At J&L Games, on 6th Avenue in New York City, I’m transported back in time to 1998, where everyone knows my name and the place feels like a time warp. J&L Games is a virtual video game museum, complete with rows of display cases packed with classic titles, retro consoles lining the walls, and a big plastic Pikachu greeting visitors at the door.
The MTA’s Kevin H shows in to pick up his copy of Hitman 3 for the PS5 before I can say anything. The store’s longest-serving employee, Kit Chiu, initially met Kevin when he frequented J&L’s former Chinatown location in the early 2000s, and they’ve been friends ever since.
As it turns out, Kevin purchased his Playstation 2 from Kit in March of 2000, at J&L’s original storefront on Elizabeth Street in Chinatown, and recalls “a massive line of people looping around the building” waiting for the new system. Almost two decades later, Kevin is still a regular at J&L in midtown, where he drives the M20 MTA bus line and plays whenever he can.
This entire scene may strike others as quaint or even archaic. Today, anyone can easily buy a digital copy of a video game through their console, PC, tablet, or phone via an online store. Indeed, the vast majority of video game purchases are now made on the internet.
The epidemic has accelerated this trend toward digitalization, as fewer individuals are willing to visit a GameStop or other big-box retailer to purchase a new game, let alone a modest walk-in shop in Manhattan’s midtown.
More attention has been paid to how smaller video game retailers have survived the challenges posed by digitalization and the global pandemic than has been given to GameStop’s survival in the early months of 2021.
During the pandemic, I spoke with four individually owned video game stores around the United States to get their perspectives on the situation. It’s been a tough year for these stores, but they’ve managed to thrive by catering to a group of gamers who are looking for a sense of familiarity in a dangerous time.
A notable example is Josh Hamblin, owner of the Portland, Oregon-based Side Quest Game Store. Until recently, Josh was unconcerned about the digitalization of games and the rise of large box rivals in the market.
He was able to quit his day job as a car salesperson since selling retro games at a storefront was so lucrative.
As Josh recalls, “seven years ago I was selling games for fun out of an extra office in my car lot.” My games kept growing better even when the car industry slowed down after a year or so, but it was the opposite for the automotive sector. As a result, I sold my vehicle company and began working from home. After that, my business started to grow at an exponential rate.”
Josh’s business ate up their garage, so he opened a storefront in Portland, Oregon. From there, Josh found his niche in retro gaming, attracting nostalgia-hungry gamers hoping to accumulate extensive libraries of old titles.
Retro game sales have exploded in recent years, with unopened games from the early 1990s like Super Mario Bros. 3 fetching hundreds of dollars and even six figures in some cases. While Side Quest Games’ high-end vintage sales are vital, everyday repairs and lower-end retro game sales are their bread and butter, protecting Josh’s firm from the big-box competition.
Similarly, Josh argues that he and retailers like GameStop have developed a mutually beneficial partnership.
While the store’s console repair services and liberal trade-in procedures have given Josh some cushioning from competition at big box stores, Side Quest Game Store may not offer too many current titles. This has resulted in some informal collaboration between Josh’s business and workers at nearby GameStops, who often recommend Side Quest Games to their customers.
Despite the surge in online sales, David Kaelin, owner of Game Over Video Games in Austin, Texas, has found a place for himself. A long time before the days of Amazon and digital downloads, David established his company in 2005, and has been growing ever since.
Because of the high demand for classic video games, his little business has grown to over a dozen sites across Texas.
David, on the other hand, sees the key to his company’s long-term viability as gamers’ desire for social contact. David believes that his store has thrived because he prioritizes the in-person experience over the convenience of online shopping.
For us, our ties with customers don’t just end when they buy a game,” David adds, “We want to start a conversation with people about games and build a place to go hang out.” Everyone needs social contacts; gamers are no exception. “
Jonathan Sakura’s firm has likewise relied heavily on the support of the community in recent years. Jonathan spent nearly a decade turning his passion for gaming into a full-time job before starting a store named “Gamers Anonymous” in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
In 2007, he purchased Gamers Anonymous, a well-established gaming store in Albuquerque, to pursue a long-held goal of owning his own business.
Through huge community events like midnight releases and in-store tournaments, Jonathan created a business catering to the requirements of those seeking old games and console repairs.
The days of LAN parties, where gamers brought their computers together in basements and small apartments to play multiplayer games in a shared setting, are something that Jonathan misses.
As Jonathan observes, “the social component of gaming has become significantly more essential to me.” With hundreds of people lining up outside our store for large trade-ins at our peak, we were doing midnight releases, conferences, and massive trades.