Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Tales of My First Game Store, November

Well, we're coming right down to it.  Over the past month I've chewed on the bit of my first ever game store, Wizard's Tower Gaming Center in 1998.  No, it didn't last the year.  And now you're about to find out why.  In November, I attempted to be worldly and wise, I made some durability discoveries, and I fiddled whilst my Tower burned.

For those of you wanting me to get back to topical things, don't worry, next week will be the finale of this series and after that I'll have a post-mortem for Magic: the Gathering Dragons of Tarkir and I'll cover a few other subjects for a while before diving into the adventure that was Arizona Gamer, 1999-2001.

Right around early November, some of my regular visitors started showing up with foreign Magic cards in their decks.  Not just Spanish or French cards either, but Japanese and Korean cards.  They looked amazing!  Remember, there were no premium foil cards yet.  This was the only way to "bling" out a deck, and I caught the fever in an instant.  I sent off to my distributors for some foreign Tempest, Stronghold, Exodus, and Urza's Saga, confident that my store would be THE source in town for all the coolest goodies.

I probably should have set some cash aside to restock my English boosters.

Moving on then.  One of the things I did in the store was rent time on video game consoles.  The legality of this is tricky even today; it can be done, if treated as an outright software rental, except where EULAs forbid it, except where EULAs can't forbid it, due to applicable laws, as long as the store has the customer pay on the basis of using the... and oh my God now I'm cross-eyed.  It's safe to say that whatever I was doing wouldn't meet the criteria that count today, but back then there was no online play, no account registration, just put the disc in your PlayStation or the cart in your Nintendo 64 and roll with it.  I had a projection TV with a fractured fresnel lens, so I even had a really terrible display to charge people $3 per hour to play!

Things I discovered in the course of offering video game play in-store:

  • Play privilege enforcement is a bear, which is why coin-operated equipment is better in a commercial environment;
  • Controllers and other peripherals were designed for home use and cannot stand up to the punishment of public use; and
  • It is all but impossible to keep up with new software sufficiently for an audience of Everybody.  Or, at least, Everybody who might walk through the door.

My arcade collecting hobby picked up a bit of steam during this time; friends of mine already had Neo Geo systems and JAMMA SuperGuns, and by mid-1999 at Arizona Gamer I would buy my first two arcade games ever, a Gauntlet and a Street Fighter II.  As for Wizard's Tower, I essentially set myself back a generation with my console collection.  The public obliterated all three of my 32-bit systems.  Yes, even my Sega Saturn.  A man has to play his Street Fighter Alpha 2, after all.

I understood the Tolarian Academy Blue deck on a deep competitive level, as I mentioned in last week's article.  I had failed at the Pro Tour Qualifier, but at long last I was routinely wiping the floor with visitors to our Standard tournaments, ringering nicely for my business and saving untold tens of dollars in prize payouts for the store's bottom line.  The December 1st bannings that would crush the deck as I knew it were still an unknown future event.  The problem, of course, with beating your customers at Magic, is that it creates a negative experience in-store if you do it too much or too consistently.  Everyone wants to play against the store owner, but if they get frustrated or don't have fun doing it, it's toxic.

Constantly playing games is also not a very efficient use of a store owner's time.  Far better would I have been to spend my Friday nights and Saturday afternoons hustling for sales.  But I knew no better; I had not yet separated Bahr the Hobby Gamer from Bahr the Businessman.  The need for me to do so was an expensive lesson.

To this day, I seldom play games in my store, and I am careful when I do.  I am a far better sport and I am busy enough that I'm rarely on the same competitive level as my customers who are devoted to their particular game, so the outcome is generally far more positive for both of us.  They either win or almost win, and I stay sharp and learn better play techniques and deck styles.

Most of all, my in-store play is infrequent enough that I'm generally delighted when I get a chance to do it.  I play a reasonable amount of Commander and booster drafts for Magic, as well as Android Netrunner and a handful of board games.  I will almost certainly play some Warhammer now that my store is carrying the Games Workshop product line.  I've always enjoyed the Eldar and the Wood Elves.  And of course my wife and her college friends are frequent visitors for board game nights back at the Casa de Bahr.

