In the summer of 2002 I was 16 and wanted a job. I printed copies of my first CV and handed them into HMV, Game, Virgin— anywhere that sold stuff I was interested in buying, which back then meant video games. When I didn’t hear back, I lowered my standards and filled in application forms for Asda and the Co-Op. They didn’t like me either.
Eventually I landed a job in a grotty pub, washing dishes and filling little white ramekins with ketchup from giant industrial tanks. I calculated that after two months I’d have saved enough to buy a copy of Panzer Dragoon Saga, a rare Sega Saturn game that went for big money on eBay. On my first night in the pub I strapped on an apron and washed up a bucket of pig blood. I quit before I could afford disc one.
After an unprofitable summer I started sixth-form college. My form tutor read out a job ad placed by the manager of Gameplayer, a local chain of second-hand game and DVD shops. I tracked down a kid in the year above whose mate had worked there and drilled him for the scoop.
“It’s a fucking doss,” he said, smoking a roll-up in the subterranean area the students called Cancer Corner, one of sixth form’s many innovations. “We used to borrow change from the register and play the fruit machines all day.”
The Gameplayer office was in the basement of the main branch. It was damp and illuminated with a bald lightbulb hung from the ceiling.
“Your GCSEs are very impressive,” said the manager, scanning my CV. In fact they were grim, but he sounded sincere. Maybe he was used to employing teens who hadn’t even finished school.
He wanted someone to cover Sundays in the smallest of the three branches. It was lonely work, he explained, and the shift was long, with no breaks beyond lulls between customers. I expressed my enthusiasm, though I had no retail experience, or in fact any work experience at all beyond washing up buckets of pig blood and squeezing ketchup into little ramekins from giant industrial tanks.
The manager called the next day to say he’d decided not to hire me. I was young and green, he said, and the job could get a bit touch-and-go sometimes. I wasn’t sure what that meant.
A few weeks later he rang again. He’d caught the other kid nicking from the till. I started the following week.
My Gameplayer was on the edge of town between a petrol station and a Kwik Fit. The shopfront was a dusty graveyard of eclectic wares — a power drill, a digital camera, an iPod dock. A short flight of concrete steps led to the narrow door; I pushed it open and an electric buzzer yelped like a trodden-on dog.
It was the size of a corner shop. It smelled of dust and mould and something like dried milk. The carpet was frayed and stained. The walls were plated with plastic red shelves holding battered DVD and game cases with handwritten price stickers. In one corner a TV displayed security footage beneath a burnt-in timestamp. At either end of the shop stood the fruit machines the kid in Cancer Corner had mentioned, giant and ominous, like the monolith from 2001.
It wasn’t much like Game or HMV.
The manager invited me behind the counter. It was a strange feeling, like holding a steering wheel for the first time. There were shelves overflowing with homeless wires and third-party peripherals, stacks of games and DVDs waiting to be filed, an ancient cash register, a giant calculator, a small TV for testing consoles, handwritten notes taped to everything.
There was also a hammer. “I’ve never had cause to use it,” said the manager, “but you might see fit to wave it about a bit from time to time.”
In the concrete patio behind the shop towered piles of broken televisions and VCRs, twisted and rusted after years exposed to the elements, and concrete steps leading to the basement, which was always locked. Pinned to the door of the staff toilet was a sheet of printed paper that said:
WASH YOU’RE MITTS
THEY’ER COVERED IN SHITS
I got to know the manager. He was divorced, read the Daily Mail, played jazz drums, and had zero interest in video games. Over the course of the day he demonstrated my responsibilities: opening the shop and turning off the alarm; buying, filing and selling stock; answering the phone; writing receipts; stocking shelves; hoovering the carpet and wiping the counter; cashing up; setting the alarm and locking up. It seemed like a lot.
At the end of the day he gave me £30, enough for half a disc of Panzer Dragoon Saga, and that was the end of my training.
Gameplayer was less a shop and more a car boot sale that had got out of hand.
There was no lunch break. When I got hungry I locked up, taped a handwritten back-in-5 mins sign to the door, bought a tuna baguette from the petrol station and ate at the counter between serving customers.
