Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Arizona Gamer Story, Part 1: Origin

I said I would tell this story eventually.  I'm still not quite sure how this is going to go.  There is a lot to tell.  There are a lot of memories and I want to get them out into the written word before they fade away forever.

But, unlike the Tales of My First Game Store of Wizard's Tower in Mesa, I was with Arizona Gamer for about two years, and I was involved in their business for a year after that and remain friends to this day with the principals involved.  Telling the story chronologically is not going to be coherent.  The experiences at the AZ Gamer were extremely sporadic and happened all kinds of times and ways.  The story includes people to a greater degree than Wizard's Tower's story did.  And in reflection to prepare to write this, I found that it represents the point at which my life had already hit its lowest point and these were my first grasps and gropes at learning how to do business for real and work my way back up the mountain both professionally and personally.

This first article of the story includes a lot of background from before I was in the picture.  This includes things I learned after the fact from Jason Barnes and others; any errors are mine alone and no part of the narrative should be construed as an effort to minimize my own faults or mistakes.

So, when we last left off, it happened that toward the end of January 1999, fresh from quitting my desperation job at Office Depot, I went to apply for temporary work at the Adecco agency in Tempe, and there I saw before me Jason Barnes' Arizona Gamer store at 107 East Baseline Road.
107 E. Baseline as seen today.  Corner suite left of the droopy tree.

I walked in, and Jason's employee (another guy named Jason) was sitting there playing Starcraft at the front desk.  I was greeted with a "Hi," after which Lackey Jason returned to his game.  His five- or six-year old daughter played quietly behind the counter with her toys.

Looking around the impeccably clean store, I saw two walls full of Warhammer and supplies, such as it was in 1999, and eight or ten (no kidding) miniatures tables, and that was it.  Nothing behind the counter at all.  No inventory except Games Workshop products.  A glass showcase full of painted armies that were not for sale.  Crickets, no customers.  A demo table was laid out with Bretonnians and Lizardmen, and a second demo table with Space Marines and Dark Eldar (I think).

Bahr: So, you guys carry Magic: the Gathering?

Lackey Jason: Nope.

Bahr: What about Star Wars CCG?  Star Trek?

Lackey Jason: No cards.  Just Warhammer.

I looked at the space they had, it was a 3000-square-foot store with a lot of dead floor.  I had some remainder of the Wizard's Tower product at my home in the form of my own personal card collection, a pile of surplus singles, and I had spent a little bit of time sniffing the ground locally for clearances on trading card games at the likes of Bookstar and Waldenbooks and picking up a healthy bit of sealed Exodus, Urza's Saga, and Star Wars Unlimited Premiere and Hoth.  I owned a cash register and a terrible computer.  I owned two garage racks.

I made a decision.

Bahr: Would you be interested in subletting some space to me so I could join forces with you and be the card guy here?  I met Jason Barnes at my store last fall and I ended up closing, but I still have cards to sell.

Lackey Jason: You'll have to ask Barnes.

Bahr: Here's my cell number.  (Side note: I still have the same cell number.)

(Two hours passed.)

Bahr (to phone): Moshi moshi?

Voice: Is this Mike Bahr?  Jason Barnes calling.  My store manager says you're interested in subletting in my store?

And the bargain was struck.  I posted on Usenet that night that I would be selling Magic cards and running tournaments at Arizona Gamer in Tempe.  I opened for business the next morning, paying Barnes a percentage of my daily gross, in cash.  Run the Z tape, hand over the money, chuck the Z tape because back then I kept records the way Beethoven heard notes, and start again the next day.  I was back, baby.

My first game store had crashed and burned and I left myself destitute.  The day I started at Arizona Gamer I had to make sales first in order to have enough cash in my possession to get lunch.  I was really, utterly, down to the cloth, in a way that motivates me every damned day to press harder and harder to earn money so I will never be in that position again.  Fear is a phenomenal motivator.

I literally had stood at the precipice of homelessness, since I had been staying in a room in my parents' garage, but my parents were just then retiring and in the process of selling their house and I didn't have a backup plan.  I had to bridge a gap, I won't discuss that, and soon landed at an apartment shared with a friend.  This became awkward when I made up with my then-wife a couple of months later and she moved in as well.  Melissa and I had separated briefly in the wake of the Wizard's Tower collapse when the ordeal had all become too much and we needed a breather.  In writing this part of the article, this memory dredged up.  I had not thought about it since then.

But I was back.  Another day with the store doors open and all the potential in the world to flourish!  Capitalism is awesome!