I had an auspicious visit from Jason Barnes right around this time.  Jason had just opened a mall kiosk at Arizona Mills selling those very same Games Workshop products, and he found a small strip in Tempe with a reasonable room and a crushingly expensive lease -- more expensive than what I pay today, even, sixteen years later -- for a permanent store.  He set up "dicechucker heaven" and featured as amazing a spread of miniatures offerings as I'd ever seen, and as you may have guessed from my references earlier in this series and this article, he called the store Arizona Gamer.  Jason was interested to know if I was doing minis at all, and he saw that I only had Magic and Star Wars cards and a handful of RPGs and board games, and he wrote me off as a non-factor.  He confided in me later that he had found Wizard's Tower pretty underwhelming and wondered how I ever made any money; the power of Magic: the Gathering as a marketable commodity was ever in evidence, but he was right, my store was amateur hour.  The next time I would speak with him, both our troubles by then had deepened and an alliance would be forged.

I took Thanksgiving off and set up some absurity of a blowout sale for Black Friday, only to learn that Black Friday is meaningless to the hobby trade, as nobody I didn't already know and recognize came anywhere near Wizard's Tower that entire weekend.  Accordingly, I made a lot less money making the same exact sales I was going to make anyway.  I played some more Magic, and didn't do much in the way of restocking.

On December 1st, rent came due, and I didn't have the money.

Next week, the grand finale and epilogue from this sordid tale will take you with me as I enter into grace and jump back out again, the mayhem of a liquidation in situ, and what happens when the future recedes from view and the present becomes immediate and excruciatingly small.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Tales of My First Game Store, October

Welcome to this week's installment of my old-man war stories of my first game store, Wizard's Tower Gaming Center in 1998.  This month, we saw smashes, crashes, Strokes, and chokes!

The month opened with a horrific car accident right outside the store on Main street.  And when I say right outside, I mean within viewing angle of our windows!  A small hatchback smashed into a light pole in the middle of the street, killing the driver and bloodying up the passenger.  We all heard the sound and it was like a bomb had gone off; it's something I won't ever forget.  I am a little proud in retrospect that gameplay stopped and the handful of people in the store all raced outside to render aid.  The most we could really do was call 9-1-1 to summon first responders and wave traffic around the shrapnel and debris, so we did.  Me, personally?  Completely terrified.  Seeing a man die essentially before my eyes had me on an adrenaline discharge almost on the level of shock.  Closing time couldn't come soon enough.

Automobiles weren't the only things that crashed at Wizard's Tower that month.  I had my first vendor experience with a Magic: the Gathering Standard rotation, which was then called Type II.  Players at the time were nowhere near the level of "MTG Finance" that exists today with rampant speculation and binder-grinder backpack and garage dealers on every street, and so there was no mass dumping of Mirage-block staples as Urza's Saga released, the way you see it today.  What we did see was a more authentic market mechanism, a pronounced slackening of demand.  Rath Cycle staples slowed somewhat but still sold, while the Weatherlight crew's adventures in Jamuraa were no longer of interest.  My daily grosses, which had approached respectability since late in the previous month, ground down to subsistence level.

I had no choice at that point but to arrange for one of the key game-store-owner leveraging assets: a Wife With a Good Job (WWGJ).  I showed my ex-wife the math, she understood that a rent payment was a rent payment both at the store and at our condo, and she departed my "employ" to take up a call-center position with the Southern Directory Yellow Pages.  She held that job until shortly before we divorced in early 2001.  It didn't pay a lot, but we didn't need a lot.  We had no children (thankfully) and few bills.

But wait, you'd ask, what about new singles?  Yeah, as it turns out, there were only a few, and once those sold through, that was it.  It turns out they were Stroke of Genius, Tolarian Academy, and Time Spiral.  A few other cards were relevant to that deck -- rares Mox Diamond and Mind Over Matter, for example, but those were already circulating, and uncommons like Windfall weren't as hard to lay hands on.  A new deck had emerged: Tolarian Academy Blue.  The deck reliably won on turn 2 and sometimes won on the first turn.  The only disruption that really mattered against it was Wasteland and sometimes Lobotomy, and usually by the time you used either, you had already lost.

But couldn't you Counterspell something and stop me?  It didn't matter.  Let's give you first turn and you say Island, go.  Maybe you even play your Mox Diamond, doesn't matter.  I play three zero-drop artifacts and an Academy.  Due to the Legend rule of the time, you couldn't play your Academy once mine was out.  I use the Academy mana and perhaps Mox Diamond mana to play a Mana Vault and then Windfall.  If you counter any of that, I'm home free turn two, so you don't.  Windfall resolves, you dump your hand, I am already at zero or one card so I reload.  Turn two, you say Island, go, and you have a Counterspell ready.  I play an Island and I have seven or eight blue and three or four colorless available.  I play Turnabout, tapping both lands and the Mana Vault, to untap my lands.  If you counter, I just use the other mana to Time Spiral and untap my lands and play Mind Over Matter and go off.  If you don't counter, I play Mind Over Matter.  If you don't counter the MoMa, I wait until your turn, tap you out, and go off unimpeded on my next turn, or if my hand supports it, I just go off right then and there.  If you do counter the MoMa, I can just Turnabout and go off or Windfall and reload or even Time Spiral depending on precisely what I still have left untapped.  There's just nothing you can do even with perfect play if I get a remotely reasonable draw.  And with duplication of effects, I didn't need specific cards as much as I just needed any two or three out of several cards that were all four-counts in the deck.  The deck was absurdly dangerous.