We organised games by platform— Xbox, PlayStation, GameCube and so on— but that was as far as it went. When customers asked if we had a particular item in stock, there was no way of knowing unless you happened to have seen it around recently. When they asked us to contact them if the thing came in, I patiently took their number, then binned it. I had many of these polite deceptions; the ancient cash register had long since lost the ability to add anything up, for example, but it still beeped when you tapped its keys, so I tapped them to buy time while covertly doing sums on the calculator.
We had to use the calculator because there was no computer. We derived our prices from an enormous tome that dropped through the letterbox each month. When a customer wanted to sell a game, or we had to price it for sale, we looked it up in the price guide, like looking up a name in a telephone book. Because there was no receipt printer, we filled receipts out by hand, writing the date, listing the items bought or sold, and signing each one in triplicate. I signed so many of these receipts that my signature quickly congealed into the graceless scrawl that still adorns my credit cards today.
Every transaction was recorded by hand on a sheet of lined paper, then added or subtracted from the amount left in the till the previous day. The number you ended up with was supposed to be the amount in the till. Maths was my weakest school subject, and at the end of each day at Gameplayer I was invariably off by £10, or £50, or £100, sometimes under, sometimes over. In most retail jobs this would have been a matter of concern, but I suppose Gameplayer’s books were so thoroughly cooked already that the manager didn’t care.
When we bought a game or DVD from a customer— the shop dealt entirely in pre-owned stock— we removed the disc and manual from its case, put it into a numbered envelope, and used a price gun to affix the envelope number to the box. The envelope went into a filing cabinet, and the box was priced by hand and went on the shelf. When a customer took the case to the counter, we looked up the number on the box and retrieved the disc from the envelope in the cabinet. It was a system prone to error. For every 20 items customers tried to buy, one produced the wrong disc entirely: Teletubbies became Grand Theft Auto, Medal of Honor became Yogalosophy on DVD, and everything else mostly became The Fast and the Furious.
Eventually the manager made us include our initials on each filing sticker so we could trace who’d misfiled an item. I ended up with the highest score. Once I had to close the shop because I couldn’t unlock the filing cabinet and therefore couldn’t get to any of the stock; I grasped at the key until my fingers were sore, but the damn thing wouldn’t turn. The manager arrived in his van and turned the key in one effortless twist. “You’re one of life’s artists, James,” he told me.
The shop’s laissez-faire attitude had its advantages. Unlike my friends who worked in high street chains, we had no corporate brand to adhere to, very little management, and few rules. I could choose the music I played on the stereo, for example, and wear my own clothes; and I wasn’t on commission, so I didn’t have to upsell or annoy people. But it meant there was nothing to protect us from the customers, either.
I grew up in a detached house with a piano and an Aga. At school, kids picked on me for being posh, by which they meant I was still common enough to say “choon” but not enough to say “innit”. Years later I lived in Tokyo. The culture shock there was nothing compared to being 16 years old and dealing with really poor people for the first time.
The big problem was that we bought things, and therefore were a means of income. The manager taught us to pick through the wares with a sceptical eye; we were to buy no discs with scratches or dings, nothing without a case, nothing we already had multiple copies of. But many of the customers owed someone money, or were on drugs or whatever, and relied on us to save their kneecaps. During my first day a man tried to sell me a broken rollerskate and a pair of used AA batteries. When I told him we didn’t buy these things he wept.
Sometimes when we refused to buy stuff – because it was in bad condition, or obviously stolen, or belonged in a different shop entirely – these desperate people turned ugly.
“What time do you close?” asked one man, after I said I wasn’t interested in buying his Roy Chubby Brown VHS tapes.
“Six,” I told him.
“I’ll be waiting for you then,” he said. “Outside.”
There was never anyone waiting for me at six. The threat alone did the work.
The other problem was the fruit machines. They obsessed people. Everyone had a method, a trick, a secret technique they knew guaranteed the jackpot. They would try to convince me of this when they begged for money from the till, promised to split the takings, were outraged and scandalised when I refused. Whenever the shop was broken into, it was the fruit machines the thieves went for, not the cash register or filing cabinet full of games. The fruit machines were the only things in the world.