What I did not know then, but what Jason told me later, explains a lot.  So here is the background from the opposite vantage point, and now you will know why my arrival and integration into the business seemed so easy.  It wasn't quite the my-own-bootstraps parable it first appeared, though there was surely some of that.  I had in fact been lucky to gravitate toward an unexpectedly compatible situation.

Jason Barnes is a Native American, 50% by birth, and was adopted and "Americanized" as was unfortunately common at the time, and brought to Arizona away from his tribal home in Oklahoma.  It's actually quite the dramatic story but that's his story to tell.  His real name, which he uses today, is R.J. Harris.  He has been a practicing attorney in Oklahoma these past few years, and punched above his weight class in a long-shot bid for Congress in 2012 but fell short against the incumbent.  For the purpose of this story, I will refer to him as Jason Barnes, because that's how he was known throughout the Arizona Gamer era.

Jason served military time as an air traffic controller and he learned the itch to play miniature wargames.  He got himself posted at the Scottsdale Airpark and took the opportunity to open an independent store for Games Workshop products.  He rented a pop-shop super-kiosk at Arizona Mills Mall, and for three months in the summer of 1998 he made absolute bank.

Flush with funds, Jason and his business partner whose name escapes me, signed a grotesque, landlord-friendly lease for the 107 East Baseline suite.  Games Workshop figured they had a rising star on their hands, so they extended him deep terms and filled up his store with pewter.  He had literally every available SKU in stock, and in depth.

And then disaster struck.

Jason's business partner, something like one week into the new lease, walked away.  Told him he couldn't handle it, he wanted out, he would take a discount on the investment but he did not want to own a piece of that company for another day.  And right like that, the lion's share of Jason's operating capital was gone.

Worse, the partner was supposed to be the guy who ran the shop most of the time.  Jason still had his job at the Scottsdale Tower.  And I don't know if my readers are familiar with the tempo of work when you're pushing tin, but you can't exactly take phone calls or do business on the side.  Air traffic controllers must hyperfocus; hundreds of lives hang in the balance of their every syllable.  They consistently die in middle age because their hearts can't take the years of stress.  Anyway, when Jason was up in that tower, he was gone.  He was unreachable.  This came up a few times in the course of my tenure at AZ Gamer so now you will understand the context.

One of Jason's ascended regular customers from the kiosk term was Lackey Jason, who needed work for whatever reason, so Jason made him a manager.  On salary, even.  He was putting a lot of confidence in this guy.  He kind of had no choice; Barnes was nonexistent for thirty-odd hours every week, but had a public-facing store to run with 99% of its lease still remaining.  AZ Gamer's fortune was placed in the fragile hands of one of its players, whom Barnes barely even knew, and who had no retail or managerial background.  Hold that thought for a bit.

Because then disaster struck again.

Jason and I were salty about it for years, but we recognize now that it was pure competition.  Blunt, but survivable if you knew what to do, which at the time neither Jason or I understood.  The competition decided to wipe him out, to kill Arizona Gamer in its infancy before it could grow strong and seek revenge like Inigo Montoya.

Dave and Patty Pettit are proprietors of the Game Depot, which was located at the time on 7th Street and Forest near ASU, in a building across the street from (eventually) Pop Culture Paradise, which was adjacent to (eventually) Critical Threat Comics, which became (almost) Desert Sky Games and Comics: University, and now sadly sits empty.  For perspective, this is a store four miles away in a metro that only had about seven or eight game stores in it, counting three Atomic Comics locations at the time.  Without a doubt, Jason Barnes had encroached upon the Pettits' turf.  This wasn't like a guy using the urinal next to yours.  It was like a guy attempting to share your urinal.

Dave and Patty decided that Arizona Gamer did not need to exist.  Dave and Patty enacted a blanket 25% discount on all Games Workshop product, effective until further notice.

So running into the fall, school went into session, AZ Gamer did its marketing, and had started to build itself a small base of customers, and all at once they were of a single voice asking Jason for a 25% discount to match what they could get at Depot.  In this era without Amazon and with very little eBay, this was a very deep discount for a product like Warhammer, since there were no dumpers offering a nickel over wholesale out of the back of White Dwarf magazine.  But no: Jason held tight and kept the line at MSRP, emphasizing the spacious and comfortable game room, the painting lessons, all that added value AZ Gamer provided.

Naw man, they all said, we want the cheaper.  And sales slowed to a crawl.

By this time revenue was still nowhere near paying costs, but Jason wasn't quite out of capital yet, so had sales continued to trend upward, with a few extra shifts here and there during his days off from the tower, he could have built a stance and gotten into sustainable territory.  But between the cost of labor for Lackey Jason, and paying a couple of ad-hoc part timers, plus cost of goods and everything else, Barnes was seeing a failure state unfold before his eyes.  And by the way, the Games Workshop extended terms came due for like three whole stores' worth of stock.

