"Mom and pop" game stores are relics and reliquaries for history: both for video games, and for LA itself.
Header illustration by Leah Goren
To the residents of Eastern Los Angeles, Select Start is less "real video game store" and more "mysterious myth." It's been a part of my life for years, and I didn't learn its name until last month. To me and my peers at Occidental College, it was just the shack on York Blvd that might sell video games—if it was open, which it almost certainly wouldn't be. The storefront lacked a sign or even posted hours.
The only indication that it sold video games was the Xbox 360 signage peeking out of the obscured windows. It wasn't out of business—we were sure of it!—because it had been sitting in that lot for years. There was a perpetual light burning in the back of the store— somebody was paying this building's electricity bill.
As it turns out, Select Start is a real store—albeit one that runs exclusively on Saturday & Sunday from 12-7, and even that is up in the air. The store is owned by LA native Albert Cruz, whose parents own the mid-sized lot in hipster neighborhood Highland Park where the tiny shop currently resides. The family has owned the land since the early 90s—he has memories of having to miss his afternoon Power Rangers because his parents would take him directly from school to one of their businesses on the lot.
Select Start is representative of the old Los Angeles: a deeply specific outlet, it's a business that feels linked to its owner, rather than a store built to capitalize on a trend. As LA creeps ever-closer to a city of haves and have-nots, rather than a wildly-diverse collection of districts and cultures, it's nice to see a personal vision executed this well.
That specificity is a distinct advantage Select Start has over its competitors, as the store is packed with offbeat memorabilia. There are plenty of fascinating oddities on display, like a Heineken-branded GameCube, a Mountain Dew-branded original Xbox, or a regular-ass Wii that Cruz had been modifying to fit into a Star Wars AT-AT playset. There's a fridge stocked with cans of Ecto-Cooler and other drinks, just in case you're thirsty.
The relatively small store, walls lined with curios, has an upbeat and cozy atmosphere—it's a fantastic place to kill a few hours looking at rare knicknacks. When Cruz shows off a piece from his collection, he radiates enthusiasm and pride. As a result, Select Start feels more like a pet project that you've been invited to experience. Again: There's a Heineken GameCube on display there. It's a regular black GameCube, but it says Heineken on it.
Right now, Cruz only pays $300 in rent to his parents for the store—a great price no matter where you live in the US, but practically criminal for the rising Highland Park neighborhood. In the two decades since his parents bought the lot, Highland Park has been gentrified into its current state, making the lot where Select Start is located incredibly valuable. "We do get people who are trying to buy our property. We get some people who are pretty persistent," Cruz said. "We had a lady come in, she was like 'You will sell me this property.' We were just like 'no, you need to get out of our property, we're not gonna sell.'"
Most of the newer businesses on York Blvd deliberately emulate the stores and restaurants they priced out several years ago, often forcing the surviving business owners to craft a simulacrum of the culture they helped pioneer. So you have long-time Highland Park business owners like Cruz's parents demolishing their old restaurant building in favor of a new outdoor beer garden; legitimate, no-irony authenticity replaced by artifice.
"Before, this street [York Blvd] was dead. So, the foot traffic—the people outside—wasn't very much. In the past seven or eight years it's come up a lot. I saw it from when it was really bad, when there were a lot of gangs and stuff. Now it's so much nicer."
Even as Cruz praises how the city has changed, there's a hint of wistfulness in his tone—a wistfulness shared by a lot of long-time residents in this city. Like Cruz himself, Select Start feels nostalgic, but it's nostalgic for a bygone Los Angeles that the owner actually experienced. For that reason, the store doesn't fit with the rest of the businesses on York. It isn't trying to be twee or deliberately offbeat—that's not Cruz's aim. Select Start would fit perfectly with the pastels and iron-barred windows of a bygone Los Angeles. Holding onto that may not be entirely rational—Cruz could almost certainly make a killing by renting out the building—yet he opens a video game store utterly lacking in pretense, like LA used to be.
Select Start isn't the only independent video game store in Los Angeles. The city is home to a multitude of locally owned game stores, arguably more successful than the independent video stores you would expect to find in the entertainment capital of the world. In a city shot-through with the history and memorials of its legendary film industry, there are decades of video game history squirreled away in stores that are as unique and memorable as the neighborhoods they call home.
In the gentrifying East Hollywood ("EaHo") neighborhood, you'll find Max Games (neé A&M Games). Max Games is a little used games outfit that shares retail space with a pet store while owner Francisco "Paco" Herrera finishes renovating the shop. Right now, the store is predominantly clutter, with unfinished console repairs—some Nintendo systems, a couple PS4s, a lot more PSPs than you would expect—stacked atop the store's glass cases. When you walk through the front doors, you're hit with that all-too-familiar pet shop smell. Turn right at the trading card display, and you'll see a wall of birds in birdcages, all squawking away.
