair services and flexible trade-in policies have provided Josh some cushioning from competition at big box retailers. This has led to moments of informal collaboration between Josh’s store and staff at local GameStops, who sometimes refer customers to Side Quest Games.

David Kaelin of Game Over Video Games in Austin, Texas has also been able to find a niche for himself amidst the rise of online sales. David started his business in 2005, long before the days of easy Amazon buys and digital downloads. Since then, his small store has expanded to over a dozen locations throughout Texas, building off a widespread thirst for retro games.

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Yet for David, the secret to his business’ survival is the need for social interaction amongst gamers. Whereas Amazon and major retailers might offer easy online purchases, David is convinced that his store has flourished by prioritizing the in-person experience.

“For us, our relationships with customers doesn’t just end at them buying a game,” David says, “We want to start a conversation with folks about games and create a place to go hang out. Gamers, just like everyone else, need social interactions too.”

Community has also been essential to Jonathan Sakura’s business over the past few years. Before opening up a store called “Gamers Anonymous” in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Jonathan had spent over a decade transforming his gaming hobby into a lifetime career. Then, in 2007, he bought Gamers Anonymous, an already established shop in Albuquerque, in order to chase an old dream of building his own store.

Over time, Jonathan built a business that catered to the needs of folks looking for retro games and console repairs—but, most importantly, his business flourished through large community events like midnight releases and in-store tournaments. Longing for the days of LAN parties, where gamers brought their computers together in basements and tight apartments to play multiplayer games in a shared space, Jonathan wants to create environments where gaming feels like a visceral and interpersonal experience.

“The social element of gaming has gotten far more important to me,” Jonathan says. “At our peak we were having midnight releases, conventions, and massive trade-ins that had hundreds of people lined up outside our store.”

These events provided a crucial boost for Jonathan’s business, and led him to believe that he had found a long-term secret for expanding his business and building community along the way.

“In those first years, despite all the trials and hardships, the marketing errors, we learned so much,” Jonathan explains. “So then, you never realize that despite all of that, not one of those will teach you what to do during a global pandemic.”

In late 2019, business had been so good for Jonathan that he decided to expand the community-orientated aspect of his store by opening a “video game cafe” next to his shop. In fact, in 2019 GameStop devised a very similar plan to salvage its faltering retail outlets; the key difference here being that Jonathan’s store was already doing quite well. In February 2020, Jonathan signed his lease for the cafe next door, but just one month later, Covid-19 brought his plans crashing down.

The pandemic arguably offered a greater challenge to independently owned game stores than online retailers. While their business models had thrived by offering specialized services, hard-to-find retro games, and a distinctive sense of community, the reduction in store traffic and the need to rethink large-scale community events fractured most stores' sense of stability. Nevertheless, stores did what they could to weather the storm: from moving the majority of sales online, offering no-contact trade-ins, or even replacing large-scale events with Twitch streams. Yet of all the businesses I talked to, none were hit as hard as J&L Games in New York City.

In many ways, J&L Games’ troubles are rooted in what made the store such a magical space in the first place. Leslie Louie, owner of J&L Games, is originally from Taishan in Guangdong, China, and moved to New York City with his parents in the 1980s where he fell in love with arcade gaming. As a young adult, his love of video games pushed him to open up a cubicle in a mall in Chinatown, where he started selling games in 1994 as a means of supporting his hobby.

“At that time I just loved playing video games, so I also wanted a space to play the games,” Leslie says. “Back in the day, I’d spend all day playing Mario, Zelda, Contra, I loved all of it.”

In 1997, Leslie eventually opened the storefront on Elizabeth Street, down the road from the original Chinatown Fair Arcade, which has long served as a rowdy subterranean hub for New York gamers, and has since transformed into something of a historical landmark in the city. Leslie’s business thrived for years in Chinatown’s gaming scene, but in 2013 he decided to move his shop to midtown. Yet despite the high traffic at his Chinatown location, where Leslie had built up a loyal clientele, business slumped at the new location.

Part of the trouble was that Leslie hadn’t advertised the move. David Butt, one of Leslie’s close friends and a long-time collaborator with J&L Games, explains what happened.

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“Everyone, all of the regulars, thought that J&L was closed,” David says. “We even read articles in the Village Voice, saying that ‘a long-cherished video game store has closed shop.’ I only found out they were open because one day I went out for lunch in midtown, and I saw the new store was across the street! I asked him how are things and he says ‘I don’t know, people are doing the online things, and I don’t really know how to do it.’”

Over the next few years, David helped Leslie adapt his store to the shifting terrain of online sales. David helped build a website, update inventory, and eventually set up the store’s social media accounts, developing a very active Twitter presence. Like other stores featured above, J&L continued to predominantly rely on retro games, console repairs, and a tight-knit clientele.

Still, the pandemic led to a steep decline in foot traffic, especially during the holiday season. In prior years, the period between Black Friday and Christmas offered J&L Games a major sales boost, with dozens of customers visiting the store on a daily basis. Last year, however, David says in-person holiday visits declined sharply, with no more than a handful of persons in the store on its busiest days. Yet J&L Games hasn’t been the only business in Manhattan to suffer during the pandemic. Over the past few months, locally-owned and chain stores throughout New York City’s five boroughs have closed their doors. According to David, midtown Manhattan has been especially hard hit.

“Three shops next to us, as of this week, are not open anymore,” David says. “It's because midtown is unique: we depend on the high foot traffic between Herald Square and Times Square. That was 30 percent of the business. With the pandemic, that’s gone now.”

Still, it’s unlikely that we are nearing the end of the independent video game store. Indie video game stores remain the foremost providers of services that are simply impossible to find at a GameStop or Best Buy. Yet, most importantly, these stores offer a visceral, living space for gamers to browse titles, meet other like-minded people, and talk about what they’re playing. In the same way that most avid readers love visiting small book stores, you would be hard pressed to find a gamer who isn’t at least a little delighted to walk into a room full of vintage consoles and colorful packaging from a bygone 16-bit era.

Despite all of the allure of convenience, the rise of mobile gaming and the immediacy of digital sales, independent video game stores offer something even more valuable than nostalgia: a sense of community at a time of heightened isolation. The feeling of conviviality at these stores is a strong counter to those who are once more rallying against video games as an isolationist form of escapism. Whether it's through one of Gamers Anonymous’ Twitch streams or a masked visit to J&L Games, the perseverance of independent video game stores shows that even people who love video games rely on a sense of interpersonal belonging. We may be entering a time of irreversible digitalization, but the magic that’s alive in places like J&L Games isn’t going away anytime soon.

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