Around this time was when Jason stopped in at Wizard's Tower and deemed my first store unworthy as a business, a prediction that time proved correct.

Jason decided he would match the Depot discount.  It would be 25% off everything.

Game Depot then moved their discount to 45%.  In other words, wholesale.

I think the final discount from Games Workshop at the time was actually 42% or 44%, so Dave and Patty were willing to lose money outright.  They had a thriving business in Other Products, from chess sets to nascent eurogames and historical minis, and their revenue included a fair amount of Magic: the Gathering petrodollars.  Depot opened in 1986; they had been in on Magic since literally Alpha.  They survived the 1995 trading-card-game culling by being well-diversified and not plowing too much cash into Spellfire, Sim City, Jyhad, Rage, Dixie, Doomtrooper, Middle-Earth, Illuminati, On the Edge, Dragon Dice, Super Deck, X-Files, Mythos, The Crow, Hyborian Gates, The Highlander, Redemption, Star of the Guardians, Wyvern, Overpower, Shadowfist, and Legend of the Five Rings, and by ordering modestly and sensibly on Magic's ill-fated "Fallen Empires" expansion.  It was within Depot's budget and purview to earn nothing on Warhammer for a few months if doing so crushed the esophagus of an enemy.

What could Jason do?  He matched the 45% discount, and did so during November and December when he was supposed to be able to get healthy from holiday sales.  He took out a HELOC on his home so he could float operating funds into the store.  With the whole nine yards to go on the lease, terminating in breach was not an option on the table.  He literally paid the terms and did not replace the entire volume of what was sold, since Games Workshop was all he had.  SKUs he had stocked six or twelve deep were refilled to twos and threes, though by the time I walked in a month later, it still looked like a ton of inventory to my untrained eye.  He negotiated a rent concession from the landlord that they granted for some reason.  The truth was: Arizona Gamer was on the brink.

January had dawned cold and clear and Depot had backed off their discount to 25%.  Apparently they either had retrospective second thoughts about skipping an entire wargaming Christmas, or they figured the job was done and they could wait for the closing announcement from down the street.  They continued to send their network of spies over to inform them of Jason's every move.  Joke's on them.  There was little for those urchins to report.

Jason took a deep breath and made a decision.  He was going to take the military approach.  Follow the process, follow the guidebook.  Do as he was told by the retail support team from Games Workshop, who had by then extended the terms further into catch-up payments before they were finally paid, long after the merchandise they had purchased was gone.  No discounts, not ever, the end.  If nobody buys, nobody buys.  The store would run demos, would run open play evenings, and would cultivate new customers.  Jason plowed money into a big telephone book advert so that nobody looking for games would miss it.  (Millennials: Okay, before there were Googlenets, you had to get phone numbers out of a big index book with yellow pages.  Verily, this book was called The Yellow Pages.  And if you didn't have a big advert in The Yellow Pages, your business did not exist as far as 95% of the public was concerned.  Yeah, life was basically sticks and dirt in those days.)

Essentially, if he was going to fail, Jason was going to fail by the book, dammit.

I favor the avoid-the-failing-however-you-must plan, but I absolutely respect Jason's move because it also solved the problem of letting a discount-trained customer base dictate the pace of business.  There was no vertical brand reinforcement in 1999.  Leegin v. PSKS wasn't decided in court until 2006.  The internet was a disaster area, you could get Magic booster boxes for forty bucks from basically anywhere.  Mail-order chop shops operating in the back of Scrye and Inquest magazines and posting weekly sale lists on Usenet groups.  Heck, that was my distribution since I had burned my bridges with Zocchi when Wizard's Tower went bankrupt and I did not know about Talkin' Sports or ordering direct from Wizards until half a year later.  I ordered a lot from not-really-a-distributor outfits like West Coast Cards and Potomac Distribution, which is still around today scorching the earth on every new anime TCG.  Back then you had to run lean, hand-sell, and your pricing had to be take-it-or-leave-it.  Jason mastered this before I did.  I lost all kinds of money discounting both during my Wizard's Tower run and while I was at Arizona Gamer, only my cost base was so low at Arizona Gamer I was able to absorb it better.

So with Jason's new year underway and MSRP pricing and sluggish sales (but at full margin), the kind of commission percentage I offered as a sublessor was very welcome sustenance.  Remember when I said how unreachable Jason was at work?  He called me from work, on his 15-minute snack break or whatever it was, I later learned.  That, folks, is urgency.

