Closing Down

It’s been 15 years since I graduated. Five of which were spent in absolute hell, during a phase of my life where one had no choice but to contend with back-biting and office politics. It was only during those moments when one realised as to how many friends I had. And trust me, as someone who has been on both ends of the success spectrum, the number “zero” definitely applied. It was lonely at the top. It was also incredibly lonely at the bottom.

I was watching the 1979 movie The Warriors the other day. It’s about a street-gang (The Warriors) that is trying to get back to its home turf in New York, after they’ve been set up and falsely blamed for a murder that they did not commit. Whilst watching the movie, I was struck by how every single member of The Warriors gang is in their 20’s, with there existing a sense of brotherhood between the young men, and a level of camaraderie that I know that I’ve never really had. The gang-members also didn’t mind staying out all night, and as someone who is now 40, that’s something that I know that I will also never really get to properly experience as I like to be in bed by 10pm. I’m an early-bird at heart now, and like to get my 6-8 hours of sleep, and be up at around 5:30am. A far cry indeed from the days when I would regularly go to concerts and be in bed at around 3am. In fact, during the height of MySpace (remember that site?), and partially because I was unemployed at the time, I wouldn’t go to bed until around 6am.

When I graduated in 2003, the retail and print markets were both in buoyant health, with the digital economy making few inroads into their respective sectors. Smartphones also weren’t a “thing” like they are now, with people not having widely available access to the internet until the iPhone 4s was released in 2011. In fact, it can be argued that 2009 was truly an epochal moment, and represented the beginning of the end for established markets, and how the “old world” used to operate, when Apple released the iPhone 3GS.

I went to Central London on Saturday 15th September, and decided to take a trip down memory lane in the evening – after I’d bought some clothes from M&S (as one does). And truth be told, there had been a number of notable changes since 2003. For starters, there was no flagship HMV store that used to be located at 150 Oxford Street. Now, if any entertainment store encapsulated as to how the old world used to operate, and how much of a premium people used to place on stores as an economic and social experience, it was definitely embodied by the behemoth that was HMV 150 Oxford Street. A veritable dinosaurs in today’s day and age, and a bonafide relic from a bygone era.

However, and prior to the smartphone digital era, entertainment stores used to act as social hubs through which people would interact and network with like-minded individuals. In other words, there was the tangible notion of a “scene” associated with the locality of every store. And I met many “cool” individuals in HMV, whose bands I would later go on to photograph or interview – such as Corporation: Blend (who are now defunct), and Teeth of the Sea (who I recently saw play at Rough Trade East).

After leaving M&S, I then decided to walk into the new flagship Next store (which is now located on the site of the old Plaza shopping centre), and was pleasantly surprised by the branch having a coffee lounge section. Indeed, this concept was also summarily incorporated by GAME’s flagship branch on Wardour Street (which I walked into… next – ha ha), as the store hosts ‘Belong’ in its basement – a social hub that acts as an arcade where gamers can congregate and play together.

Now, if ‘Belong’ wasn’t so dark, I might actually endorse it. But given that it’s so dingy and dark, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it as it gives off a fairly family unfriendly vibe. With that being said however, and in the age of the internet, do gamers really want to just hang out in a dimly lit basement where the only recourse of socialising with others is via a TV strobe light?

If you’ve ever seen any of the old Friends episodes, you’ll notice that the Central Perk coffee shop is a central hub for much of the old casts’ comedic get-togethers, where they engage in hilarious banter and shenanigans. And whilst mobile phones and online social media sites (such as Facebook and Twitter) have largely replaced, and eroded much of the social fabric of traditional social interactions, it’s worth noting that coffee shops are having a resurgence on the high street. Mainly because they’re an excellent location for friends to meet, for shoppers to take a break from the hustle and bustle of real-world stress, and for creatives and entrepreneurs to engage in productive endeavours. Indeed, it’s no coincidence to learn that the majority of this article was actually written in a coffee shop.