One dusty afternoon I took a ten-pence coin from the till and dropped it into one of the machines, curious to understand what it was that so fascinated people. It lit up and made noises. I pressed a button. Something flashed. I pressed another button. Another sound played and the lights turned off. I had no idea what had happened. It was the last time I ever played a fruit machine.
I once watched a woman drop coins into one of the machines for an hour. She had with her a young girl who pulled her hand and said mummy, mummy, can we go now, we’ve been here ages. Sometimes the woman said yeah yeah, we’ll go in a minute, but mostly she didn’t reply at all. When I could watch no more of this I went into the back room and put my hand on the switch that fed power to the machines. When the woman reached into her bag for another fistful of coins I cut the power. Her money rattled in the coin return.
“Sorry,” I said. “Out of order.”
She blinked as if the lights had come on in the cinema, took her little girl’s hand and left.
“Oh, but the worst ones were the middle classes,” my friend Tom told me ten years later. Tom and I have been friends since school; I got him a job in another Gameplayer branch shortly after I started. “If you didn’t want to buy a scratched DVD off a working-class guy, he’d just call you a dickhead and leave,” he said. “But the middle-class ones would pick a fight and hang around for hours, saying ‘I know my rights. Let me speak to your manager.’”
I recalled that the middle-class customers always looked sort of lost, like they’d stumbled into the service tunnels of a theme park. I recalled a woman who arrived with her teenage son to buy a pre-owned Xbox. He picked out a few games and she interrogated me at length about each one. Was it violent? Did it have sex, or swearing? The kid disappointedly returned Gears of War and Call of Duty to the shelves. Finally they agreed on some bloodless entertainment, bought the console and left.
The woman returned a couple of hours later. “I think I made it quite clear that I didn’t want my son exposed to inappropriate material,” she said. She placed a paper slipcase onto the counter. “I’d like to speak to your manager at once, please.”
I examined the slipcase. It contained a demo disc packaged with the Xbox. One of the games previewed was Conker’s Bad Fur Day, a game about a foul-mouthed cartoon squirrel who battles giant turds.
The kid waited in the back of a car outside. He looked stricken.
Gameplayer changed my brain. It drew a line down the centre of the universe: the space behind the counter, and everything else.
The electronic beeper on the front door had a Pavlovian effect. When it triggered, signalling the arrival of a customer, I tensed like an animal about to receive an electric shock in a science experiment. After a day at work, as I drifted to sleep, I dreamt feverishly of customers coming into my bedroom and trying to sell me PS2 games.
One day, after I’d closed the shop, I couldn’t find my wallet. Finally I checked the CCTV. There, on the screen, a man hitched himself onto the counter, fished around, grabbed my wallet and sauntered off while I stacked shelves like an idiot.
The theft itself wasn’t as bad as the psychic violation. The man had breached an impassable boundary. The counter was all that stood between me and anarchy. He had proven that the counter wasn’t real.
On my first day alone in the shop a gaunt old man in an anorak and baseball cap entered carrying a Chinese takeaway and some sort of animal skull.
“All right?” I said. In another shop I might have said “Can I help you?”, but this was Gameplayer and “All right” was the preferred greeting.
The man’s crooked yellow teeth chewed a roll-up. “Don’t get fucking fresh with me, sunshine.” He turned a key beneath the Xbox shelving, opened a hidden door and disappeared upstairs.
That’s how I met Frank.
“The thing about Frank,” said the manager, “is that he’s a bit sad. But he’s all right. Just don’t get on his bad side. He holds grudges for a long time.”
Frank lived in the flat above the shop and kept an eye on the CCTV. I imagined him chain-smoking and eating his Chinese takeaways beneath a giant bank of television screens. It was an effective Panopticon: there was no way of knowing when Frank was watching and when he wasn’t, so you had to assume he was watching all the time.
“James,” Frank would say, over the phone, “you’re not being paid to sit on your fat arse. Do some of that filing.”
“I’m eating my lunch at the moment, Frank,” I’d tell him.
“You could do with a bit less lunch, mate.” Click.