By the time I walked in that door, Arizona Gamer had been grossing about $150 per day.  Not a typo, one hundred fifty dollars in gross sales each day.  I outgrossed them on my second day, and I had grossed over two thousand dollars by my first Friday Night Magic, which I had the ability to sanction events still thanks to my Wizard's Tower DCI account.  (They eventually migrated it over.)  I was an active Level 2 judge and had some cachet with the local community; area Level 3 judges Matt Stenger and Ray Powers remain my friends to this day, and I joined them at the third tier later in 1999.

For two weeks I did my thing, and I observed that Lackey Jason just didn't do a damned thing but play Starcraft and take care of his kid.  Barnes and I were acquainted now but I rarely saw him due to his work.  His "store" and mine gave each other space and neither business touched the other's cash register.  I was "Wizard's Tower at Arizona Gamer," as it were.  Most weekdays my grosses were anywhere from $300 to $500; I'd pay Barnes his cut and it would represent a non-trivial part of their daily take, but at zero COGS so healthier for them than a normal sale.

Then two Mondays into my tenure, I walked in and Jason Barnes was behind the register.  Lackey Jason was nowhere to be seen.

Bahr: Good morning.

Barnes: Good morning to you!

The store was spotless.  Also, empty.

Bahr: So, is Lackey Jason off today then?

Barnes: Actually I've had to make a change.  Sales aren't there yet, and I can't cover Lackey Jason's salary anymore.  I'll be taking over when I'm not at work, and you'll see my wife Jennifer here from time to time.  I'll see if the part-timers need more hours.

Jason's wife Jennifer was a professional accountant and was barely any more available than he was; they had a four-year-old daughter named Mercedes.  Mercedes is an architect now.  Damn, I'm old.

The part-timers were Jason Farmer (of course another Jason) and Anthony Turner.  I haven't talked to Farmer in 17 years.  I talk to Turner all the time on Facebook.  He's an auto dealer in Virginia.  As you might infer, he and I got along nicely.  The two of them were about 19 years old at the time and were students at a small design college up the street, and of course had found the store within walking distance of the apartment they shared.

Bahr: They have school during the day.

Barnes: Yeah, I haven't solved this yet.

Sometimes you have to make a move because it seems like the right play.  I took a chance that this was a business relationship worth building.  My reward was a lifelong friend.

Bahr: I'm here all day anyway.  I don't know sh*t about Warhammer, but I can cover the point until your part-timer comes in, and instead of payroll you just do the same for me so I can have a day or two off each week.

Barnes: (exhaling) Oh man, thank goodness.  I was hoping you might be willing to do that but I couldn't imagine how to ask it.

Bahr: We're both here to make money, are we not?

Barnes: Indeed.

Bahr: Was Lackey Jason understanding the concept?

Barnes: I don't follow you.

Bahr: I mean, not to talk out of place or anything, but he never really did anything all day.  And payroll is one of the first things a store has to look at when things get pinchy.  I kept wondering how you could afford to have him here.  I'd been meaning to talk to you about it, but you were out of town two weekends ago and I was at the Urza's Legacy prerelease last weekend, so we haven't really had time to talk.

Barnes: What do you mean, he never really did anything?

Bahr: Basically played Starcraft all day.  I'm not a nark or anything, it just seemed strange to me.

Barnes: What about when people came in?

Bahr: He acknowledged them, but most of the time they didn't buy anything.

Barnes: Did he demo the game?

Bahr: I don't know what that sentence means.

(I really didn't.  Lackey Jason had never done it.)

Barnes: SON OF A [expletive]ing [expletive]!

I wondered if I had stepped over a line.  But then Jason just shook his head, took a breath, and nodded to himself.  He stepped around the counter to one of the demo tables.

Barnes: OK, come over here.  These models here are called Space Marines.

And I received my first ever demo of Warhammer 40K.  I didn't absorb a whole lot of it, my mind was really on the business situation, but I knew enough that I could sell the stuff and recognize the difference between an Eldar and an Ork.

After the demo game, I grabbed us lunch around the corner from Someburros and we spent a glorious afternoon merchandising the store, chatting up the occasional customer, making some sales, and plotting world domination.

To be continued!

1 comment:

  1. Mike, we don't know each other, but we share an acquaintance in Anthony. He is the soulless ginger responsible for my gaming addiction, and I am the fat guy responsible for him being in the car biz. I have heard lots of stories about this time in his life, and it was awesome to read this and get some insight. Also, as a sales pro, the thought of some one not demoing a product and engaging customers makes my cry inside