I did some Google-fu but couldn't find my original posts from the era on rec.games.magic.strategy, but the big breakthrough that made the deck silly came in playtesting with Ray Powers, where we discovered that cards such as Meditate and Dream Halls were irrelevant and the deck was far more powerful when you stacked it to accomplish the Academy combo and nothing else.  I posted the "Bahr-Powers Academy Build" and by the time our Standard Pro-Tour Qualifier came through town late in the month, that's all many people played.  I think there was some parallel evolution, obviously, but at the time I posted what ultimately turned out to be the definitive Academy deck until the December 1st bannings, nobody else had nailed that listing yet.

What was good for me as a reasonably competitive player at the time was bad for me as a businessman!  Nobody cared about anything else, even cards that would be monstrously expensive years later, like Gaea's Cradle and Yawgmoth's Will.  I was hawking other cards from the new set like some poor bastard trying to sell hot soup in July.  I made enough money from people playing in booster drafts to pay all the bills in October, but otherwise it was treading water and not really developing the store or gaining any ground.

I attended the Qualifier myself and stood in contention for the top 8, only to choke with a colossal blunder in a game against Royal Champion (his real name).  Firing off my combination in Game 3, I forgot that I had exiled some cards to some effect and miscounted the Stroke of Genius to draw up, decking myself in a game that Royal had no other way to win.  He went to the top 8 and for all I recall might have qualified.  I went home with an emptiness inside that only beer could fill.  I do miss beer sometimes now that I'm a non-drinker.  It didn't solve problems, but it sure did make you feel happy while postponing them.

We held a Halloween party and 30 or so people came.  I even had tee-shirts printed up for the occasion.  Other than having a great revenue day and a good time, the event has left a surprisingly minimal impression on my memory of the Wizard's Tower era.  Perhaps knowing in retrospect that the end was nigh has blackened my recollection of the day.

On November 1, 1998, I made my last timely rent payment to the Paradise Palms Plaza.  Dunt dunt dunnnnnnnn....

Whew!  Well then, on that whimsical note, join us next week when I recount my attempt to be worldly and wise, when I make some durability discoveries, and when I fiddle whilst a Tower burns!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Tales of My First Game Store, September

We're continuing my series of yarns from 1998 when I opened -- and then closed -- my first ever physical retail store, Wizard's Tower Gaming Center in Mesa, Arizona.  In the wake of a terrible debut month, I found myself facechecking the Wall of Exclusivity, learning about good money and bad, and scrambling to salvage my way to survival by Day 30.
"The calendar in the sky beyond the window of her office said: September 2. Dagny leaned wearily across her desk. The first light to snap on at the approach of dusk was always the ray that hit the calendar; when the white-glowing page appeared above the roofs, it blurred the city, hastening the darkness.  She had looked at that distant page every evening of the months behind her. Your days are numbered, it had seemed to say--as if it were marking a progression toward something it knew, but she didn't. Once, it had clocked her race to build the John Galt Line; now it was clocking her race against an unknown destroyer." 
- Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged 
Wow.  It's not often I get to use an Atlas Shrugged quote where it lines up so precisely with what was going on with me at the time, but this certainly was the time.  

September 2, 1998 dawned with me completely exhausted already less than a month in, and taking a breather after somehow engineering an eleventh-hour rent payment.  There was so much more work to do if I hoped to have any chance at sustainability.  The unknown destroyer, of course, was made up of the consequences of my poor planning and decisions, and would eventually claim Wizard's Tower just as the entropy of collectivism claimed the first John Galt Line in the novel.  And as with Dagny Taggart, I did not know the destroyer's inexorable hunger, but the destroyer most certainly knew my weaknesses.