Herrera has operated Max Games out of its current location for 11 years. In that time, he's seen the neighborhood change for the better and watched regular customers grow up. "The gangs are practically done in the area. It's very safe to walk any time of day," Herrera said. In the time it's taken to clean up the streets, some of Max Games' youngest customers have grown old enough to work at the store.
"I've known [some customers] since they were little kids. The people know me, and sometimes they come in with their kids. They even take pictures of me with their kids. Yeah, I think I have a good relationship [with the community,]" Herrera said. "People respect me. I try to be honest with the business, people like that. They recognize that."
When Herrera talks about new businesses cleaning up EaHo, he mostly talks about new franchises like 7/11 or Pizza Hut—evidence of higher disposable income floating around the neighborhood, but nothing that indicates an impending price-out like in Highland Park.
For the time being, Max Games is safe from displacement. It may not be essential for game enthusiasts looking for a rare find, but for locals who want a good deal, it's a godsend; a welcome counterpart to GameStop's used game business, which has a poor reputation among players and parents. EaHo is an affordable neighborhood home to many families, it deserves a similarly affordable game store.
While Max Games has been around for a long time, Game Dude seems to be the oldest video game store in Los Angeles, after being in operation for about 30 years. Other store owners I spoke with for this story spoke of Game Dude with some odd mixture of resentment and respect. The store's influence on pricing can be felt not just in Los Angeles proper, but in stores as far as the Pacific Northwest.
As LA creeps ever-closer to a city of haves and have-nots, rather than a wildly-diverse collection of districts and cultures, it's nice to see a personal vision executed this well.
The store runs out of a warehouse in North Hollywood, the bonus part of LA hiding on the other side of the canyon. North Hollywood is the It's a Small World version of Los Angeles, synthesized from almost every other neighborhood and filled with hipsters, immigrants of every nationality, blue-collar workers, and film industry workhorses.
Game Dude is easily one of the most colorful businesses in NoHo, with a customer base that includes Jay Leno and Jamie Foxx, an "official" store policy regarding employee vs. customer parking lot fights ("If you need to, just clock out and go outside and take care of business, as long as it's not in here and you're not wearing a [Game Dude] shirt"), and omnipresent racks of printed price sheets.
The store's price sheets aren't limited to popping up in local stores, either. "Back in the day, when I used to collect a lot myself, I would go to video game stores from San Diego to Portland, and they would pull up our Game Dude sheets or our website," said Game Dude Assistant Manager Ricardo Larios. "I'd ask them for a price and they'll just have a folder and our same price sheets are in there."
Since Game Dude has been around for 30 years, much longer than most of its competition, those sheets became the standard by virtue of existing in a vacuum. According to Larios, they're "everywhere." If you've ever bought a used retro video game in a Los Angeles game store, there's a good chance they got their pricing from a printed Game Dude price sheet. "We see [other owners] come in once or twice a month, take one of each," Larios said. Although scans of the price sheets are available online, the printed sheets are still wildly popular.
At one point, the Game Dude's staff was curious if they could affect the retro games market with a single keystroke. According to Larios, that is absolutely possible. Several years ago, a former employee wanted to pick up a game for the Sega Genesis he vaguely remembered playing as a kid, but he couldn't find any in-store. So he convinced the owner of Game Dude to run a little experiment: Put out an updated price sheet with an inflated trade-in price, wait for copies of the game to start circulating, drop the trade-in price with a new price sheet, and snap up the game once the market rebounded.
That game was Crusader of Centy. Right now, the game retails for about $180 loose, but that wasn't always the case. "Earlier, people were finding that game for chump change, [but once the change happened] they were flipping it instantly," Larios said. "And we didn't notice until we heard about it, and it was because of us. Our price sheets have an effect."
This is corroborated in part by video game price tracker PriceCharting.com, a site that displays price trends for certain games. There were two massive price spikes for Crusader of Centy: one in October 2011 and one in July 2012. One month later, the game started consistently trending upward, and has continued to do so since then.
As one of the few independent game stores in Los Angeles that sells new games, you would expect Game Dude to contribute to LA's reputation as the city that breaks street date. Among game professionals, LA is known as a sort of video game speakeasy, where you can get an early copy of Mass Effect if you know the right people. While I did get in contact with a store that cheerfully admitted to breaking street date, a representative from Game Dude immediately shut that idea down. The conversation was terse, stopping just short of the employee asking if I was a cop.
Although you won't see Max Games, Game Dude, or Select Start peddling plastic Oscar statuettes, preserving film archives, or delivering liquor at 3 AM like Los Angeles' other iconic establishments, locally owned video game stores are just as important to the makeup of this fantastically diverse city. These stores are more than just alternatives to GameStop, they're often cornerstones of their respective communities. They're tangible nostalgia; even if you've never been to these stores, they remind you of places you half-remember, in cities that have changed beyond recognition.