I am asked by mainstream acquaintances, those not in the industry, how long I have been doing this. It's a pretty standard icebreaker question, and has an undercurrent that bothers me a bit, where your typical accountant, credit analyst, electrician, or even salesperson cannot imagine that people somehow feed their families and pay their mortgages for years doing nothing but playing games all day in a store. Of course, that's not what we really do, small retail is an extremely challenging business to operate regardless of product, but the people asking genuinely don't know that. They are curious and I take the question in a positive direction whenever I can.
Lately I have heard a better version of that question from people I meet within the industry, where they are curious to know how previous iterations of my stores went. That is, they recognize that DSGCW is pretty good as game/comic stores go, with sufficient logistics and scale to be able to keep the doors open on what is obviously not a cheap lease, and either they've been there and are curious how it patterns their experience, or they are still further back on the ramp and hope to glean some guidance from my trial and error.
I am happy to pay it forward and discuss what I did, what worked and what did not, and my rationale for those decisions. I got a great deal of free guidance from experienced store owners in the industry such as Gary Ray, Ed Caudill, Kevin Bertrandt, and Ray Powers, and from experienced store owners in other industries, such as Vincent Vasquez (a logistics and personnel genius if I ever knew one) and Wade Gaboriault (an expert at cultivating a wealthy, exclusive client base). Those who follow after me are welcome to gather what they may from my ramblings, which I hope may be a fraction as useful as the guidance I was given by those other guys.
In preparing this article I realized I had a greater wealth of material to reference than I thought, so I decided to set the scene now and then spin my yarns over a few weeks. So, today, allow me to introduce you to my catastrophic failure: Wizard's Tower Gaming Center.
Right away you know I didn't do the research when I named that store. A game store needs to have the exact word "Games" in its name. Games. Not Game, not Gaming, not Gamer or Gamers, but GAMES. Similarly, a comic store has to have the exact word "Comics" in its name. It is not an accident that my store today is called "Desert Sky GAMES and COMICS." The reason for this is simple: character search strings. In this day and age, precise search strings are the gold standard for being discoverable by any network-connected user. A buyer looking for what they want is going to whip out their smartphone or slide out their keyboard and type "Games" or "Comics." Search engines are getting pretty decent at interpolating to similar terms, but you know what they are even better at doing? Returning results that match a search string exactly. Look at some of my local competitors today and you can see they also did the research. Imperial Outpost GAMES. Mesa COMICS and GAMES. Samurai COMICS. Play or Draw Cards and GAMES. True Believer COMICS. Look at the major regional or national stores. Black Diamond GAMES. Heroes and Villains COMICS. Gnome GAMES. London GAMES & COMICS. Star City GAMES. I'm not saying anyone who didn't do that is doomed to fail, but they have created a disadvantage that did not need to exist. I see plenty of very imaginative store names, and I won't call anyone out because I love these guys and I like their stores and I know they are doing well regardless, and I absolutely love "getting the reference," but unless you have a bankroll like Seattle's gorgeous "Mox Boarding House" game store, don't take the path of greatest resistance, folks. Just be X Comics and/or Games.
Plus, the word "gaming" is too strongly associated with gambling, which is not an image our industry needs or wants when the goal is to be welcome in a store's community. I am a gambler through and through and I paid my bills in my first semester of law school playing Texas Hold 'em and Omaha/8, since the ABA prohibits normal employment during the 1L year, but despite my comfort in the casino milieu, that's a world I do not want associated with the wholesome, family-friendly confines of DSG. It sets my teeth on edge when I get an invoice addressed to "Desert Sky Gaming" from some vendor whose administrative personnel obviously don't pay attention to detail.
After botching my first store's name, I botched the location. I located the store near my home at the time, in a demographic wasteland in one of the poorer areas of Mesa, Arizona, but one that was convenient for my personal commute. I leased a 1000-square-foot suite on Main Street between Stapley and Gilbert Road. Yes, the same Gilbert Road my store faces now, but about eleven miles north of DSG's domain, where the landscape is vastly different. My neighbor tenants were a tattoo parlor and a cigarette shop, and across the street stood a small motel, a vestige of the time when Main Street was U.S. Highway 60, back before the Superstition Freeway was built three miles further south. My rent was about $1,500 per month net of everything, a telling reminder of a pre-recession era in which landlords held better cards. My per-square-foot is lower now, in my considerably better location, though I pay much more in CAM and taxes (triple net). My lease for Wizard's Tower was an absurdly short 18 months. It's hard for me to imagine a scenario today where I would be unable to engineer my way to staying open that long even if the store was performing poorly. Nevertheless, Wizard's Tower lasted less than six months and closed in Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
Think I was done botching things? Not even close! I then botched our product sourcing. I set up an account with now-defunct Zocchi Distributing in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Zocchi was a smaller distributor offering an agonizing three-day ship to Phoenix, and offering no net terms or check terms whatsoever. It was COD-Cashier's Check only. Besides missing out on major industry exclusives by not sourcing from Alliance in Baltimore (which ships to my region out of a massive facility in Visalia, California) I also missed distributing through Talkin' Sports in Phoenix, which years later merged with Gamus to become the GTS Distribution that serves for the plurality of DSG's volume today. Local sourcing would have allowed me to grow organically with daily product pickups. Considering my initial order to Zocchi was for about $2,500 worth of merchandise, a clean grind upward from Level 1 and zero XP might have made a huge difference. I opened DSG with over $40,000 worth of merchandise and still felt extremely thin across several product lines.
It is testament to the power of Magic: the Gathering as a product that despite Wizard's Tower having no real retail capability even from the start, the store was able to grind revenue immediately on booster packs, singles, and organized play. I talk about stores that are "bowling alleys," and Wizard's Tower was absolutely that. The store had twelve tables, two showcases, one behind-the-counter product shelf, and two terrible bookshelves on the side wall that I built myself. There was no slatwall, no gridwall, no professional rack and fixture besides the two used showcases, both of which sucked. In short, Wizard's Tower Gaming Center was pathetic. But by golly, you could play a sanctioned booster draft there every week, in an era when sanctioning was done by snail-mail forms and most game and comic stores couldn't be bothered to do it except for special events.
How do you do business when your store is pathetic? Well, you don't. You fail. But in the meantime, you grind. The store stayed open until the wee hours, allowing the tiny niche of players who wanted to play Magic extremely late into the night to do so. Also, you discount. I thought I could make it up in volume by selling at ten to fifteen percent over what I paid for items. Also, you burn out. I ran so many sit-and-go tournaments every week, day in and day out, that before long I barely cared what happened anymore.
Ultimately, you starve for cash and you find a padlock on your store's front door one morning. Still, some amusing things happened along the way. Next week, I'll tell tales of a premiere that paled, a partner that bailed, and a tournament that failed.