Defining Game Store Success, Survival, Failure, and Collapse

I’m working on a post about clubhouse stores, but I’ve decided that it is unfair to identify clubhouses without also talking about how the owners might escape clubhouse status. The problem is that escaping clubhouse status is hard, requiring resources that most clubhouse owners don’t have. Thus, the inevitable second part of that post has to turn to accepting reality and leaving the game trade.

So before I talk about clubhouses I have to talk about means of escape, and that escape might be closing the business. But how does one know when it’s time to get out?

The easier question to start with is, why did you get in?

I was a police officer before I bought my store. The politics of policing in the American South were not quite as complex as they are today, and the economy was worse. There were so many applicants that there was an 18-month wait at my department for jobs that had awful hours in dangerous conditions and paid $26,000 a year. I looked around at my respected peers, and realized that they almost without exception had spouses working as well to make ends meet. The Chief of Police at the time was making $66,000 annually. That wasn’t the future I wanted for my family, so I saw the opportunity to buy a business as a potential escape from a job I loved that didn’t love me back. I defined success at the time as replacing my cop income, while allowing me to have one or two part-time employees for a couple days off a week and the occasional vacation. I was wrong. That is not what success looks like.

I will not claim a perfect understanding of life and business, but that understanding certainly feels more developed after five years in this business. Your view may differ, but here’s what success, survival, failure, and collapse look like to me these days:

Success: The owner makes enough money to pay taxes, drive cars that are not breaking down, live in decent housing, pay off debts, and save for the future. He or she is not a slave to the counter, though working it is an option if the owner finds joy in it. The owner has enough employees that he or she can leave town on short notice for business or pleasure, and those employees are paid enough that they consider themselves lucky to work there. Because of the relatively high wages, the owner is able to be more discerning, and ends up with good people that are well-liked and well-cared-for. There is enough slack in the owner’s resources that he or she can take on extraordinary projects that benefit the business and jump at time-sensitive opportunities. There’s plenty in the budget for new product, so an extra Magic release or hot new limited product is an opportunity, not a financial trial. The owner’s spouse is not required to work, and may find themselves filling the role of administrative assistant or marketing director, allowing the small company to punch above its weight for professional presentation and outreach.

Survival: A store that is surviving pays its owner what would be considered in the area to be a living wage, though the pay comes unevenly throughout the year as the business booms and lags. There’s enough extra to pay for twenty to forty hours a week of part-time help at minimum wage. This allows the business to be open for predictable hours while allowing the owner a day or two off and gives them permission to do things like catch the flu. The bills are almost always paid on time, though careful planning goes into the timing of the outgoing payments to ensure there are dollars in the account to cover them. The owner drives an older but reliable car. There’s no extra to invest into marketing or R&D, and trying new things frequently has to be done in a way that can most charitably be described as “plucky.” If a new Magic set and a new Pokemon set come out at the same time, there might not be enough Pokemon product on hand because of cash flow difficulties. The owner’s spouse probably works a full-time job. Rob’s record store in High Fidelity is a survival-mode store.


“I lost it. I lost it all. Faith, dignity, about 15 pounds…”

Failure: A store that is failing is not paying its owner a living wage. In all too many cases, the owner has never received a consistent paycheck from the business. The store is doing enough business to pay the rent and utilities, though it is frequently late making those payments. Employees are a happy fantasy, though the store might have flunkies sorting cards or running events in exchange for product or store credit, all under the table and untaxed. The exact financial status of the business is hard to nail down because the owner frequently buys groceries out of the till. This store will not survive an audit, but isn’t likely to be the subject of one since there’s nothing to take. New Magic releases are ordered in box quantities instead of case quantities, and the phrase “sorry, no cash, only store credit” causes a heartbreaking number of trade-ins to walk back out the door. The owner drives a car that is not long for this world, with breakdowns resulting in “Surprise! We’re closed today.” posts on the store’s Facebook page. The spouse’s full-time job is paying the owner’s living expenses, with early optimism turning to resentment as the years drag on with no change in the financial prospects of the business.

Collapse: The owner is probably benefiting more from the business than he or she ever has, but it’s done by shuffling goods and fixtures out the back door to sell before creditors can change the locks on the store. The store has completely abandoned any attempt at regular hours, and posts on Facebook are the best way to determine when they’ll be open this week. Everything is late. There is no new product because last month’s product was never paid for. This is usually the time when a hastily-composed GoFundMe or Kickstarter campaign will be launched. The owner doesn’t understand that even $10,000 of free money will not save his or her business. Nobody donates, anyway. Depending on how the owner is handling things, their spouse is either relieved that it will soon be over, or is moving back in with Mom for a while.

This is what the various states look like, but the definitions should be more personal and concrete for each owner. When I say concrete, I mean that you should determine what the operating profit (which will determine things like number of employees) and net income (which will determine which car you drive) numbers are for success, survival, and failure. Write these numbers down under each heading, then figure out where your store’s state falls in that list. Nobody is looking over your shoulder, so you can, and must, be brutally honest with yourself.

