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!

1 comment:

  1. I would have crushed that Saturday event in addition to winning the Sunday draft if I didn't have to work, and Mike knows it ;)