Now if one is a habitual user of Pokemon Go, and prefers the glow of the TV as opposed to the radiant warmth of the sun, then surely the individual would rather procure their games and play them online via the comfort of their own home. However, and for those who enjoy venturing outside and relishing the high street shopping experience, then surely it makes more sense for game retailers to maximise the appeal of their floorspace by incorporating well lit coffee lounge sections – similar to what Next, Rough Trade, and Loading Bar have done – as this would encourage customers to spend more time in stores, and also spend more money as well. And then there is the added commercial advantage of the store enhancing its customers shopping experience, diversifying its income stream, whilst also acting as a social hub in the digital information age.

After leaving GAME, I decided to walk further down towards Tottenham Court Road tube station, before walking up Tottenham Court Road itself. It was evening by this point, and the sky was already dark. A beat-boxer performed in the vicinity, and the sounds of passing shoppers and cars could be overheard. Mingling through the crowd, I discovered that the old Casino arcade further up near Goodge Street tube station had been shut down, with the basement being taken over by a martial arts dojo studio. Seeing this was kind of sad, if only because I had so many memories associated with the arcade. I can still remember going there after my working day at CEX and spending time with some of my colleagues – including Dominic Andoh, Wesley J Baptiste – who would continue their gaming affair with SNK’s KoF 98 well into the late hours. We were a gang back then. A band of brothers. Or at least that’s what I thought at the time. Just a shame that our relationships have acrimoniously dissolved since, with there being very little incentive on either party’s end to patch up our differences. Yeah… it’s pretty safe to say that we’re not friends. Not anymore.

Walking back and turning into Goodge Street, I noted that Game Focus had also (permanently) closed. Now replaced by what seems to be a computer repairs shop. Not at all surprising, given that indie shops as a whole have been closing en-masse at an ever alarming rate since the mid-2000’s. And as someone who is currently reading Marcus Aurelius, one realises that everything eventually turns to dust. What a sad state of affairs retail is undergoing, when many of its gaming landmarks from yesteryear have failed to withstand the sands of time. Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes.

Turning into Charlotte Street, I decided to see as to how the old Whitfield Street branch of CEX was faring. In case you don’t know, this was where the original branch of CEX (then called Computer Exchange) was first established – way back in the early 90’s. I used to frequent the shop with my dad and two brothers, and was always scouting for an opportunity to buy an import Super Famicom. In the end however, I never did buy one, but was always impressed with the shop’s prices, as CEX during its infancy was incredibly cheap, and had a veritable stash of bargain priced import SFC games. Just a shame that I couldn’t take advantage of its prices back then as I didn’t have a Super Famicom. In fact, I wouldn’t be buying a Nintendo console at all until after the UK version was released in April 1992, with the PAL SNES system costing roughly half the price of its Japanese counterpart. From a little known videogames store called Machine Shack (which later changed its name to Cyberville) that also permanently closed in the mid 90’s.

Anyway, the Whitfield Street branch of CEX was later turned into a Retro Store (that was manned by Ash Parkin and Graham Howden), before being refitted into the company headquarters. In any case, when I decided to see as to what the location looked like now, I was somewhat dismayed by the stark realisation that it didn’t exist anymore. Either I had gotten the address wrong, or CEX’s founding location really had closed – to be replaced by Scott’s Visas.

Why does everything, in the inevitable march of time, need to turn to sand? And speaking of time, did I ever state that it’s been 15 years since I graduated? I did? I should move on then. In which case, off I go to 32 Rathbone Place…

CEX Rathbone Place

For the longest time, 32 Rathbone Place was considered as being CEX’s flagship store, as well as a gaming mecca that attracted gamers from all across the UK. Indeed, even industry luminaries such as the renowned Hideo Kojima would visit the store during their stay in UK. This was partly because of the grey import scene, as the store held a prestigious reputation among gamers for carrying a vast array of Japanese and American games that, in most cases, would never be seeing an official UK release. This was also because of the lack of viable competitors, as whilst the likes of Shekhana Consoles, Raven Games, Advanced Console Entertainment, and Beyond Therapy also used to exist during the heyday of the grey import era, they weren’t as well established, or as well connected.