If your store is succeeding, then there’s more to be done than ever. You thought that you would have it made, but now you’ve got something to lose, so in a lot of ways it’s even worse. The days of your friends and customers seeing and appreciating your hard work are over, because most of it is now behind the scenes. You just traded all your small business glory for a little more money. Tough. There’s people counting on you to feed their kids. Get back to work.

If your store is surviving, then you’re not alone. Most game stores that make it exist at this level. You certainly shouldn’t give up, but you should definitely examine your options. If you’ve got an education and career prospects that will lead to a better financial future for your family, you should consider a graceful end to the business. Or you could find some poor sucker with an inheritance to buy it from you, I suppose.

If your store is failing, then you have hard decisions to make, but it’s not a disaster unless you wallow in mediocrity for years or allow it to collapse. Most stores that didn’t start with plentiful capital were in this state, at least at first. If you just started, you may be able to doggedly ride the momentum up into survival, and then possibly into success. If you’ve been stuck here for a while, though, the prudent thing is to arrange for a timely, dignified closure. If you met your obligations to your creditors, and didn’t leave your building in shambles on your way out, then there is nothing wrong with closing a business because it didn’t work out. You can shake everyone’s hand and still be an adult when you lock the door for the last time.

If your store is collapsing, then now is not the time to try to execute a Hail Mary play for success. If small business success is in your future, it’s not in this iteration of your business. Do your best to close without hosing anyone, then rebuild your personal and financial life and decide what’s best for the future of your family. This is your opportunity to do the right thing. Don’t miss it.


Cards Against Humanity Did Nothing Wrong

Let’s talk about independent retailers and Cards Against Humanity. I’m not here to discuss the merits of the game, because the market doesn’t care about whether you or I think it’s a good game, or a sophisticated game, or whatever. It’s a game that people want to buy, and that’s what should be important to retailers.

Cards Against Humanity

Cards Against Humanity does not sell their game through distributors like Alliance and GTS. They sell direct to a very few brick-and-mortar stores, but the vast majority of their product is sold direct through Amazon. It has been so hot that I and many other independent retailers buy the game on Amazon, mark it up above MSRP, and sell it in our stores. It sells anyway. Recently they’ve made waves on my side of the industry by bypassing independents almost entirely and partnering with Target. In so doing they’ve probably killed the side-channel cash-cow of the marked-up copies sold at your local game store.

There’s a lot of hate among independent retailers for Cards Against Humanity, but the discussion of it is frequently disingenuous. Apparently they showed up at GAMA in 2014 and announced that they would be taking applications from stores to sell their game. They started small, signing with just a few retailers seemingly at random, and then suddenly started telling retailers that they were not approving any further applications for the indefinite future.

soup-nazi_320And why would they? We are, on the whole, awful. The barriers to entry on the retail side of our industry are essentially nothing, and some among us are pleased to sell games for 15% over wholesale online. Trying to enforce Minimum Advertised Price is like herding cats, with recent ongoing attempts requiring the clout of some of the largest publishers in our industry, who surely can’t be certain yet of the outcome. Some retailers wail bitterly about what lying, dishonest jerks CAH are for taking clean, indisputably legal steps to protect the value of their product, and that evening will post about how awful it is that other publishers allow scumbag online discounters to drive margins down to nothing.

Cards Against Humanity is the Soup Nazi of the tabletop gaming industry. They have a product that is so in-demand that they can decide exactly what stores get to do business with them. They have learned their lesson about independent retailers from their final trade show appearance and the backlash that continues in retailer forums to this day. If I were in their position, with a product so popular that I could freely choose my partners, I wouldn’t want to do business with us either.

It makes me wonder about what place the independent retailer has in the tabletop gaming business. Many of my well-respected and successful peers insist that the local game store has an important role as a driver of enthusiasm for new games. We demo and sell games locally which creates community, they say, and drives sales for the new thing across the entire ecosystem.

Whether you think that that’s true or not, and whether or not you believe that publishers will need us in ten years, you can’t deny what Cards Against Humanity has demonstrated: If your product is good enough, you can make lots of money while cutting out the petulant middle-man. Then, when you’re ready to try something bigger, there are mass-market retailers who are willing to sit down with you and do business like professionals.

Publishers, perforce, will continue to say reassuring things to us at trade shows. All we have to know is that Walgreens is getting their own Munchkin exclusive to understand that, right or wrong, we may not be considered indispensable forever. I can’t blame them, either way. Walk circumspectly, retailers.

Spotting Counterfeit Pokemon, Fire Emblem, and Zelda GBA Games

Today I was at the store, sitting in our closet-sized office, doing end-of-the-month admin stuff, when I heard what sounded like happy noises from the front counter, including one of my managers saying, “That’s great! We can ALWAYS use more of those!” I asked what we bought, and she answered that we had just bought basically the entire set of GBA Pokemon games.

