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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Tales of My First Game Store, Conclusion

Wizard's Tower Gaming Center in Mesa, Arizona opened in August 1998 and closed in December of that same year.  That was my first ever experience in owning a business with an open-daily public facing and facility.  I learned a great deal, though a significant share of what I learned did not sink in until years later on reflection.  These past few weeks, I have regaled you all with war stories of the Tower's brief tenure, and here I draw all those things to a close.

December 1st, 1998.  Wizards of the Coast banned the key components of the Tolarian Academy deck, crushing my nascent career as a Magic: the Gathering grinder.  More immediately of concern, rent was due and I did not have the money.  I trudged upstairs to my landlord, hat in hand, and asked for mercy.

Paradise Palms Plaza granted mercy.  One week.  I had a week to round up the necessary funds, cashier's check.

Okay, so in the meanwhile, I got into some other trouble.  My own fault.  It's not related to the biz, so I won't get into it, but that occupied me for a couple of days and my ex-wife managed to open the doors and scratch together a few dollars from whichever visitors I got.  I emerged from this difficulty with two years of probation, subsequently completed without incident.  I spent a day at the store re-orienting and figuring out the next step.  We had orders placed and we were probably 75% of the way to that rent payment.  I had one more day to make good.

The next morning, I showed up to find a padlock on the door and an envelope taped to the glass in which the landlord described, for anyone who cared to open it and pry, that we were being closed down for non-payment of rent.

I can't even really complain because it's not like I had paid on time.  I thought I had another day, turns out by his reckoning I didn't.  I went to talk to the man, and he was unmoved.  I borrowed money from, who else, my parents, and got the store open again.  However, I did not intend to finish out the month.  At this point it was a question of asset reclamation.  I was determined to put the screws to that guy.  How dare he accommodate me so graciously and then impose consequences when I failed to deliver?  I would paint his wagon, yes sir!

As it turns out, the early December swoon that plagues me even now in this industry was a thing back then as well.  Sales were abysmal, though I had given no public indication that I intended to close the Tower.  I promoted up one final weekend of tournaments, following which on Saturday night I would auction off all my remaining inventory to the highest bidder.  Anything that did not sell would be returned to Zocchi for credit against the few thousand we somehow managed to owe them, and remaining Magic singles would stay with me as my personal collection.

We went out with a flourish.  Saturday in mid-December came the auction, and the scene was utter mayhem, with yours truly parsing binders rare by rare, taking bids, going going gone, taking cash, and moving along.  Once some of the players were out of money, they turned to playing my consoles (which were all free that night due to lack of inclination for me to monitor them) or just lounging about.  When I had finally gotten through a pass of the goods, I decided that was enough, and I kicked everyone out.  On Sunday, I backed a moving truck up to the suite and emptied it, except of trash and debris.  I did not depart in a considerate manner.

Right then, my condo lease in east Mesa also ended mid-month.  I was able to move into my parents' garage, part of which had been fashioned into some modicum of bedroom, along with my ex-wife.  My parents were on the verge of retirement, though, so I knew this was a temporary stop-over.  All of the material from the store went right to there, and I spent cold nights burning with anger over my failure.

I received a certified letter from Paradise Palms Plaza, berating me for closing down and leaving the suite a mess, and reminding me that rent was due on the first and would remain due for another thirteen months.  Such a short lease!  And yet it seemed so far out of reach to my limited perspective at the time.  Ending in January 2000?  Two thousand?  We would be Eloi and Morlocks by then!

I added up all my assets and debts and chose to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, a full flush.  The total discharge was only about $35,000.  This decision was terrible, by the way.  There was no way on the planet that I benefited from taking a seven-year Mark of Cain on my credit and a launch toward ruin over a matter of thirty-five grand.  I owe ten times that amount now in various debts, between my student loans, mortgage, and revolving credit, and I'm not worried in the slightest about my ability to repay.  Okay, maybe in the slightest.  But no more than that.  I wouldn't begin to consider bankruptcy today even if misfortune strikes, so for me to have done it then over such a small figure... it has me shaking my head.  Part of why I went to law school years later was that I didn't like the fact that nobody I knew was conversant about this stuff, and I couldn't afford a real attorney, so in the absence of good advice I failed to salvage the situation.  I didn't know at the time that I was "independent" for the purpose of student aid, so I could finally have afforded to finish college (which I did a few years later) and then surely secured a quality job and repaid it all.  Late is better than never, I'm sure my creditors would have agreed.

My creditors, anyway: Once we had filed, that was the end of contact from Paradise Palms Plaza and our various note holders.  The law doesn't allow them to continue collection efforts, including mere contact.  Seems like that kind of screws over creditors, but the truth is that the cost of an occasional bankrupt debtor is baked into the price of all borrowing.  So I've been paying for mine and many other individuals' bankruptcies and write-offs all along, and will continue to do so.  And so will you.