But that was the beauty of import gaming shops during the 90’s and early 00’s, when each retailer had its own unique character that was highly specific to that store. And like the gaming magazines of old (such as CVG), gaming shop assistants really were almost like mini-celebrities, as they possessed a huge amount of cultural capital that was highly contextual and associated with their job, largely due in part to them being prominent “taste-makers”, whilst their store would also act as a central hub that played host to its very own regional scene. In short, and prior to the internet gaining mainstream traction, visiting gaming shops really was a magical experience, and its staff were often viewed with a degree of reverential mysticism. You’d often wonder as to what the staff member had done to earn such a highly coveted position, and were secretly jealous of the fact that they were getting paid to play and talk about videogames that (in the those days) were not only highly sought after, but were also extremely expensive.

Now, and with Sony’s and Microsoft’s efforts in turning the pastime into a mainstream concern, together with publishers being encouraged to keep low prices, videogames can now readily be bought for £15 when on sale, and are available from a vast plethora of online stores that allow consumers to buy games either physically or digitally. And then there are the sheer wealth of journalistic outlets that help to further erode the rockstar status of store staff, as consumers now often know just as much, if not more than the staff who are serving them. And then there are online portals (such as forums like Neogaf, social media channels like Facebook, as well as news aggregation sites like Reddit) which host their very own tech-savvy communities, that further undermine the traditional status of the videogame store and its staff.

In short, why bother go to a store and pay over the odds for a videogame, when it can be ordered over the internet from the comfort of your own home (in your pajamas at 2 o’clock in the morning no less)? You save time and money in not venturing outside or using public transport. Plus, there is no guarantee that the store will even have the game that you are after. And let’s assume that the store has a game that you’ve never heard of, then a quick internet search will reveal far more about the title than what even the store assistant will be able to knowingly disclose.

So what authoritative role does the bricks and mortar videogame store play in 2018, when the internet has not only helped diminish its gatekeeping influence, but has also curbed the cult of celebrity associated with its staff? For if a videogames enthusiast wants to buy a game, then they can easily do so from places such as Tesco, Ebay, Amazon and (my favourite retailer) Base. At the same time, if they want to engage with like-minded gaming enthusiasts, then they can just as easily join an online portal. And if they have the temerity and desire to carve out a “rockstar” niche for themselves (as an authoritative brand and voice), then they can just as easily become a Youtuber, Podcaster, and / or Blogger. Even magazines (such as the “gaming bible” known as Edge) have lost their stature, are regarded as being has-beens, and are no longer as eminently respected in today’s digital age.

So if you can’t get a retail job working for a videogame store, or have difficulty securing an editorial slot for a journalistic publication, then who cares? Start your own company. Invest in yourself. And as many prominent entrepreneurs would readily assert: create your own noise and become your own brand.

Today, many of CEX’s competitors from the 90’s import grey market heyday have ceased to operate – with Shekhana Consoles, Raven Games, Advanced Console Entertainment, Game Focus, and Beyond Therapy all exiting the gaming retail scene. The company’s flagship store at 32 Rathbone Place has also reigned in its once-illustrious reputation as an indie games store – especially after Nintendo and Sony both clamped down on the selling of import software and hardware in 2003 and 2005, leaving CEX no choice but to standardise their in-store operations and start issuing franchise licenses in 2005. In fact, 2005 also signalled the end of 32 Rathbone Place as an independent gaming emporium as a whole, with the store now merely a husk of its former self, after having its unique individualistic character stripped amidst the company’s vast portfolio of stores.