He was no help as a security guard. The shop was regularly menaced by a gang of juvenile delinquents led by a boy named Jake. He looked how bullies are supposed to look: squat and plump, with tiny black eyes like the bluebottles that littered the shop window. He and his gang stole stuff, threw stuff, called me names, told me to get a haircut. I tried ignoring them, reasoning with them, shouting at them, bargaining, threatening; nothing worked. They knew I was powerless. It was all part of the fun.
I called the police often, but never had much to say beyond “there are some obnoxious kids in here, can you come and arrest them?” which sounded pretty weak when it came to the crunch. There were a lot of visits from community support officers who never seemed to do anything but hand out security stickers, and anyway arrived hours or days after the menacing had concluded. Eventually the police gave us a little notebook to write incidents down in. I don’t know what happened to the notebook, but I doubt it ever got read out in a courtroom.
Once Jake threw a bottle of Fanta across the shop in the presence of a security guard who’d popped in from Poundland to browse the DVDs. The security guard sat on him until the police turned up. When they reviewed the CCTV, they said the footage moved too fast to show the bottle legibly and that it might not stand up in court. There was also some debate to be had, they said, about whether the security guard’s decision to sit on Jake had been an appropriate response.
My time with Jake was the only time in my life I have ever fantasised about having a gun. It wasn’t that I actually wanted to shoot the kid; I just wanted the bargaining chip. “As you can see, Jake,” I would explain, holding the gun, “I have here a gun that can shoot and kill you. You have to listen to me now, and do what I say, or else I will shoot you with this gun.” I would point the gun at him in demonstration. Jake and his gang would leave the shop and never return, afraid of being shot and killed by a bullet from my gun.
Once, after I’d ejected Jake and his friends and slammed the door before he could jam a pudgy leg back into the shop, Frank stormed downstairs.
“Next time you throw one of your fucking wobblers,” he said, “don’t slam the fucking door. My mirror fell off the mantelpiece and smashed!”
After he’d stomped back upstairs, a woman looked at me aghast and said: “Is that your boss?”
“No,” I said. “He just lives here.”
One afternoon, not long after I’d started, the manager called to explain something about money. Through a complex series of events, he said, there had been more cash left in the till than normal, but he didn’t know how much. Frank was away, so it was therefore up to me to remove the excess cash, however much it was, put it in an envelope and slide it under his secret door.
I opened the till and counted the money. It came to about £600.
The fruit machine lights danced.
With that much I could buy all four discs of Panzer Dragoon Saga in one swoop.
I deserved that money. The job was hard. Jake kept throwing Flamin’ Hot Monster Munch at me.
Now, of course, I recall why the manager had hired me in the first place: he’d busted the previous kid for stealing. This was a trap. That didn’t occur to me at the time, so when I put the money back in the till it was for the right reason.
One quiet afternoon a Swedish man arrived and said he’d come to see Frank. He was well-mannered and smelled clean; I couldn’t imagine him and Frank being friends. Nonetheless Frank came down to greet him and they embraced. I’d never seen him in such a good mood. Or any good mood.
Over the course of the day more men and women arrived from far-flung places: Spain, Switzerland, Norway, Turkey, France. Frank embraced them each in turn. Late in the afternoon they descended from his flat carrying an ornate staff, a Virgin Mary, the animal skull I’d seen earlier, some sort of orb and a Tesco bag full of robes. They trooped sombrely behind the counter out of the back door, past the stacks of broken TV sets and down the cement steps to the basement.
The shop was dead that afternoon. Dust motes hung in the air like someone had nailed them there.
I put on a video of Die Hard 2.
The Swedish guy came upstairs and asked me to turn the volume down. “We require silence,” he said, “for the procedure.”
I turned the TV off. He thanked me graciously and went back downstairs.
I chewed a pen lid and read the women-seeking-women personals in the Friday Ad.
When I heard it I taped the back-in-5-mins sign to the door, locked up, went into the back room and pressed my ear to the carpet.
It wasn’t my imagination. Frank and his followers were chanting.