For a few weeks, there was some modicum of "business as usual" at the Tower.  We drafted Tempest block, people bought Unglued packs -- a few, anyway -- and Standard Type II attendance grew respectably.  For lack of sanctioned events in most parts of town, I was free to give a prize payout of only around 40%-50% of admissions.  This is unthinkable anymore, of course, except in regions where stores are far and few between.  In the Phoenix metro, if a store pays out less than 100% of admissions into the prize pool, that store struggles to fire events.  Anyway, I generated some modest revenue, my Zocchi Distributing orders placed each Monday got to me on Thursday, or Friday if our atypically terrible UPS driver was feeling indifferent, and pretty soon I had reconstituted something of an inventory and bankroll.

Mid-month, of course, came the prime event of the year for Magic: the Gathering, the prerelease tournament for the autumn stand-alone expansion.  This year, it was "Urza's Saga."  The event would be held at the El-Zaribah Shrine Auditorium, whatever that was, for some reason.  I knew I would be judging the event, as I was a DCI Level 2 judge at the time and enjoyed being a part of Ray Powers' nascent Monastery Productions tournament organization, succeeding Dan Gray's AZTLAN of the venerable Costa Mesa Women's Club that had previously held loose domain over Arizona.

What I hoped was that I would also be able to vend at the event.  Wizard's Tower needed all the promotion it could get, and even an exorbitant table fee would not daunt me (though I would then have had to raise that money, obviously).  My ex-wife would had made a questionable table staff, but I could have gotten some friends into the mix for beer and favors.  I contacted Ray and saw about getting set up.

Ray shook his head.  Yes, even over the phone, I could tell he was doing this.  I have such powers of discernment.

"Sorry, Bahr, but George (Velez, owner of Arizona Collector's Paradise) wrapped up the exclusive on vending the prerelease months ago."

Well, damn.  Guess I am just going to judge, then.

I got the last laugh, kind of.  In that era, when massive prereleases were always held in hotels and convention rooms and never in stores, there was no venue available for the Urza's Destiny prerelease and I managed by the graciousness of Ray to have the event take place at Arizona Gamer, the store I partnered with in early 1999 in the Wizard's Tower's aftermath.  The event was cramped, sweaty, uncomfortable, logistically difficult, and it was mine, all mine.  That provided the most revenue we ever cleared in a day at Arizona Gamer, three grand or so.  Amazing how perspectives change. Nowadays if Desert Sky Games and Comics grosses less than three grand on a Friday or a Saturday, it is an outlier and worse than usual.

Decipher, erstwhile publishers of licensed trading card games such as the Star Trek and Star Wars Customizable Card Games, had landmark releases right around then: Deep Space Nine and Special Edition, respectively.  These might have landed in October and not September; whatever, I have a bunch of stuff for October so I'm going to tell this story now.  Anyway, two observations:

First, this was my first hint, but one that took years for me to comprehend fully, that Decipher's designers were "idea" people and not "execution" people.  The Star Wars CCG game engine is still regarded by people who have played it as one of the most complex and intricate mechanic systems ever, and it rewarded a downright freakish level of skill and memorization.  However, in execution, this made a lot of games become miserable slugfests with gargantuan numbers of effects and abilities on the table and a recurring order of countable cards in both decks, rewarding the player best able to keep track of it all, and making gameplay disappointingly akin to "work."  This failure in execution led to a deeper peril: That elaborate rules framework allowed, for lack of playtesting, new mechanics to be terribly, horribly broken and reduce the game to utter degeneracy.  I speak, of course, of Operatives.

Supposedly Decipher had designed, developed, and playtested a gorgeous assortment of Expanded Universe cards for the Special Edition sets, many of which found their way into the Reflections II premium subset two years later.  However, at the eleventh hour, Lucasfilm revoked permission for Decipher to print cards outside the canon of the Special Edition film trilogy.  The designers were forced to introduce groups of cards to fill the holes with little or no time to test them, and so they created Operatives, characters referencing some lesser-known planets from the Star Wars Universe that came paired to an enabling Objective card for each side.  As it turns out, the Operatives were far too strong compared to the baseline card power in the game.  They were so grossly overpowered that the World Championship shortly afterward featured little else in the metagame, and the winner ran Operatives on both sides of the Force to the victory.  

The Star Wars CCG player base rebelled against Operatives quickly and mercilessly, and sales of the game ground to a halt for six months while Decipher painstakingly prepared the Endor expansion and made sure it would be reasonably balanced.  Wizard's Tower's entire stock of the Star Wars CCG was a write-off, for lack of market interest, as the store didn't last until the game made a late-1999, early-2000 resurgence.  Even after I reemerged into the industry as a business partner in Arizona Gamer in 1999, I stayed once-bitten, twice-shy wary of the Star Wars CCG and carried but a pittance on the shelves until Endor was widely praised early in its release.