I still remember walking into 32 Rathbone Place in 1993 and being surprised by the sight of a young Joe Best who had worked for my local indie games retailer (Machine Shack) mere months previously, and who was now sitting behind the counter as an employee. Back then, the shop wasn’t at all as well lit, and the counter was located at the very back as opposed to being situated on the right side of the store. I also didn’t know that the store had a basement then, and this would prove to be the case right up until my job interview with Frank(?) in 1998. With that being said, I also don’t think that I visited the store even 5 times in the intervening 5 years, but do distinctly recall seeing a copy of Street Fighter 2 for the Super Famicom for only £2 when I walked in on one occasion.

I’ve since been banned from 32 Rathbone Place. It’s alright. It’s something to be proud of at this point, and to be honest, I’ve done other things since. But when I was standing outside the store on Saturday 15th September, and was remembering moments from yesteryear (such as when I played ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’ by Nirvana at a volume that blew the in-store speakers, and which was clearly heard from across the other side of the street), I spotted a job advert for a Sales Assistant that was placed in the store window. Seeing it took my right back to when I remember seeing a similar job advert in 1998, which spurred me to walk inside the store and apply for the position.

I was so nervous back then, and didn’t have the confidence to speak to the Store Manager. So in order to hide my embarrassment, and to save face, I casually approached and crouched beside someone who I thought was a Sales Assistant, as they were putting away games on the store shelf. I remember asking him as to how one could apply for the vacancy, as there certainly wasn’t any pretense of authority conveyed by the person in question. Imagine my dismay however when after he had asked me a series of difficult knowledge-based questions, he opened up the interrogation by getting the whole store involved. Everybody knew that I was applying for the job at this point, although I still couldn’t quite work out as to who the Store Manager was. I just hoped that they wouldn’t find out, and that I would be spared further embarrassment. What I did know however was that it most probably wasn’t Dominic Andoh – even if his line of questioning was unrelentingly brutal at the time. Not at all surprising, given that 32 Rathbone Place had a reputation as being a haven for hardcore gamers, and the staffs’ round table line of questioning reflected this. There was no room for weakness, and you really had to know your stuff in order to work there.

So anyway, after “passing” the open-mic styled knowledge test (did I really pass it, or did the staff just end up feeling sorry for me? I can never tell), I was invited to the first interview with Frank(?) in the basement of 32 Rathbone Place – which I passed with flying colours. I was then invited to the second interview in Whitfield Street where I ended up being questioned by the very same person who I had originally asked about the vacancy, and who I thought had been a Sales Assistant at the time. That person in question turned out to be David Mullins, who was the Store Manager of 32 Rathbone Place then, and who is now the Managing Director. Talk about shooting myself in the foot.

I don’t remember much from that interview, save for the fact that I was incredibly nervous at the time, and that my head was lowered. I do however remember that I really wanted the job, as I had wanted to work in a videogames store since the age of 15. I was so scared that my voice cracked, and my nervousness was partly compounded by the fact that the person sitting across from me was someone who I had most likely made myself a fool in front of mere weeks previously. Luckily, David Mullins thought of me as being good enough for the position. Or at least he decided to take a chance on me. I’ll never know which. Either way, I will always be grateful for the chance that he took on me. And I remember taking it with both outstretched hands.

When I was leaving for university, and had handed in my resignation letter, I remember being incentivised into staying, and was offered the Store Manager position for my hard work and troubles. Not a bad little achievement for someone who was only 22 at the time. And yet, when I came back from university, I discovered that I wasn’t even good enough to be a Sign Holder. How can you be good enough to be a Store Manager to CEX’s flagship branch mere years previously, and not even be good enough to hold down a steady gig as a Sign Holder (despite holding down a degree and missing out on a First by two marks)? Either I was incompetent (which my resume and professional history quickly disproved), or the acting managers of the time weren’t doing their jobs properly.