2016-09-05 16_25_29-Nerdvana Point of Sale - Paul

My stomach sank. I’m always scouring eBay, looking for big lots of video games that I can part out and sell at retail for a profit. I remembered seeing lots of these:

2016-09-05 16_18_28-gba pokemon lot _ eBay

2016-09-05 17_25_59-savelarge2016 _ eBay

Don’t Do It

Let’s get this out of the way first: Selling counterfeit goods is illegal. Yes, it’s even illegal if you tell the buyer that they’re counterfeit. At the very least, the code running these games is owned by someone who is not getting paid for the counterfeit games, so at the very least “repro” carts are copyright and trademark infringement. If you are a store owner, do not mess with this. It’s morally wrong, legally prohibited, and practically it’s not a great idea to bet your business on selling black market goods. I want to feed my family and provide jobs for my employees with the knowledge that I didn’t have to cheat to do so.

Spotting Counterfeits

2016-09-05 15.19.07

The above are all counterfeit games. Pokemon and Fire Emblem games are ridiculously hot right now so I’m sold out, but I do have a legitimate copy of Pokemon Sapphire in my workshop that is waiting for a battery replacement, so we can do a comparison.

2016-09-05 15.57.452016-09-05 16.01.26

Some things to notice: The battery on legitimate games is there to run a clock, rather than to keep memory intact. When the battery dies on these games, you are given a warning that the game will still work, but that time-related functions will not work. These functions include berry growth, which is helpful and fun but not required for the main part of the game. When starting the bootleg game, which has no battery and thus can’t keep time without being powered by the Game Boy, no warning is given. It is my expectation that the code has been hacked to circumvent the clock-check at the start of the game, and that berries do not grow. I don’t have a ROM dumper to check the former and can’t really be bothered to check the latter, but there is no reasonable way to implement time-based functions without, you know, a way to track time.

2016-09-05 15.58.32 2016-09-05 15.58.20

The backs of these games are clearly different when you have them side-by-side, but I’d have trouble telling if you just handed me one. The screw on the bootleg was silver-colored instead of gold-colored, but my experience with Chinese manufacturers indicates that this is not going to be consistent enough to be an easy tell.

The easiest way to tell the difference without taking the games apart is to look at the top-right corner of the blessedly-transparent cases. On the legitimate games you’ll see the edge of the battery. On bootleg carts you will see a chip on the top-right corner.

One final tell: There’s usually some letters and numbers physically imprinted on legitimate games near the Nintendo Seal of Quality. It’s too subtle to capture with my camera, but you can easily see it in good light. If there’s no imprinting, I would immediately be suspicious.

2016-09-05 16_19_28-5 GBA SP DS Lot Emerald Ruby Sapphire FireRed LeafGreen Pokemon Games Best _ eBa

Take a look at the Pokemon Emerald cart above. Even in the seller’s photo you can see the chip in the upper-right corner where the battery should be. The legitimate card DOES have a chip near that location, but it’s not all the way up in the corner, and it’s mostly obscured by the battery.

2016-09-05 15.21.16 2016-09-05 15.21.21

Both of the above are counterfeit Fire Emblem games. These could be MUCH harder to spot since the cases aren’t transparent, but frequently the details are wrong on the labels since the games aren’t popular enough to get the same scrutiny. This Fire Emblem game is missing the Nintendo Seal of Quality altogether. Of course, if you open up the cases, the poor-quality boards and cheap blob-chip (these are chips printed directly onto the board and then covered with black epoxy to save cost) are giveaways. These particular copies don’t even make an attempt at having the Nintendo model numbers printed on board or using the “correct” chip model numbers, though of course that could change in later revisions.

What Now?

Well, I can’t sell these. I’ll keep them around for training purposes, but I would never sell them to a customer for legal and ethical reasons explained above. The employee who took these in wasn’t to blame, since he’d never been trained on spotting the fakes. I’ll point employees to this post in hopes that we won’t get burned again. I’ll place a note on the customer’s account to double-check the validity of games that he brings in from now on, but I won’t immediately ban him, because it’s very possible that he didn’t know they were fake. The eBay listings that are currently up don’t give any explicit indication that they’re aftermarket, and not everyone is informed enough to be suspicious of games below market prices shipping directly from China.

But now YOU are informed, so you’ve got no excuse. Go, and sin no more.

Update: My friend Michael from Desert Sky Games and Comics sends me an image one of of his copies of Fire Red:

Sure enough, more sleuthing determines that some of these games (which don’t need real-time clocks) don’t have batteries. From elsewhere:

Counterfeit on the left, legitimate game on the right.

If in doubt, it may be worth having known-legitimate games on hand for side-by-side comparison. That extreme-upper-right chip, the blob-on-board IC, and the lack of embossed letters on the Seal of Quality seem to be dead giveaways for fakes.

You Need a Lackey

If you’re standing at your front counter at an empty game store reading my blog, then this one is for you.

You need a lackey. Right now. As in, as soon as you can reasonably do so. Ideally they should start training this afternoon.