Second, I learned that you just never accept personal checks, ever.  This may seem obvious now in the Year Of Our Lord Two Thousand Fifteen, but back in the halcyon days of 1998, payment was still rendered from time to time by virtue of a specially pre-printed IOU.  A couple of Star Trek players wrote checks to me for a box each of Deep Space Nine boosters, and wouldn't you know it, both checks came back.  Attempts to contact each by telephone were fruitless; neither ever entered the store again.  A harsh but simple lesson and one I only had to learn that one time.  DSG gets chargebacks sometimes, but nowhere near a significant percentage of our sales volume.  What stands out about this was that both players kept going on about how they were high-roller poker players while they opened their boxes in the store.  That should have clued me in to the possibility that they were deadbeats.

Approaching month's end, I had thrown a bunch of money away on Decipher products and I knew my landlord would be waiting with the clock running if I was up against the rent payment again.  Of course, these days, even if my store were to have some catastrophe, I would know to speak with my landlord well ahead of time and ask for some leeway, and would probably get it.  However, the Paradise Palms Plaza where Wizard's Tower was located was considerably downmarket, and my neighbor businesses had warned me that the landlord was pretty unforgiving where timely rent payments were concerned.  I suppose he had to be, with the kind of fly-by-night establishments that probably sought out that rent level.  As you'll read in a future installment, the landlord was not quite that hardcore, but neither would any sane person consider him exactly "lenient."

I hunkered down, focused on Magic: the Gathering, and allocated virtually no funding otherwise.  With a few days to spare, I did enough to pay my October rent and even had cash left in the bank!  I felt amazing.  Immortal.  Unbeatable.  World-conquering, I'm not kidding.  Like right when you finish a grueling workout and the endorphins are blasting strong.  My grosses were a rounding error on what DSG brings in these days, but I had achieved business in retail and for the first time in my life was seeing a road open before me to sustainable self-employment, tantalizingly close, despite everything I was doing wrong.  If you ever run your own business, even if it doesn't last, I hope you get to feel that thrill at least once.  It is exquisite.

Join me next week when I reflect on October, when Wizard's Tower stood tall at its peak, and we saw smashes, crashes, Strokes, and Chokes.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Tales of My First Game Store, August

Last week I set the scene of my first resounding business failure: Wizard's Tower Gaming Center in Mesa, Arizona.  This week, I recount tales from my first month in business.

Since time immemorial, the Town of Gilbert had but one game store: Waterloo Adventure Games.  Located in the historic district downtown, back when that stretch of road was simply a dump instead of a rejuvenated urbanism project, Waterloo was the quintessential 1980s "gamer pit" and had been open since at least 1976.  The entire store stank to high heaven due to a lack of plumbing.  No, seriously, due to a lack of plumbing.  They must have been grandfathered in on building code compliance or something.  The restroom actually did not work.  That didn't stop people from using it.  Once a month or so, a brave soul like Sean Hayes would venture in there with a mask and a bottle of bleach and emerge with eyes full of anger.  Elsewhere in the store, Waterloo's configuration was a retail disaster, with role-playing books racked opposite terrain crafts and the like with minimal customer movement or access, a long, thin suite with distant back and front doors interrupted by floor height changes, and low, dank ceilings.  The staff regularly told you if you asked, in case of fire, run.  Assume immediate spread and maximum speed.

Throughout 1997 and early 1998, I played my Magic in the dumpy back room at Waterloo while my ex-wife visited with her parents two blocks over.  The "Magic guy" at the store, such as their staff had, was "Magic Mike" Bauerlein, a New Yorker with a hustler's mentality and a casual disregard for having anything on paper.  Naturally, I sought out Mike as my partner for my "protest store" where I would show Waterloo that a game store needs to have a working terlet, dammit!  I don't think I was asking that much!  Mike was on board as he hoped to have a store where he could fit more than twelve or so Magic players at a time, and where he didn't have to fight with the AD&D groups for table time and access.  It really says something about the expansion of this industry that in 1998, players were quarreling over who would get to pay to play in a store backroom that smelled like a septic tank, while today in 2015, players turn up their noses at clean, bright, pleasant establishments if they aren't offered a 100% or better tournament prize payout schedule.  It's like Louis CK's routine about when the in-flight wi-fi isn't working.

