Why the Magic of Independent Stores Should Never Be Lost
There's a wonderful documentary that came out last year called Sound It Out, an effortlessly affecting tale of the last independent record store in Teesside. It's about a dwindling industry and a fast-fading phenomenon - that of the dedicated indie shop that caters to enthusiasts as well as the plain curious - but it's also about something else entirely, and something that's perhaps much more worrying.
It's about dwindling communities, and not just those that hoard records and thirst for fresh vinyl. It's about the communities within the town itself, for which the shop acts as a cornerstone where the disaffected can gather. It reminded me that places like the shop at the centre of Sound It Out mean a lot more than just the goods that are within.
I was reminded of that again when Game Focus, one of London's few independent gaming stores, pulled its shutters down for the final time last week. It wasn't the last of its kind, and without wanting to sound cruel it probably wasn't the greatest either, but its closure served as a reminder of how important such places are.
There's long been a romantic association with the independent record shop - think of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, or of the quintessential 90s teen flick Empire Records - and while it has understandably never really rubbed off on their videogame brethren, to me and countless others such places are just as cool and infinitely more magical.
Back in the 90s I think you could have made a spottier, slightly less coherent but equally enjoyable take on Empire Records based on life behind the counter of Rathbone Place's own CEX, once an incredible haven of retro hardware and games, and as famous for its surly staff as its extensive catalogue.
The top floor was given over to contemporary titles, but downstairs was a den of delights; imported SNES and Mega Drive games lined one wall, while a corner was given over to slim jewel cases for mysterious PC Engine titles. And behind a glass window, in a small plastic cavern towards the rear, was where the real magic was: where Nomads and Mega Jets were arranged around a pristine arcade cabinet.
Its star faded many years back, and while upstairs remains home to tatty second-hand versions of current releases and shelves of promos opportunistically hawked on, downstairs was long ago given over to even tattier box-sets of mediocre long-running US TV series. The only real thing that ties the CEX of today to the one of old is the charming rudeness of the staff, soundtracked as ever by the most violent breakcore.
With CEX having become a less than pleasant way to browse the latest in second-hand phone technology, Game Focus, situated just a couple of streets away, provided a pleasant alternative. Like its local rival, upstairs was reserved for contemporary titles while downstairs was given over to older offerings; where import PS2 and Dreamcast games were joined by dog-eared, well-loved GBA titles.
Its trump card was a more pleasant staff and a constantly revolving store of treats; I went in to pick up the latest Layton once, only to be upsold to a Japanese Dreamcast that had conveniently been chipped by a previous owner, allowing me to get that delicious orange swirl on boot-up and yet still understand what on earth was going on in my third playthrough of Shenmue.
It became, in short, an important part of my gaming life, and upon its closure I realized that at any one time there's been an independent store that's been the cornerstone of my hobby. There was Lucia in Exeter, where the squeaky-voiced owner introduced me to the surreal joys of Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat and where I'd go to salivate over a complete copy of the Dreamcast's Samba de Amigo. Then there was the old CEX in Harrow, where an idiot teen me was denied the copy of awful Twisted Metal clone Rogue Trip that I took to the counter, and was instead forcefully sold a copy of Metal Gear Solid - a moment that's shaped my gaming taste as much as any other. Later there would be New Age Consoles in Brighton, where I once excitedly stumbled upon a batch of mint Sin and Punishments going for under £20 apiece. And all of these places, sadly, are no more.
I mourn their loss, as they were formative places for myself and countless others. For me, shops such as these are gaming's true meccas, arguably more so than the arcades that are disappearing at an equally distressing rate. It's these places where you could go to in order to really worship games, to admire them from afar or to fall in love with the promise of a shrink-wrapped curio that was just beyond your budget's reach.
They're meccas that can inspire great pilgrimages, too. It's worth making the trek to the Akihabara branch of Super Potato (though its sister site in Osaka's Den Den town is, to my mind, the better shop), its breadth and scope offering more of a museum in which every exhibit comes with a fittingly extortionate price tag. Less far afield are the magnificent stores that line the streets of Paris' République, where the basement of Maxxigames is one vast and seemingly endless library, home to the games you once loved and those you'd never even dreamed existed.
It's a magic that chains like GAME will of course never be able to exude, and as gratifying as it is to know that, after its many troubles, there'll still be a videogame presence on the high street, the fate of more esoteric outlets such as Game Focus still worries me. Lose the independents, and you stand to lose the sense of wonder and discovery that's impossible to find in stacks of pre-owned games or through stoking Amazon or eBay's search engine.
Having lost my own local independent with the closure of Game Focus, it's at least heartening to know that here are numerous other similar stores still in business across the country; places such as Gloucester's R Games, a venue pointed out to me in the wake of Game Focus's closure that looks worthy of a pilgrimage itself. If you're lucky enough to live near such a store, make the most of it, and perhaps think twice before pointing out you can find similar wares for a couple of quid cheaper on eBay. Some things are worth paying that little bit extra for.