The process of bankruptcy was less painful than expected.  There was a hearing, at which a kindly judge asked me to swear that I had returned to creditors all the merchandise and supplies indicated on the filing ledgers.  The court assigned a trustee to monitor our finances, all our accounts were frozen, we lived on cash hand-to-mouth for a while, but aside from that we went about our days.  My ex continued to work for Southern Directory.  I got a temporary job at Office Depot helping rescue people from their computer ineptitude.  The trustee never visited us, never inspected anything, and I couldn't tell you what all the trustee ever did for the most part, but whatever he did, the court was obviously satisfied with it, because it granted us a final discharge in April 1999.  By the time our tax refund showed up, the trustee even released it to us.

Our store bank accounts remained closed forever, of course, along with our credit cards and our joint personal accounts as well, so my ex opened herself a new separate account and I went back to using my personal checking from Bank of America that has been open since 1989.  Which, by the way, helped a lot in recovering my credit.  Tenure, length of accounts, is part of the scoring formula.  That account is now 26 years old, still active, and it's practically a Konami code for the Fair Isaac algorithm.  Anyhow, whatever else I might say about my ex, I can tell you that our money arguments basically ended once we had separate accounts.  That's one of the rare false-positive indicators that a marriage is maybe not destined to last: seeing conditions improve as separation begins.  We divorced in early 2001.

I lasted three or four weeks at Office Depot.  I don't recall much about it.  I showed up every day, wore my name tag, tried to explain to people why their RAM didn't have a virus, you get the picture.  One day I got through a tough customer interaction where they had me digging around the racks and shelves for compatible parts for most of an hour.  I leaned back for a breather, knowing the store was quiet at that moment, but the next fetch quest could be mere minutes away.  A shift manager chucked a dirty rag into my chest and admonished me, "If there's time to lean, there's time to clean!"  I don't know if she maybe wasn't used to working with the tech support guys; we were never asked to clean the store.  Our job was to sell computer parts.  But somehow that was the spark that ignited months worth of anger and frustration in me.  I swallowed the rage -- I wasn't a moron, after all, and I was on probation -- I forced myself into a smile, and replied, "Well, there's always time to quit!"  I hurled that rag across the store like Joe Montana to Jerry Rice, ripped my name tag right off my shirt, and stormed out to my car.  The car that I didn't have.  And I walked the mile and a half to my parents' house, fuming the entire way.

And that is why I never use the phrase "if there's time to lean, there's time to clean," even when I've got a quiet store and I fully expect my staff to get on with the cleaning.  I find that I prefer treating them like adults and simply instructing them on what needs attention, in those instances where they don't just take the initiative to do it themselves.  Which, usually, they do.  I absolutely hate that phrase, and any other euphemistic "Let's make drudgery fun!" folderol.  I don't need my staff to be delighted to mop the floor or scour the toilet.  I'm sure it's not especially fun, that's why I furnish them with dollars of money in exchange for doing it.  To their immense credit, they don't complain.

Of course, quitting a job is a lot like wetting your pants.  At first, there's just warmth and release, but then cold, uncomfortable reality sets in.  I was living hand-to-mouth and had just cut off half my incoming cash supply.  I had to scramble up a job somewhere and quick.  The ex had a dependable paycheck, but it wasn't enough.  I went to sign up at the Adecco temp agency in Tempe, and after finishing the paperwork, I remembered that I was standing in the same plaza as that game store Jason Barnes had opened, the Arizona Gamer.  In fact, there it was, three doors down!  I paid a visit, and just like that, my fortunes changed....

Whew!  That's it!  That is the story of Wizard's Tower Gaming Center... pretty much in full!

I feel like I gave somewhat short shrift to some of the excellent people that populated the Tower, hidebound as my articles were to the progression of events.  I don't mean to overlook my bros (nor the ladies).  Some of the Tower denizens have become longtime friends of mine, and I am in touch with many of them even today.  Virtually all of them followed me to Arizona Gamer, so their stories and my story continued together a while longer.  I'm also apprehensive about giving shout-outs because I know I'm going to forget people.  But at the very minimum, and setting aside game-hobby folks who were there at the time but whom I already knew, such as Matt Stenger, Ray Powers, Jeff van der Zweep, Ray Ybarra, and Dan Gray, I would like to give Wizard's Tower Props to: John Lind, Jay Webb, Steve Ward, Dan Voigt, Brock Burr, Jon Rapisarda, Drew Durbin, Steve Rice, Ed Kenney, Wayne Paden, Robin Reid, Brandon Helding, Jason "Silky Smooth" Ludwig, Ryan Chapman, Chris Shaner, Mike Girard, Brian Garrison, Jared Arthur, Matt Mortensen, the late Scott Dove, Matt Cass, Chris Sadler, Mike Clement, David Ray, Mitch Ledford, Greg Smith, and damn it all, I know I'm going to remember more but right now that's it.

Join me here on the Backstage Pass next week for a post-mortem of DSG's experience with Magic: the Gathering - Dragons of Tarkir!

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