You can’t be in two places at once, and you can’t reasonably do more than a couple of things at one time. Employees amplify the will of their employer, requiring only modest pay and humane treatment. An individual without employees is just a guy or gal who has a commercial lease. If you punch them in the nose, the business is probably closed for the rest of the day. An individual with good employees is like a person with a superpower. They’re stoppable, but they are orders of magnitude more capable than the lone guy or gal.lackeys

Getting employees is pretty easy, though managing them is a different challenge from the one you’ve traditionally faced. You’ll be pretty bad at it at first. I probably squandered what could have been an excellent first employee by alternately being too generous and too demanding. The second employee stuck around and learned with me.

The first objection is always that the store owner can’t afford an employee. If your goal is to have a profitable business, and you’re netting so little that you can’t afford someone to cover you while you take a day off, then you haven’t bought a business. You haven’t even bought a job. Jobs have days off. It’s a tough reality: There exists a state where the business has entered a death spiral. Without the resources to grow, no growth occurs, and nothing awaits but a miracle, eventual dawning of the realization that it’s a lost cause, or a long, mediocre slog that ends in the welcome release of death. The young man who owned my store before me had a fortune cookie fortune stuck to his monitor that said, “Good things come to those who wait.” It’s not true, so don’t wait for it to come to that. If you’re in this situation, then start making dramatic changes to what you’re doing, or start looking for a way out.

Downsides: Having an employee forces you to articulate to another human being how and why you do the things that you do in your store. This will hurt. It will expose all the lazy things that you allow yourself to get away with when you see an employee doing them and it makes you angry. It will cause you to start seeking easier, simpler ways of doing things, not because you can’t do complex tasks, but because the jobs that need doing must be made teachable. You will have to swallow what pride hasn’t been beaten out of you by the game industry and make the changes. It will be worth it, I promise.

Even at a lower income, your life is almost immeasurably better once you have two or three days off every week. Eventually you’ll pick up a second employee, which will save you from having to work 12 days in a row if someone gets sick. Once you’ve got enough employees that you are liberated from the requirement to be behind the counter, your entire life will change. You get to start doing things like hunting for closeout inventory and fixtures, going to trade shows to learn to build a better store, and maybe seeking opportunities to expand or multiply your business. I have seven employees, I’m sitting at the library typing away in peace, and I’m going to have dinner at home tonight. I’ll be away from the store during Friday Night Magic! It would have been unthinkable four years ago.

When you add employees to the mix, you remove the limits placed on the business by your frail, pathetic meatbag body. The new limits are determined by your ability to create good process, hire excellent people, and keep destructive hubris at bay. Furthermore, there are mental limits that can be circumnavigated with the right employees. If you got good ones, you will start to discover that your lackeys are better than you at all the things you’re bad at. I’m starting to get to the point where even my managers get to work on the business  rather than just in the business some of the time. That is a terrifying development, but if I’ve done my job well, it’ll be amazing for everybody.

You need a lackey. Go get one.


How We Do It: Taking Applications

The How We Do It series is intended to show the new store owner a potential path to a capability they do not currently have, give existing owners ideas about how they might improve their processes, and give patrons a glimpse into the operations of a working game store. The way we do it may not be the ideal way, but it is a way, and it’s probably better than having no process at all. Constructive criticism is always appreciated, and these pieces may be updated as our process changes.

Game stores are weird. Everyone wants to work at a game store. The majority of applicants are extremely low-quality, but since game store jobs are generally much more humane than big box retail cashier or gas station attendant gigs, you’ll also get excellent applicants that you don’t want to miss.

Why do I need to take applications? Can’t I just hire from among my regular customers?

You can, but you’re severely limiting your pool of potential employees. There are probably hundreds or thousands of people in your area who would make fantastic employees but are too busy to be regular players or customers in your store. You want to talk to these people. Taking applications will also sometimes bring out a potential employee among your regulars whom you didn’t realize was available. More than once, the application-filtering process has been short-circuited by an exclamation of, “Oh, that person is available? Well, we’ll just hire them, then!”

So I make some applications in Microsoft Word and set them out on the counter, right?

No! You want this process to take place as far away from your store’s front counter as possible. Each time we announce an opening for a part-time, entry-level employee, we get between fifty and two hundred responses. You don’t want to have to have two hundred conversations about this unless it’s in a context that you choose. You also want the ability to quickly filter out clearly undesirable or unqualified candidates, which is most easily done electronically. More on this later.

We even go so far as to ask applicants NOT to inquire about their application in the store or over the phone. Applicants who bother my employees about the job opening repeatedly are mentioned to me so that I can give special attention to their application. At least, enough special attention to mark it Rejected. Rule one of being an employee: Follow directions.

How do I easily take applications online? 

We’re using Google Forms. This web app is completely free and requires only a Gmail account. Once you’ve completed the form, you can export a link that can be pasted into your Facebook ad or linked from your store’s website.

Creating an application form is dead simple, and all the responses are available in two formats: You can view them from Google Forms in an easy-to-read format, or you can view them in Google Sheets as a big spreadsheet of every response. The former is easier for the beginner, but the latter is what we use. You can freely add columns for application status and notes, and then sort the applications by any question or by status. This is one way that we very quickly filter through the applications.