After I’d worked at Gameplayer for about a year, the manager decided to relocate the branch nearer the town centre. This meant Frank had to move, too. When the day came his followers went up and down the stairs carrying boxes. The Virgin Mary went past in a crate. I asked if they needed a hand. The Swede told me it was kind of me to offer but that they were just fine.
Once they’d loaded everything into the van Frank came into the shop with a classical guitar. “Know anyone who can play this?” he asked me.
I said I could, a bit.
“I bought it in a flea market in Barcelona,” said Frank. “Years and years ago, that was. I was a young man. There was a girl. Nice little thing. The guitar, I mean. Keeps its tune. There’s no room for it in the van, so it’s going on the skip if you don’t want it.”
I picked it up and strummed a chord. It smelled of old smoke and Chinese takeaways.
“Thanks, Frank,” I said.
He dropped his keys on the counter and left.
I scrubbed the guitar with one of the old toothbrushes we kept for cleaning consoles and gave it a polish with the Mr Sheen we used on the counter. I took it with me when I went Interrailing the next summer, and it leans on the wall next to me as I write this, in a little flat in Nagano. It keeps its tune.
A year after he gave it to me I heard Frank had died.
After the van drove off I looked up at the CCTV camera, no longer connected to anything, and conspicuously adjusted my underwear. I put on The Dark Side of the Moon and cranked the amp until the shelves rattled. Then I called Rob, who worked Saturdays, and told him I had Frank’s keys. He sped over in his Nissan Micra.
Frank’s flat was bigger than I’d imagined. The wallpaper was yellowed with cigarette smoke; the carpet crunched underfoot in the way carpet isn’t supposed to. There was a sealed-up fireplace, and a toothbrush somewhere, a chipped mug. It reeked.
Strangest of all was looking back down from the top of the stairs to the shop below, with its awful shelves of Need for Speed and Medal of Honor. It was impossible to reconcile the two worlds, like peering into a really crap Narnia.
“Let’s look in the basement,” said Rob.
Rob flicked a switch. A bald lightbulb buzzed and sparked and illuminated a graveyard of apparatus: an old Sega display cabinet, mountain bikes, another sealed-up fireplace, filled with cigarette butts. There was an antique, throne-like chair, an old electric heater and a staircase that led to nothing but low ceiling. Cobwebbed machinery stood beneath an old sign that said something about tools and pulleys. This had been some sort of workshop, a long time ago.
Still visible beneath the thin patches of paint Frank had applied to the walls were crude runic symbols. On the floor, beneath the soot, was something like a pentagram. I think there might have been a stain, too, but Rob says he doesn’t remember that.
The new Gameplayer was on a busy shopping street nearer the town centre. It would be a stretch to call it classy, but there was a definite sense that we were going up in the world. The manager paid me and Rob to cart stock back and forth in the Micra, and we spent a few days setting up the shop, listening to Goldfrapp and making executive decisions about how to position the shelves. Customers banged on the door, keen to sell us broken microwaves or stolen golf clubs; we sent them on their way. It was, by Gameplayer standards, a happy time.
The new location brought with it a new cast of characters. There was a grotesquely obese man with a smell so powerful it peeled the price stickers from their boxes. He always had a bicycle with him; I wondered why he was so fat when he cycled everywhere, or how he even got on the bike at all, until Tom pointed out that he merely used it as a crutch. According to Rob, who was studying computer science, the man once asked him how to erase a hard drive. I mean really scrub it.
There was a Turkish man desperate to buy pornography, and wasn’t ashamed to say so. Gameplayer occasionally stocked softcore DVDs with titles like Sex Truck and British Boob Brigade, but the guy didn’t have a DVD player, so I picked out erotic thrillers on VHS for him.
One guy used to buy about a hundred DVDs at a time, rip them to a hard drive, then sell them back to us the next day, boasting of his cunning. This created huge amounts of filing, so we hated him. Another man used to open a suitcase revealing dozens of copies of the same game or movie, still in their shrinkwrap. The suitcase was lined with foil, which, he explained proudly, fooled the mall security sensors. I refused to buy obviously stolen goods, though this was less on moral or legal grounds and more because it gave me an excuse to avoid filing.