Life consists of a series of chapters that are filled with momentous events and struggles. And yes, there really was a power struggle. And it’s only in those moments do you finally get to work out as to how many friends you truly have. And trust me, there weren’t many. In fact, there weren’t any at all to be honest. So even if I was good enough to be a Store Manager, as Life offered it to me on a silver platter afterwards, I didn’t really want it anymore.

What’s the point of being famous if, in during your darkest moments, you realise that you have no real friends? And with “friends” like the people who I associated with, who needs enemies?

I was unemployed for four years (aside from a few temp assignments on an ad-hoc basis). I promised myself that I’d rather be poor than to associate myself with my two-bit “friends”. Even if there were certain moments during that period that were incredibly testing, during which my little brother would always state “you don’t want to take responsibility”. At the same time however, and when I would recount my experience to others, they would say “you never had an opportunity, they were nasty to you”. In fact, when I was talking to someone outside a Towers of London concert, the gig-goer in question said “seems to me like you didn’t really lose much”.

In the end, I didn’t even ask for much from Life. Just a job. Just a bottom of the barrel Sign Holder job. And when people deem you to not even be cool enough to attend their “party”, not realising that you’re (probably) the main event, you kind of realise that their “party” sucks anyway.

I was watching the Spiderman trilogy by Sam Raimi the other day, with Spiderman 2 being one of my favourite movies of all time. When the first part of the trilogy was released in 2002, I definitely saw myself as identifying with Toby Maguire’s Peter Parker, as I watched him struggle as the nerdy kid who underwent various struggles whilst also trying to win over the popular high-school girl Mary Jane (portrayed by Kirsten Dunst). And during the time of the movie’s release, I also had my very own version of “MJ” that I was trying to win over.

In the end however, you realise that the only reason as to why Mary Jane even noticed Peter Parker is because he was bitten by a “super spider” that gave him super powers. And it was the manner in which he wielded these powers that ultimately led to Mary Jane falling for him (“With great power comes great responsibility”). Or maybe it was the power itself that ultimately proved to be the greatest aphrodisiac – irrespective of what the defenders of #MeToo would have you believe. In any case, I never was bitten by the metaphorical “super spider”, and nor did I want to be bitten by it. I also didn’t want the responsibility of looking out for my fake friends after they had turned their backs on me, only to then display their fickleness by suddenly deeming me as being “cool”.

However, and with all that being said, I did go back about 10 years ago, and try to “atone for my past mistakes”. I released my very own magazine – which received a lot of exposure, and gained a lot of traction, from a number of highly esteemed organisations. That also allowed me to have my “15 minutes of Andy Warhol styled fame”. But even with all of that, and despite all of the fame and exposure that I had already received via my own self-motivated endeavours, not to mention that I was actively investing in myself by studying various courses at an adult education college, as well as building an enviable reputation as a working professional, I still wasn’t deemed as being good enough for a Sales Assistant position at 32 Rathbone Place. Yeah, I wasn’t deemed as being good enough to even be a glorified shelf-stacker. Because according to the people that were associated with the store, that was the epitome of being “cool” – even if you’d never ever heard of them, and I was more famous than all of them (combined).

In 2018, all of the people and establishments that were once regarded as being the arbitrary regulators of what was once “cool” are now themselves deemed as being passe. With regards to CEX’s branch at 32 Rathbone Place, Martin Robinson (of Eurogamer) stated in 2012 that “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“.

But why stop there? The role of retail as a social hub is also undergoing a tremendous downturn in economic fortune, with HMV’s flagship store at 150 Oxford Street closing in 2014, and both Grainger Games closing, and CEX pulling out of the US market earlier this year.

And then there is the alarmingly despondent health of established gaming publications – such as Edge (once regarded as being THE “videogames bible”) which no longer even has a dedicated digital website presence that props up its brand. Its sales figures are also tanking, with the magazine having only sold an average of 18,082 issues in 2014 (11,735 print + 6,347 digital), compared to 26,626 in 2011 (24,443 print + 2,183 digital). The magazine also stopped publishing its circulation numbers in 2015, and aside from this not being a good sign of its overall health, and given the downward trajectory of its circulation figures, the below graph suggests that its overall circulation figure is at around 10,000 (print+ digital) in 2018.