If you’re particularly nerdy, and can speak Python, you can use my script for converting an exported CSV file from Google Sheets to a readable HTML document. You’re on your own if you do this: I’m not offering any support for that code. It’s not even very good.

What should I ask?

Our current list of questions include:

  • What is your name?
  • What is your email address?
  • What is your telephone number?
  • What is your current address? (If you receive your mail at a different place than where you sleep at night, list both addresses.)
  • Are you over 18?
  • How many hours a week would you like to work?
  • On which days are you available all day?
  • If there are days on which you are available only part of the day, or you have special scheduling considerations, please list them here:
  • Do you have reliable transportation to work? (Author’s note: You can’t ask them if they own a car. You can only ask if they can get to work.)
  • Are you able to stand for 12 hours in a day, lift 50 lbs to your waist, and lift 20 lbs above your head?
  • Job history: (This is repeated for three most recent jobs.)
    • Where did you work?
    • What was your position?
    • How much were you paid?
    • How many hours a week did you work?
    • When did you start?
    • Are you still employed there? If not, when was your last day?
    • If you’re no longer working at this job: Do you think that they would hire you back if you asked?
    • What was awesome about this job?
    • What sucked about this job?
    • Tell me about your managers. Were they good? Why or why not?
    • Tell me about your co-workers. Were they good? Why or why not?
    • Why did you leave?
  • What is the square root of 16?
  • What is a prime number?
  • Answer some questions about this card, if you can: (An image of a Magic: The Gathering card is shown.)
    • How much mana is required to cast this card? What types of mana?
    • What is the toughness of this creature?
    • What is the trade-off of this card, if any?
    • You’re drafting and end up with this card. Under what circumstances might it be a good card?
  • What would a person who doesn’t like you if I asked them to describe your worst quality?
  • What do you want to be doing for a living in five years?
  • What irritates you about other people, and how do you deal with it?
  • What kind of games do you like? How many hours a week do you play games?
  • If you could rewind your life and make a different choice, what would you change?
  • A childhood friend who lives in another state asks you to tell them about our store. What do you tell them?

Remember that there are questions that you can’t ask (because it’s illegal) or shouldn’t ask (because it makes you a jerk). If in doubt, talk to your attorney. You do have an attorney, right? Don’t be careless with this. It’s important.

What’s with the square root and prime number questions?

2016-08-20 12_29_12-Nerdvana Employment Application - Google FormsThese questions are the first thing I look at in an application. If they got it wrong, their application is rejected without any further review.

This question isn’t about remembering what a square root or a prime number is, though it’s just as well if the applicant can recite the definitions. In the header directly above these questions, I remind the applicant that they’re using a computer and that it’s an open-book application. What I expect a good applicant to do is Google for the answers and paste them into the application. Anyone who gives up, or ignores the instructions and guesses incorrectly, is not qualified to make judgement calls on my behalf in my business.

The Prime Number Question is intentionally vaguely worded, so that an answer of “13” would fit the letter of the question, but not the spirit. I want people who can read an imperfect instruction and determine the most likely correct interpretation. If your first inclination on reading that was to rules-lawyer me, then well, you’re probably not a great fit for the position.

For your amusement and edification, here are some recent responses to the Prime Number Question.

Some of those questions at the end seem pretty personal.

They are. I probably don’t actually care what someone assesses to be their worst quality, or what their biggest regret might be. Good applications will have honest but vague answers, deflect the question entirely, or give a harmless socially-acceptable virtue-signalling answer like, “My biggest flaw is that I work too hard!”

These questions, much like the “tell me about your managers” and “tell me about your co-workers” questions, are designed to give problem children an opportunity to identify themselves early. If you seize upon an opportunity to gripe about the job you had last year, or tell me about the sexual abuse that you suffered as a teenager, or condemn entire categories of games as “lame and stupid”, then you’ve demonstrated a lack of discretion that will almost certainly come back to bite me if I hire you. Everybody experiences bad jobs. Some people have terrible things happen to them. Some people have strong opinions about things. What I want to know is how professional the applicant can be in a professional context.

This all seems very heartless and strict.

The last time we advertised for a part-time, near-minimum-wage position, we got 161 applications. Of those, eight made it through the filtering process. I shared those applications with my managers, and we picked five applicants to interview. Interviewing candidates that have no hope of getting the job is a waste of your time and theirs, but even that isn’t as expensive as hiring someone, training them, and then having them fail catastrophically. The guy that we ended up hiring trained easily and is doing great so far. That’s the goal.

A Crappy Poem About Responding to Negative Reviews

The customer who stomped away
Feeling the urge to hatred spew
In order to the public sway
Posted a one-star review

The business owner, thinking hard
Knowing the wrong he did not do
Plays what he thinks is his best card
“He’s dumb, he smells, and that’s not true!”