One snotty, spotty kid, maybe 15 years old, used to ask for odd jobs. He wasn’t looking for money; I think he just wanted to be our mate. He was so persistent that one day I got him to alphabetise the DVD section, which got him off my back for an afternoon. After that he got creepy. He wanted to come behind the counter, hang out, choose CDs to play on the hifi. He followed me when I went to buy lunch and stalked me round the Co-Op; I pointed him out to the security guard and never heard from the kid again. Maybe he’s still there, stacking tins of tomato soup.
Once a guy showed up five minutes before closing, carrying a pizza from Pizza Hut. He picked out a DVD and got stuck behind a customer in the queue. He became so impatient he tossed the pizza on the floor and stormed out. That same day, Jake and his mates had pelted the counter with eggs. I wrote in my teenage diary: “Soon I will have all the ingredients for a pizza Florentine.”
There was a man in an electric wheelchair who used to hang around for an hour or two at a time. He’d summon me to hand him a DVD from the higher shelves, consider it for several minutes, then call me back to hand him another one. Though I think he had full use of his arms and hands, he seemed to have difficulty controlling his wheelchair, and would drive into shelving units or display cabinets. “Hard times, hard times,” he’d mutter to himself, attempting the doorway. “You get through ‘em. You get through ‘em.”
There was also a young man named Freedom, the nephew of a celebrity who lived locally. He had anger problems, so we had to ban Freedom.
One damp winter morning I opened the shop and the carpet squelched underfoot. It had rained hard that night and we’d sprung a leak. Rainwater spilled down the shelves; the ceiling tiles bulged and blistered. A couple of them had burst and water was cascading into the shop. I didn’t dare turn the power on— water was running over the trip switch— so the whole shop was in swampy darkness. While I made panicky phone calls, customers waded in and browsed undeterred. At the time I interpreted this as stupidity, but in retrospect perhaps it was a sort of kindness; loyalty, even.
On a nearby sidestreet was a smaller second-hand game shop called Games Hoarder. Its owner, Barry, dropped in sometimes to rock on his heels and ask casual questions like “So how much do you lads make on a decent Saturday, then?” He gave me a greasy, uneasy feeling, and it seemed safest not to answer.
Come summer I spent my savings on the Interrail ticket. Around Prague Rob emailed me to say the local paper had printed an article of interest.
GAME ON FOR LOCAL ENTREPRENEUR
Everyone dreams of making a career from their hobby.
But video gamer Barry Stoke knew opening a shop meant working hard, not sitting around playing Xbox all day.
Barry saw an opening in the market while he was working for the high street franchise Game.
He said: “I soon cottoned onto the fact that there is lots of demand for used games.
“That was when I came up with my idea for a shop.”
That was a year and a half ago and Barry’s gambit has paid off.
His shop, Game Hoarder, is now the only used games shop in the city and is thriving.
It was the last bit that annoyed me. I wrote a letter to the same paper.
Your article of May 20 stated that Game Hoarder is “the only used games shop in the city”.
Gameplayer, not two minutes’ walk from Game Hoarder, is one of a chain of shops based in the city dealing in second-hand games. It has been around almost a decade.
Blockbuster opposite also buys and sells games, as do Game, Gametrader and Gamestation in the town centre.
The Game Hoarder premises were previously occupied by another used game shop, Games Zone.
Mr Stoke deserves credit for his success, but he’s far from the only gun in town.
I didn’t mean to attack Barry. Not exactly. He hadn’t written the article, and the inaccuracies could have just as easily have come from sloppy journalism. Instead I wrote out of a strange loyalty to the horrible shop that had employed me for two years, and an unfailing urge to correct the trivial mistakes of others, a habit I cultivate as it makes me attractive to women.
Weeks passed. I thought I’d got away with it. Then a young woman about my age came in and said she’d just started as the Sunday girl at Game Hoarder. I saw her as a kindred spirit, and we swapped stories. I mentioned that I had written a letter to the paper about the shops.
She laughed. “Oh, that was you, was it?” she said. “Barry wasn’t happy about that.”
Barry arrived a few hours later. “Was it you who wrote that letter full of shit about me?” he said. He was wearing sunglasses.