In 2018, if the "videogames bible" only has a circulation of 10,000, does that not mean that it's essentially espousing the beliefs of a dead religion?

In 2018, if the “videogames bible” only has a circulation of 10,000, does that not mean that it’s essentially espousing the beliefs of a dead religion?

So anyway, when I spotted the job advert for a Sales Assistant position in the window of 32 Rathbone Place, it took me back to a time when I was someone who was also looking for a job in a videogames store. But in 1998, getting a job in a videogames store was infinitely harder than it is now. Not least because there now exist over 350 CEX stores in the UK alone, which results in there existing considerable more opportunities for someone to gain meaningful employment within the company. At the same time, and because of its franchising model, 32 Rathbone Place has had to yield its unique characteristic as a hardcore gaming denizen, and is now considered as being indistinguishable from any of CEX’s other portfolio of stores. In short, 32 Rathbone Place’s social influence and power has been decentralised – partly because of substantially increased competition coming from online retailers and portals, but also from CEX’s other stores that all offer the same products and service.

The market has also changed since 1998, and CEX has had to adapt to serve its changing customer base. In 1998, videogames were a niche pastime, and CEX used to primarily serve “hardcore” gamers. Sure, we also served families, but because of the company’s reputation for selling imports, we tended to mainly serve like-minded gamers. There was a certain amount of joy to be had in talking to customers whose primary interest was videogames. Now, and in 2018, CEX tends to attract chavs who want to offload their stolen mobile phones for drug money (check out ‘Worthless Prattle Makes The World Go Round‘ to get a more thorough description of what this entails). And then there are a sizeable amount of modern gamers who are obsessed with SJW identity politics (as proven by the toxic hivemind that is ResetEra). So with all that being said, one wonders as to whether that is the kind of consumer demographic one wants to be dealing with on a regular basis.

Another aspect of the job advert that popped out to me was how it outlined that the staff member would become a “star”. While this might have been the case in the 90’s and early 00’s, and even if I would love to see as to what the current generation of gamers are capable of, I fail to understand as to how the company can convincingly utilise the talents of its staff, when all it does is give them pre-ascribed roles as glorified shelf-stackers – a job that is practically the same across all retail sectors. And whilst there is nothing inherently wrong with working in retail, the company compounds this problem by doing very little to utilise the unique talents of its star players. Talents that would normally extend beyond the retail sector’s remit and scope. And by doing so, CEX could ensure that its staff are at least recognised for being so much more than what the company gives them credit for. After all, if I don’t know the names of any of the individuals who work in 32 Rathbone Place, let alone the two branches that are close to where I live, then they can’t really be that big as stars. Heck, I’m sure that I’m more famous than the majority of them, for the simple reason that I at least have this blog up.

At the same time, and given that the staff of 32 Rathbone Place might once have considered themselves as being “stars”, how many of them do you actually remember, and how many of their names endure throughout the ages? Are any of them remembered as being the equivalent of Jaz Rignall, Trip Hawkins et al? In fact, can you even remember anyone that used to work there 15 years ago, and if it wasn’t for me name-dropping a few individuals from the company’s halycon days, would you even care?

Fifteen years ago, and when I was applying for a job at 32 Rathbone Place, I remember putting forth a few ideas that I hoped would increase the branch and its staffs’ star appeal. Of course, and with so many established egos (with low consciousness) battling it out to shoot down my ideas, and with so little support forthcoming from those who I considered to be my “friends”, I had no choice but to eventually go it alone.

But what does any of this even matter anyway? These conflicts. These desires for greatness. In the end, it all gets turned to sand anyway.

Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes.

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