Not in so few sharp words, of course
He types all night to show the herd
Verbosely beating his dead horse
With many words, polish a turd

To make future-folks with you ally
As seasons pass and tree-leaves fall
Might be the greatest, best reply
Would be to make none at all

Posted Rules Signs (Blocking Out the Scenery, Breaking My Mind)



  • No cheating.
  • No stealing.
  • No aggressive or violent behavior.
  • No foul language.
  • Follow staff instructions at all times.

Why the crap would you need any of these rules posted in order to set the expectation that those behaviors are unacceptable?

You would probably say something to someone who was gutting a live raccoon on one of your card tables, but do you think that you need to have a “no raccoon vivisection” rule posted?

  • No drinking or drug use.

Do you really run the kind of establishment where this is a problem? Do you really think that someone is going to post a negative review because you wouldn’t let them do PCP at your tournament, but he didn’t have a sign to let him know that he couldn’t do illegal drugs in your store?

  • Do not lean on the counter. Counter is unsteady and could tip over.

This sign will not save you from liability when someone leans on your counter and it gives way underneath them. Buy better fixtures.

  • Prices on Magic cards may or may not be up to date.

What is it that you would say you DO for a living, anyway? Either get back to work or fix your process so that it requires less effort.

  • Please ask staff members for prices on cards.

How’s it feel to run a make-pretend business? Spouse with a good job, right?

  • All customers are expected to bathe regularly and wear appropriate clothing.

Way to feed the stereotype to every person who walks in the door, buddy. Tell your staff to gently inform problem customers that they need to take care of their hygiene before they return. Don’t hire cowards.

  • Do not adjust this thermostat.

Maybe you should get a locking cover or a password-protected thermostat, because this sign isn’t going to do anything to stop someone who thinks it’s appropriate to touch someone else’s thermostat.

The very first thing I did the night I bought my store is walk around and tear down all the rule sheets. It’s been five years yesterday, and I’ve never regretted having high expectations of my staff and customers. Posting a ridiculous sign signals to everyone involved that you run a problematic place with problematic people. We address the problems like reasonable human beings, and ask unreasonable people to leave.

Bad behavior isn’t accepted here, and the staff is empowered to deal with it when it happens. If they’re not sure about a situation, they call me. When my job mostly stopped involving time behind the counter, I got a few of these phone calls every week. Then one or two a month. Now I get none. The competitor across town has rules posted everywhere and no end of problems. All our banned players play there.

Here’s our only posted rule:

Drama Llama

Sunday Funday and the Philistine Cart



menacetitleBack in the 1990’s, game developer Color Dreams produced a dozen or so unlicensed games for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Let me restate that: In a darker, more primitive time, some monsters formed a development company and created awful “games” for the NES, which they inflicted on poorly-informed parents who wanted cheap games. These games were of such low quality that Nintendo refused to grant them license to publish games for their system. Color Dreams reverse engineered the lockout chip present on every NES cartridge and made their games anyway.


One of these abominations was their 1990 game Menace Beach, in which you must guide the skateboarding protagonist against an army of ninjas and Elvis impersonators to rescue your kidnapped girlfriend from Demon Dan. Between levels your girlfriend alternates between pleading with and taunting you, as her clothing becomes torn and tattered, eventually falling away.


Hey, is that… slatwall? Oh, man. I have this… thing… for retail fixtures.

The game itself, despite some interesting mechanical innovations, was mostly a cludgy, mediocre platformer. Your character could punch, jump, and execute a spinning skateboard attack by jumping and then attacking in mid-air. The character sprites had poor hit detection but were thoughtfully animated, with the ninjas moving through a variety of stances and the Elvis impersonators gyrating their pixelated hips.

The game was not very good, and even the inclusion of the weird fetish cutscenes wouldn’t have been enough to make it memorable. What the game became is more interesting.


You see, Color Dreams had a problem: Retailers who carried unlicensed game cartridges for Nintendo systems risked the wrath of Nintendo of America, who could revoke a distribution agreement if they found out that the retailer was selling these sub-par games. If you were a buyer for Wal-Mart or Electronics Boutique, you wouldn’t risk killing the cash cow of NES games to bring in a bunch of mediocre wanna-be games. It would be like a tabletop game store risking their status with Wizards of the Coast by breaking street date on a Magic: The Gathering release, or by selling the promotional give-away cards. Oh, wait. They do that regularly. Sigh. Moving on.

Somewhere in what I can only assume were the very sticky offices at Color Dreams, a solution was found: Market the games in Christian bookstores. These bookstores weren’t interested in mainstream video games, anyway, so they had nothing to lose. Color Dreams created a new label called Wisdom Tree and started rehashing their secular games with a Christian theme. One of these games was a hack of Menace Beach called Sunday Funday.


The player’s character was redrawn to be carrying a Bible. The punch attack was removed, with both ground and air attacks being that skateboard spin move. The ninjas and Elvis impersonators were replaced with generic white dudes and gourmet chefs. And Taunting Bondage Damsel? Replaced with a fully-clothed Sunday School teacher who berated you for being late and urged you to make best possible speed to church.


Not quite as much care appears to have gone into this particular piece of artwork.