Atomic Comics was the pinnacle back then, but their Mesa store was farther away, didn't focus on Magic, and didn't happen to be located near my ex-in-laws, and there really... just wasn't anything else in the area.  The top Magic: the Gathering store at the time was Jester's Court in north Phoenix.  An emerging contender was sports-memorabilia convert Arizona Collector's Paradise (ACP) in Scottsdale.  Virtually anyone who played Magic in Arizona prior to Tempest or thereabouts, played at both of those stores at least once.  The bar was set low: I could never approach the professionalism and magnitude of Atomic's operation, but Jester's and ACP were, despite the rosy memories, just gamer pits marginally better than Waterloo.  They had bathrooms.  Not all players used them, as one war story from ACP recalls.  But becoming at least as good as Jesters and ACP was a reachable goal.

Mike's part was going to be Magic singles, presumably the largest single category in the store to start, while I would handle everything else and not offer singles.  This may sound absurd to some readers, but many store owners are nodding along right now.  They have had stores where singles demand emerged but they weren't experts at it and didn't want to throw money down a rat-hole by dabbling clumsily in it.  Better to let a guy come in, sublet to him, and take 20% of his sales.

Mike and I spent the better part of a weekend "designing" the store.  We brought in Home Depot banquet tables and let my ex-wife doodle fanciful themes for each table sign according to names I ginned up.  "Elvish Wood." "Dragon's Lair." "Southern Docks." "City of Night." "Space Station Alpha."  Not the most imaginative titles, but recognizable tropes that got the job done.  Now that I think of it, these would be a great way to design a small store play area if you could get the tables lacquered up with gorgeous art underneath.  I may have to look into that.  Mike came up with two used glass showcases from I know not where and it didn't pay to ask.  I bought a cash register, some Wal-Mart plastic portable shelving, and enough wood to build a bookshelf.  It's probably best that no photographs of it have survived to be seen today.  We put a sign on the door, paid $400 for our light box (of course) marquee, and we were built and ready to rock!

I used Usenet to promote our opening-day tournament, a free affair with $200 in prizes, Type II Sanctioned.  I hired the venerable Matt Stenger to be my opening-day judge.  I spent what seemed like an agonizing $100 or so on cleaning supplies and sundries.  I laugh at that because I spend hundreds per month now on consumable store supplies of various kinds.  I didn't buy concessions, snacks and drinks to sell, because apparently I was a blithering idiot.  My last two and a half grand went to Zocchi Distributing, as mentioned in last week's article, for what was honestly as small an inventory as it sounds.  Roughly:

  • 10 x Tempest booster box (cases were ten-count then)
  • 2 x Tempest starter box
  • 1 x Tempest preconstructed deck box
  • 4 x Stronghold booster box
  • 4 x Exodus booster box
  • 1 x Fifth Edition booster box
  • 1 x Fifth Edition starter box
  • 1 x Mirage booster box
  • 1 x Visions booster box
  • 1 x Weatherlight booster box
  • 1 x Star Wars CCG Unlimited starter box
  • 1 x Star Wars CCG Unlimited booster box
  • 1 x Star Wars CCG Cloud City booster box
  • 1 x Star Wars CCG Jabba's Palace booster box
  • 2 x each of AD&D 2nd Edition core hardcovers
  • 2 x each of White Wolf Vampire and Werewolf core hardcovers
  • 5 x Assorted binders of different sizes
  • 5 x Binder pages boxes
  • 2 x Boxes Ultra-Pro deck protectors (the original clear ones!)
  • 25 x Assorted dice bricks
  • 1 x Various other gaming sundries and such.  Penny sleeves, etc.

I could sell those ten Tempest booster boxes today and almost double my money before I had even sold another thing, though obviously that discounts the time value of money.

But yes, that inventory was pathetic, and yet it was functional.  It contained precisely what I needed, not wanted but needed, to have on Day One to open a Magic-focused bowling alley.  If Fate would have allowed me to learn of the existence of Talkin' Sports Arizona instead of continuing to pull teeth waiting for trucks from Zocchi, this story might have had a very different outcome.  But nope!

Grand Opening Day, August 8th, 1998, dawned hot and clear.  I don't really remember it, I just know it had to be, because we got about 35 players for our introductory event, and the air conditioning promptly failed.  In a sweltering oven people tolerated the situation until they were eliminated, and then they left.  I made a phenomenal first impression on the local player community.  The HVAC repair tech arrived at about dinnertime, when the event was largely over.  Our total take for the day was around $400 in sales, negative dollars if one counts the promotional costs.  That was a Saturday.  On Sunday we grossed something like sixty bucks.

