I realize that it’s been quite some time since I’ve written. I’ve been taking a few weeks off to play games, rather than write… and since the industry is in its “calm before the storm” period, I thought that now would be a good time to clear my mind and rediscover what I like about gaming rather than continue to lament all of the things that I don’t like about where the industry is headed.
Today, however, brought a bit of stunning news by way of Kotaku that resonated strongly with me as a video game store that I used to frequent over many years had its doors forcibly closed due to non-payment of taxes. Video Game Castle and I had a long history, and I feel the need to write a few words about it.
Video Game Castle was an independently-owned video game store located in Chicopee, Massachusetts. If you’d never been inside the store, it’s very likely that your first visit would immediately register some negative vibes; the store was very cluttered, the hours of operation were less than ideal, and the owner and his one employee weren’t always personable. If you were able to get by first impressions, though, retrogaming enthusiasts would find a treasure trove of consoles, games, strategy guides, accessories, and magazines that would drop jaws. Was that a 3DO system over there? Yes, it was. Did I just see a Vectrex system? You sure did. Could that really be a factory-sealed copy of Ninja Gaiden for the NES? Yes.
I knew the owner of Video Game Castle pretty well. In the beginning, before the business took off, I even gave him rides to flea markets to sell SNES and Genesis games. He used to love it when I would come in, because he knew that I was old school and he always had something that would interest me. In fact, just before I moved away from Western Massachusetts out here to Arizona, he almost hooked me on a top-loading NES system. The owner was a quirky and rather unique fellow, though; he had a peculiar interest in swords and apparently had a poor experience in the military. Conversations with him used to degrade into a one-sided affair, and I would smile and nod a lot… but to me, being friendly with the owner of a video game store was a pretty cool thing.
As with any video game specialty retail business, trade-ins and pre-owned items were the main attractions at Video Game Castle. Being an independent store made it difficult for the owner to get new items in the same release window as his corporate competition. He had to forge relationships with distributors, and this wasn’t always the best course of action. There were times when the store didn’t have enough money to pay for shipments, causing the items to be returned to the senders and straining the store’s relationship with its vendors. The owner tried to augment the store’s income by selling used magazines, VHS and DVD movies, wall scrolls, and even a few random PC games. Adding these items only served to add more clutter.
Perhaps my best memory of Video Game Castle was when the owner allowed me to visit the “overstock area”, which was the basement of the store. What I saw down there was a museum of console gaming history, just sitting there– unwanted, unsold, and all but deserted. Stacks of original NES systems sat on one side of the basement, while Sega Master System and Sega CD units rested in another area. Dozens of SNES and Genesis cartridges were in bins… one bin was filled with Super Mario Bros. / Duck Hunt NES carts. I recall joking with the owner that he should rearrange the overstock and open a small console gaming museum… but, truthfully, I probably would have been the only own to pay to get in and see this collection again.
Unfortunately, I had a feeling that the end of Video Game Castle would come about in a way similar to what has transpired. I never got the sense that the business was well-run. Before FuncoLand and GameStop came into power, Video Game Castle’s biggest competitor was another independent store, which crumbled several years ago. The store never adapted to the changing business climate after the arrival of FuncoLand and GameStop, though; the store’s prices were relatively high, the hours of operation were cherry-picked for the owner’s convenience, and there was a real identity crisis that revolved around what the store was trying to be. There was a lot of disorganization, too, and I can’t help but to think that the writing had been on the wall for some time.
It’s sad to think that independent video game retailers are becoming an endangered species. I understand that competing with the likes of GameStop and “big box” retailers is essentially a labor of love, but oftentimes you don’t find the same level of enthusiasm for gaming that you usually find at an independent store. I miss the in-store tournaments, the ability to try games before purchasing, and the opportunity to talk to someone about gaming that at least has a basic understanding of the subject matter. While Video Game Castle was not the classic definition of what an independent video game store should be, the fact that it existed for over 15 years means that at least something was done right. Even from 3,000 miles away, I join those who are saddened by the closure of the store.