Sunday Funday also shipped with a fairly uninspired MIDI Karaoke rendition of 4Him‘s song The Ride. Now, having grown up in a Christian household and exposed to/afflicted by Contemporary Christian Music, I can tell you that 4Him wasn’t the worst Christian music ever, and The Ride was a fairly popular song on an album that sold pretty well. I have to wonder if Benson Records knew the kind of people they were dealing with. I’d very much like to talk to whatever label employee agreed to have the song included with the game, but I fear that I may never get the answers I desire.

the ride

Extra credit: Click here for an extra little slice of weirdness. I got nothing.

In high school, our youth group sang a version of Amazing Grace set to the tune of Peaceful Easy Feeling, with the verses being from John Newton’s hymn and the chorus coming from the song by the Eagles:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now I’m found
Was blind but now I see

And I’ve got a peaceful easy feeling
And I know you won’t let me down
‘Cause I’m already standing on the ground

Catchy, but hardly theologically correct in a church that preached total depravity. I scribbled down what I thought was a more appropriate chorus, and we tried it:

And I’ve got a broken, humbled spirit
‘Cause I know that I’ve let you down
But Father you have placed me on solid ground

It was a terrible flop. We put the new words on the overhead, but nobody cared, and everyone sang the version from The Eagles in defiance. Our pastor would later express regret for having approved either version of the song, calling it a “Philistine cart”. We all got the reference: Israel, having gotten possession of the Ark of the Covenant back from the Philistines, were given special instructions for how to return the Ark, including a new cart. They disregarded some of these instructions since it appeared that the cart the Philistines had used for their half of the trip seemed perfectly serviceable. When an ox pulling the cart stumbled, a man named Uzzah reached out to keep the Ark from falling, and, being in violation of the God-given instruction not to touch the Ark, promptly snuffed it.

The lesson given by preachers is that we should take care when mixing the mundane and the divine, but even if you’re not a believer, you can see the point. As Hank Hill would have said, Christian video games don’t make video games better, they just make Christianity worse. While it’s unclear whether the publishers of Menace Beach and Sunday Funday experienced any smiting as a result of their terrible Christian video game, they certainly didn’t receiving any temporal blessing from it, either: The company continued to be hounded in court by Nintendo, and both games were produced in such low quantities that they are now collector’s items worth well in excess of $100.

And now you know the story of Sunday Funday and the Philistine Cart.

Seeking Bad Examples (There but for the Grace of God)

My wife and I honeymooned in this town, and we revisit it frequently when we want to get away from the shop. This week we’re out here with another couple, which is fun. Tonight the other three in our group are doing an Escape Room. Since I’ve got an aversion to being locked in a room, even for play, I decided to sit it out and spend the evening downtown, visiting businesses.

A local game store was recommended to me by another retailer, so I went to have a look-see. As I walked in, two occupants briefly suspended their conversation to say “Hi” to me, then went right back to talking. The store was probably 2,500 square feet or so, and mostly consumed with tables. There was a calendar of events poster from Wizards of the Coast that went out of date two months ago. The merchandise section was about 150 square feet of sloppily-piled, but at least mostly current, merchandise. I looked around for 90 seconds, then turned around and left. A hasty shout of “Was it not what you expected?” hit my back before the door closed.

Sadly, from the sub-prime location and $150 unlit sign, it was exactly what I expected. I didn’t introduce myself because I didn’t want to offend the clerk. Besides, he seemed busy. I asked my friend about it and found out that he’d confused this store for another, less terrible, one.chair

Later, I visited a used book store. It’s run by one elderly lady and her tiny dog, and she spends all her time making yarn in the center of the store. I visit it every time we come to town, just out of disbelief that it’s still around. Is she living on a big life insurance payout? Does she have a reverse-mortgage arrangement for the very valuable real estate? Is it a front for a government safe house? I’m not sure, but she’s still there after at least eleven years.

As always, I was confronted first by a small, angry dog. The owner advised me not to be friendly, but just keep moving. I stepped around chewed-on chicken bones that were piled in the floor and walked on.

“Hi! Where is your science fiction section?” I asked, looking as always for more copies of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to give away.

“We don’t have much, but come here, I’ll show you.”

“Oh, I don’t want to interrupt your work.” I said.

She looked up at me with annoyance. “I wasn’t going to get up. I was going to tell you where to go, if you’ll listen.” She pointed with her nod, since her hands were busy with the spinning wheel. “Go down until you see the hat rack, and turn left, then take the aisle on your right.”

I thanked her and walked back into the store, stepping around loose boxes and piles of yarn. I wasn’t seeing any hat racks.

“Didn’t listen, did’ya? Turn around and come back, then turn at the hat rack, then it’s the first aisle on your right.”

I turned around and, sure enough, there was a crocheted hat sitting loose on one of the bookshelves. I turned right, then right again, finding the section.

“Life is better when you listen, isn’t it? I can never get anybody to listen.”

Biting my lip, I examined the shelves. No Heinlein at all, save two copies of The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. I poked around for a bit but, fearing that she was becoming grumpier with me by the minute, soon wished her a pleasant evening and left. She asked me not to bring a messenger bag with me, next time.