Magic Mike was not amused by our opening weekend, understandably so.  During the two weeks or so that followed, he scrapped up some level of traffic for his singles, but after the initial push he spent very little time on location and it turns out he was mending fences with Waterloo so he could return to the status quo ante.  During those first two weeks, my ex-wife and I frequently argued in the back office.  Being around spouses quarreling is about as cringeworthy and awkward as The Office episode "Scott's Tots."  It was business poison and took time and attention away from growth and development.  One Friday morning, Magic Mike told me he was leaving.  He paid me a few bucks for his pittance in sales and returned to whence he came.  I was pretty salty toward him at the time, but in reflection the situation was clearly untenable and he was justified in exiting.  The fault was mine.

Within the first day of business, I realized we were not trending to make rent if we didn't pick things up and fast.  You know how they always say you need to bring enough money to operate at a loss for six months?  I brought enough money to operate at a loss for zero days.  I needed a promotion and fast.  So, in the immortal words of Axel Foley, I "fractured an occasional law or two" and staged some cash payout events.  Or, I should say, I tried to stage some cash payout events.

Thanks to the eternal and undying internet, some of my original promotional Usenet posts still exist!  Here was one from August 9th, the second day of business:

Hi all.        Just wanted to post this week's tourneys for WTGC. If you're not inArizona, go ahead and skip this. :)1. Results of this weekend's events
2. This week's tourneys (DCI Sanctioned unless noted)
3. Getting to the store
1. Results
Congrats to Jon Rapisarda for winning the main Standard tourney on
Saturday 8/8, taking home a HUGE first prize package including a Scroll,
Queen, Tradewind, beta Specter, Hammer, and about eight more fairly
valuable cards, total value ~$100. From now on we'll be doing cash
prizes as a main reward at our tourneys. Jon's deck was the Recurring
Nightmare deck that abuses Survival of the Fittest and Spike Feeder. In
second place was Robert Olson with Cataclysm/Priest beatdown.
Thanks to all local gamers for PACKING the place for the inaugural
Standard tourney, and for putting up with the intermittent Air
conditioning (it works perfectly now, of course... that's luck for ya)
and I'm sure this Saturday's cash prize Standard will be just as full.
Other winners this weekend included Eric Judd (Saturday night Sealed),
Ryan Cashman (Sunday Type 1.5) and Brock Burr (Sunday night Draft).
2. Tourneys this week!!! All DCI Sanctioned unless specifically noted.
Monday: Nothing (Monday night football time, right? :)
Tuesday: Sanctioned Booster draft, TE-ST-EX, 6pm, $9.00 (Cash prize)
Wednesday: Two events:
1. Battletech CCG sanctioned Sealed 6pm (Price TBA but it'll be low)
2. Magic unsanctioned Classic, 6pm, $5.00 (Cash prize)
Thursday: MTG Player's Choice unsanctioned. Majority vote picks format!
Friday: 6pm Sanctioned STANDARD MAIN EVENT. $5.00. (Cash prize)
Saturday: Two events:
1. Noon Magic Standard unsanctioned $5.00 (cash prize)
2. 6pm Sealed/Draft Sanctioned (majority vote)(Cash prize)
        If Sealed, TE Starter w/ ST and EX booster, $15.00
        If Draft, TE-ST-EX, $9.00
Sunday: Noon Classic-Restricted, $5.00 (Cash prize)
Coming within a week or so: Decipher Star Wars sanctioned!!!
3. Getting to the store
Call 602-962-0151 if you have any questions...
The store is located at 1616 E. Main St. #119 in Mesa. It's on Main,
exactly halfway between Stapley and Gilbert Rd. From Phoenix, Tempe, or
Scottsdale just take US-60 to Stapley and go north to Main, turn right
(east) on Main and go half a mile and there we are, in the Paradise
Palms plaza. If you're coming from Chandler, Gilbert, or Mesa, you may
not even need to use the freeway, just get to Main or Stapley (Stapley
is called Cooper south of the freeway, but it's the same street) and
follow the Phoenix directions from there.
Furthermore, the store is open often and late to accomodate TONS of open
gaming time. We wanted to do it 24 hours but the city gave us some grief
about it, so we're gonna be open as long as legally possible... opens at
11am every day, closing at 10pm weekdays and midnight weekends. (and we
have a little leeway on the weekends if we need to go late).
        The competition is consistently tough, so I hope to see all the pro
playas and playa wannabe's there to teach the local crowd how it's
supposed to be done!! :) Take care and see you there!!
- Mike Bahr - Wizard's Tower Gaming Center in Mesa, AZ (602-962-0151)
Link to original post. (Opens in new window.)