“Well, it’s not a secret,” I said. “It had my name on it.”
“You tosser,” he said. “I always thought we had a friendly rivalry.”
He had with him a thin woman who he introduced as his lawyer. “You’ll be hearing from her soon,” he said.
I said: “But the article was full of bollocks.”
“There are children in here,” said the lawyer. “It’s illegal to swear in the presence of children.”
Shortly after the newspaper printed another letter.
GAME, SET AND MATCH FOR GAMES HOARDER
A few weeks ago, I was featured in an article about my used game business, Games Hoarder.
This article prompted a letter criticising me and my business.
In fact, the writer of this letter was “A James Duffy”, who is actually 18-year-old James Duffy, who works weekends for Gameplayer, which just so happens to be my closest competitor.
Game Hoarder’s reputation is spotless. It is recommended by High Street shops, but only those which do not need to resort to filthy tricks and which remain professional in this competitive industry.
To them, I say thank you.
We pinned it up in the back room below the list of banned customers. A year later Games Hoarder went out of business. Barry offered to sell to the manager, but he wasn’t interested.
One evening near the end of my time at Gameplayer, about a minute before closing time, a man ran into the shop with a bulging rucksack and set it on the counter. This was a sign that someone was about to create a lot of work.
“Got a PS2 for sale,” he said.
I can’t remember why I declined. Maybe we already had a stack of unsold PS2s. Maybe I had too many things to do before I went home that day. Maybe there wasn’t enough cash left in the till. Maybe I’d just had a bad day and I didn’t like the guy’s attitude.
“Mate,” he said. “It works, I swear to you.”
I told him that I’m sure it did work, but that I couldn’t buy it that day, and to come back tomorrow.
“Why won’t you just fuckin’ buy it?”
Come back tomorrow, I said.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “It says on the front of the shop that you buy consoles.”
I told him we did, but not right now, and to come back tomorrow.
“You’re making a big mistake,” he said.
After he’d left I followed him to the front door, spun the OPEN sign to CLOSED and began the fiddly process of locking the two glass doors. On the street, the man got in a car and had an animated argument with the woman behind the steering wheel, with the door open. After a moment he jumped out of the car and ran up to the doors.
“I’ll fucking cut you, you fucking cunt,” he said. Something flashed in his hand. Perhaps it was his car key. “I’ll fucking cut you.” Perhaps it wasn’t. “You’re fucking dead mate.”
He slammed on the door. It rattled and shuddered. Fucking hell, I thought, fiddling frantically with the lock, this is exactly like that bit in Jurassic Park with the raptors in the kitchen. I leant back with all my weight, which admittedly is a bit more weight than is really healthy but possibly saved my life in the short term, slid the lock home, ran back to the counter, more or less dove over it and dialled 999. The man banged and kicked on the doors, shouted I’ll see you tomorrow mate, got in the car and sped off. I never saw him again.
After I’d worked at Gameplayer for three years I left my hometown to go to university. Tom quit a couple of years after me and moved to London. Rob still works in the shop, and in fact took over the chain when the manager retired; he now manages all three Gameplayer branches, and has a wife and three little girls.
Years after I left, I was in town on my way to the station and needed to take a leak. I was passing Gameplayer, so I popped in to take advantage of the facilities. There was a new guy behind the counter. As I approached I saw him tense up in the way I used to, not knowing if I was friend or foe.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m James.” I vainly imagined he might have heard of me, that I had become some legend in the years since, but the name didn’t seem to light him up, so I went on: “I used to work here, a few years ago.”
“OK,” he said.
“How’s it been today?” I asked. “Any trouble?”
He shrugged. “Quiet, I guess.”
I cut to the chase. “Well,” I said, “if it’s OK with you I’m just gonna pop in the back and use the toilet.” I lifted the counter door.
He stood up. “Uh… I don’t think I can let you do that.”
In retrospect this was a strange thing to expect to be all right. But I’d let customers use the staff toilet from time to time, particularly if they were parents with little kids. But I conceded defeat and left. I’d become one of the cattle.
After I started writing this I visited my hometown again to retrace my steps.