I’ll be back without the bag next time. This has become a tradition.

My dad used to say something about businesses he saw being run poorly. “Whatever it is that the owner wants out of that business, I guess they’re getting it.”

I never asked him what he meant, but I think I can give it a shot. In our industry, retailers are constantly fretting about the Big Bad of Amazon, Books-A-Million, and digital delivery. The response is frequently that we should endeavor to beat them with superior customer service and attention to detail. Everyone says that they care about making a great customer experience, but we’re all hypocrites on one level or another. Maybe it’s poorly-merchandised shelves, or dirty bathrooms, or employees that don’t greet and engage every customer. My shop could use some cord-hiding, a coat of paint in the bathrooms, and a fresh wax job.

On some level we all have things that we give up on, or at least tolerate with no definite plan for improvement. Visiting businesses like these helps remind me that, much as every person is the protagonist in their own story, every owner of a terrible business has perfectly rational-sounding excuses that allowed their business to decay to this point.

After looking at these pictures? I’m going to buy some paint when I get back to the store.

Tolerating Imperfect Business Relationships (Dancing with Dirtbags)

2016-04-08 11.46.34If you are in business for more than a day or two, you’ll run into vendors that consistently fail to deliver on their promises. Maybe it’s a tabletop games supplier who frequently gets your orders wrong, never has what you want in stock, and doesn’t return your calls, anyway. Maybe it’s a comic book vendor who frequently damages your books, or charges you to ship a quarter-inch catalog in a medium flat-rate box. Maybe it’s a parts supplier who takes forever processing returns and then hoses you on half of them.

Your options in these situations always fall into one of these categories:

  1. Scream and cry on the phone to a customer service representative. Write long, public Facebook posts about how awful this vendor is. Concoct Machiavellian schemes to play your bad vendors against each other. Travel to your vendor’s offices and key some cars.
  2. Make reasonable requests of your vendor, complain when standards aren’t being met, and move your business elsewhere when you find that you no longer want to do business with them.
  3. Accept the mistreatment.

#1 is right out, of course. We’re professionals, right? Except that, uh, I may have flown off the handle at vendors one or eight times when I was just starting out. Every slight was a personal offense. Long emails were written. Empty legal threats were made. The light of those burning bridges lit my path for years and can still be spotted in the distance when conditions are just right. There are vendors with whom it would be mighty convenient to trade with now, but who will likely never return my emails again, because I was a jerk.

#2 is how it’s supposed to work. I address a behavior that I find unacceptable, and the vendor either shapes up or gets replaced.

But what happens when that vendor is the only place to go for what your business needs? What do you do if eliminating that vendor will result in a significant loss of income?

You go for #3. You accept the mistreatment. Oh, sure, you should find ways to mitigate the damage it causes, but ultimately you’re making this decision because it’s a win for you.

That win for you can frequently be assigned a number, and I call that number the Dirtbag Dividend.

I have game suppliers who didn’t treat me the way I want to be treated. I asked that they change the behavior. The behavior didn’t change, so I don’t do business with them, uh, except when I need to get something only they carry. I’d rather swallow my pride and accept the fact that I’m going to have to carefully check everything I get from them. My reward, my Dirtbag Dividend, is the money I’ll make on that item that I couldn’t get elsewhere.

The dominant comic book distributor has a nasty reputation among store owners for being difficult to deal with, for frequently shipping damaged items or shipping undamaged items in silly ways. This is frequently the FIRST thing that comes up when someone asks about comic books. Many store owners will tell you that they stopped carrying comics rather than deal with this distributor. And yet, many comic stores continue to exist, and many hybrid stores make comics a part of their mix and make good money doing it. I’ve seen their numbers, and the profit is real. That profit is their Dirtbag Dividend, though calling it that may be unfair. I’m beginning to suspect that this particular distributor does the things it does because it deals with thousands of unique SKUs that change every single month and have strict release schedules.

We deal with phone parts suppliers in China. The defect rate is about 12%, and they hose you on about half the returns. Between getting hosed on rejected returns and pulling teeth to get the good returns pushed through over months, I figure it adds 10% to the cost of the parts. I could deal with American resellers of the same parts and have them deal with all the hassle, but it would cost 30% more on the front end. That 20% gap, even at my low volume, is enough to make the difference between driving an old Chevy and a new Lexus, or maybe the difference between toiling to make one store work and rolling toward expansion to multiple stores. To earn it, I have to go to sleep at night trying not to think about the fact that my rep lied about the condition of the parts I returned. It hurts, but the Dirtbag Dividend makes it all work out in the end.

I recently heard a theory that a guy who runs a restaurant is angry sometimes. A guy who runs two restaurants reaches peak anger: He is ALWAYS angry about something. The guy who runs six restaurants isn’t angry about anything anymore. That old cliche about having the serenity to accept the things you cannot change? There’s money to be made wading through that serenity. Money that your peers might be leaving on the table. Take that money and serenely live better than your peers with it.