Pretty great, huh?  Check out the positive spin I put on the air-conditioning woes of my premiere tournament.  Well, apparently I figured I would wait all of three days before pushing for the cash incentive again.  That first week must have been murder, I can't remember really but I doubt we made any significant money.  Here's what I posted on August 12th:
CASH PRIZE Tourney Series this weekend in Mesa, ArizonaJust like the title says. Here are the tournaments:(ALL are DCI Sanctioned 32k events)
Friday 6pm: Standard Type II Constructed
Saturday noon: Rath Cycle Constructed - qualifier for Team Tower!!!
Saturday 6pm: Rath Cycle Limited (sealed or draft, TBA)
All three tourneys will feature cash prizes for the winner and runnerup,
and other goodies all around. We SEVERAL dozen for last Saturday's main
event... let's see what we can do this time around.
The qualifier for Team Wizard's Tower is the first in a series of three
on consecutive Saturdays. The five people with the highest winning
percentage that have participated in at least two of the three tourneys
will be on Team Tower for the next PTQ cycle (hence the format).
Wizard's Tower Gaming Center is at 1616 E. Main St. #119 in Mesa,
halfway between Stapley and Gilbert Rd. (602)962-0151.
May you always draw three land in your opening hand!!! :)
- Mike Bahr - Wizard's Tower Gaming Center in Mesa, AZ (602-962-0151)

Link to original post.  (Opens in new window.)

Do you smell that?  It's desperation.  That weekend's events drew fairly well, so I upped the ante and scheduled up a $500 tournament for Saturday the 29th.  I hired Stenger again to judge and charged ten bucks a head to play, so I needed ~60 players to make nut.  I got something like 23 players.

That was the nightmare scenario.  I actually didn't have enough money on the premises to pay out the entire prize allotment, and rent was due in three days.  I made a few hustle sales and got into the vicinity of it, but didn't get there.  Worse yet, all my ringers got blown out in the swiss rounds, even the always-reliable Jon Rapisarda who had seemed bulletproof in local-level events for as long as any of us had known him.  As it happened, the winner was Matt Cass, an employee at ACP!  These days Matt is hard at work developing The Aztec Store, a promising Magic Online singles brokerage business.

Rather than just telling Matt that we were short and I would cover his cash in full as soon as I could but it might be a few days, I asked him if I could broker a deal in product, something where the value was so abundant that his boss, George Velez, who owned ACP, would surely have no qualms about buying the goods from him.  Of course, this is grossly unprofessional for me even to have asked.  It's embarrassing even writing about it.  But in this, the age we live in, I have found that you're better off owning your blunders than trying to pretend they didn't happen.  Matt was a sport about it, or else maybe he was really upset (and had every right to be) but he didn't show it, he took a payout that was something like $100-$150 cash and the balance in product at somewhat less than my cost.  Even still I owe that guy a favor and will make sure some bucks head his way as soon as feasible, along with my heartfelt apology.

Oh wait, then I hadn't paid my judge yet.  Well, I already owe Stenger for literally decades of favors as friends do, so chalk up one more.  He is a gentleman and knows I will make good, so I will take action sooner rather than later to ensure his graciousness has not been in vain.  I lined him up with some product comp like I did for Cass, but that was weak sauce.  That doesn't cut the mustard.

By means I cannot remember, I engineered up enough money to pay my rent at roughly 4:55 p.m. on September 1st.  The landlord worked on-site in an office upstairs so I literally handed him a check five minutes before he would have padlocked my door.  My inventory was obliterated, so I entered the dreaded Inventory Death Spiral right off the bat.  My store was a hodgepodge of tables and chairs and virtually nothing else, with all the ambiance of the family visit room at the state penitentiary.  It staggers me that I made it another month, let alone several, but to that I credit an extremely supportive customer base.  I didn't have much in the way of high rollers, but I had a group of players who knew what they wanted, knew I was offering it, and were willing to buy.  And so, every day was a new opportunity.

Well, there you have it: a premiere that paled, a partner that bailed, and a tournament that failed!  With an August like this, who needs Septembers?  Tune in next week to see me facecheck the Wall of Exclusivity, learn valuable lessons about good money versus bad, and more!

EDIT: On an unrelated topic, I found a photo of our makeshift gondola that collapsed earlier this year!  I edited the original article to include the pic.  Here is a link.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Tales of My First Game Store, Introduction

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.