The area around the first branch I worked in had changed. It wasn’t exactly upmarket, but there was a hip-looking burger joint, and the petrol station where I once bought tuna sandwiches was now owned by Marks and Spencer and sold hummus and wraps.
It took me a moment to recognise Gameplayer. It had become an Asian food store. The basement, once the site of Frank’s mysterious rituals, had a framed Betty Boop poster in the window; from the street it looked like a nice flat. Inside the shop the stained red carpet was now classy black tiling, and the shelves were full of instant noodles and soy sauce.
It was a nice shop. Someone had spent money on it.
I bought some banana Pocky and ate it as I walked to the other branch. It hadn’t changed much on the outside, but inside were small improvements. The counter had been refurbished and extended, making the place look even more fortified. The shelves were organised by genre and title; I later learnt the old shelving had finally split and collapsed on someone. There was a modest selection of retro games in a display cabinet, complete with a limited-edition Pikachu Nintendo 64 running on a little TV set. There had been a few old cartridges knocking about in my day, but back then you couldn’t give them away; retro hadn’t been invented yet. There were no fruit machines.
The guy behind the counter was named Mike. He’d been there ten years. “I’ve heard about you,” said Mike. “Rob was telling me about Frank just yesterday, and his weird cult. Is it true there were runes on the walls?”
I asked him how the business was going.
“Actually,” he said, “it’s been a bit tough for the last year or two. Things are slowing down.” The manager had opened a new branch in a different town a couple of years prior, he explained. It had failed. It was in a more upmarket location; “posh and middle class,” in Mike’s words. I’d been to the town once with my mother, years earlier. She bought a chef’s pad for the Aga.
“Everyone round there buys their stuff new off Amazon, so they don’t need Gameplayer,” said Mike. “Whereas a lot of the customers here don’t really know what the internet is. Same with selling. Sometimes the customers in the new shop would want to sell stuff, but we’d offer them £3 or whatever and they’d go ‘oh, well, I won’t bother then’. But the guys who in come in here, you know, £3 keeps the lights on for another day.”
A woman came in and asked if we had a copy of Frozen for her granddaughter. Mike suggested she try the Sainsbury’s around the corner. He had an easy repartee with customers, chatting, making jokes. I wondered if I’d been that good at it.
“I feel sorry for a lot of them,” he said. “I think lots of people who come in here are just lonely. They want someone to talk to. I don’t mind. I’ve never got used to the smell, though. Some of these guys, Jesus, you wonder if they’ve had their water supply cut off.”
“Do you get much aggro these days?” I asked.
“Someone punched me once. I didn’t report it. He was ill. I still see the bloke wandering around, muttering to himself.” He told me about another guy who, following an altercation, smashed the shop window. The reinforced glass shattered his hand and Mike called an ambulance.
Clearly the customers weren’t all, bad, though. “I met three of my girlfriends here,” Mike said. “They just came in and started talking to me. They liked games and so did I, so we just hit it off.”
This was unthinkable. Mike was sleeping with the enemy.
He gave me a couple of games to retrieve from the filing cabinets while he dealt with some more customers. The cabinets hadn’t changed, though the stickers on them had worn away. One of the games was misfiled. I added it to the pile in the back room.
When we had another quiet moment I asked him about the retro cabinet.
“Retro stuff is big business these days. We put most of it on eBay,” he said. “You’d be surprised at what turns up. A while ago I went to see someone’s massive collection, someone who’d died and whose mum was trying to get rid of it all, and there were some real gems in there.”
“Like what?” I asked.
He listed a few cult classics, the likes of which I had never seen cross the shop counter: The Secret of Mana, Majora’s Mask, Paper Mario, Klonoa. “And Panzer Dragoon Saga,” he said.
There were more changes, small lurches towards professionalism. There were branded bags, a membership scheme, and — incredibly — staff uniforms, though apparently no one really bothered with those. Mike showed me a Gameplayer hoodie hanging in the back room. “I go jogging in mine,” he said.
The biggest change was invisible: an internet connection. On the staff PC I minimised Spotify, logged into Facebook, browsed to the oldest photo in my gallery and set it as the desktop background for Rob to find.