Buying games without going broke
There's nothing that gets me more excited than a truly epic game collection, like the one being sold earlier this year for $550,000 (pictured above). I’ve been a game collector myself for a long time now, my high school and college years spent scouring the local game stores and flea markets in search of rare titles to add to my collection. Hell, I remember a time I was actually ecstatic to be earning minimum wage at GameStop (a pitiful $6.75 an hour) simply for the employee discount and first pick of the used games coming in.
Thing is, people always look over my massive collection and assume I must be rich. Truthfully though, anyone can put a decent game collection together on the cheap, you just have to know where to look. That copy of Earthbound? $10 at a tag sale. The stack of NES games in the original boxes? $5 apiece at Goodwill.
Some scores from just last week
Anyhow, though I'm a bit hesitant to be giving away my secrets, I figured it might be fun to let you folks in on how to put together a decent game collection without spending a fortune. So here’s a rundown of the best and worst places to look for games, as well as some advice on getting the best price possible.
Independent game stores used to be the collector’s bread and butter, but have unfortunately become less of a factor in recent years. Not only has GameStop has managed to put half the small game retailers out of business, those that remain typically resort to selling their wares on eBay, meaning even if you have an independent shop in your neighborhood it can be hard to find a bargain.
I’m personally lucky enough to live within driving distance of Game Dude, a North Hollywood store (really, a warehouse) which may not even be lying when they call themselves the “largest video game store in the universe.” As mentioned, these kinds of shops know what they’re selling, so you’ll never find a truly outrageous bargain. That being said, you’ll typically save $5-$10 as compared to the eBay price, and the wide selection of games helps fill those obvious holes in your collection.
My biggest tip is to make friends with the owner of your local store, letting them know you’re a collector and seeing if they can give you a heads up on any special items that come through. My friend Seth runs a game store back in Massachusetts, and still gives me a ring whenever something weird pops up. (I recently got a call about a Japanese Sega Saturn with a stack of pornographic mahjongg games. I decided to pass.) Not to mention they’ll often be happy to kick you a discount if you’re a frequent customer. Support your local retailer!
There’s nothing in this world like a good flea market, a place where American consumerism is at its finest, stacks of crap as far as the eye can see. I will admit however, that it’s become harder and harder to find games at these markets, with savvy collectors quick to buy up every bargain in sight. In short, you’ll usually find heavy competition at any well-known flea market, meaning you’ll need to arrive early and move quickly if you hope to find a good deal.
The most valuable asset at a flea market is sharp eyes. There’s too many stalls for you to spend time closely examining each one, so you need to know the proper visual cues to see if the booth is worthy of closer inspection. Various wires and cords can often be the sign of electronic goodies in hiding, while a box of toys or comic books might give the hint of some video games to be found.
That being said, nothing gets my heart racing harder than a stack of grey plastic atop a vendor’s table, always hoping that Bubble Bobble 2 might be hiding under the sun-faded copy Lee Trevino's Fighting Golf. Definitely don't be afraid to haggle either, no price is set in stone!
The other cool thing about flea markets? There’s plenty of stuff to find other than just games. Though I sadly didn't have the $750 needed for this vintage 1940s Sega slot machine, it was still a cool sight to see!
Pawn Shops are one of the more unreliable sources for game collectors, as their limited shelf space means they tend to mostly stock big-ticket items they can move quickly. That being said, these shops regularly sell game consoles, and oftentimes are happy to move the games that came in with them at low, low prices, with no idea of their true value.
Perhaps the best thing about pawn shops is that they’re rarely frequented by other game collectors, meaning rare games may be sit there for years at a time just waiting for a collector to swoop by. Just the other day I came across a pawn shop which was still sitting on a stack of old PSone games, including a copy of the original Suikoden (avg. $35 on eBay). I grabbed the whole stack for a buck a game -- and probably could've haggled lower if I wasn't feeling lazy! Definitely a worthy bargain.
I must admit, I have a certain love of thrift stores, always excited to browse through the stacks of junk in search of a bargain. Stores like Goodwill and Salvation Army are constantly receiving donations, so it’s good to check back regularly to see if some clueless mom has donated her son’s rare Nintendo collection. Seriously, did anyone else’s parents ever use the “I’m going to donate all your videogames to Goodwill” threat? I didn’t know some people actually followed thought on that bluff!
There are usually three main sections to scope out for games. First is the glass counter up front where these stores typically hold valuables like jewelry. Often times thrift stores will keep any games or consoles that come in locked away in here. Back when the PSP was still $150, I found one in this case for twenty bucks (again, I can only picture an upset mother trading this one in!).
The second place to check are the media shelves, usually towards the back of the store. If you’re lucky you’ll find a specific section for games, though more often than not you’ll have to pay close attention to the CD / DVD spines to see if a game pops out at you. I’ve been known to find the occasional copy of Final Fantasy VII sandwiched between some old Indigo Girl singles, so take your time to carefully scan through. Heck, just last week I found a boxed copy of Dragon Warrior hiding in the VHS section, so be thorough!
Lastly, you may want to sweep through the toy and electronic sections before heading out the door, where you may be lucky enough to find N64 console hiding alongside a stack of games. Occasionally the store clerks will price their wares a bit ambitiously ($80 for an original Xbox with no controllers?), though more often than not you’ll get a great deal. That being said, don't attempt the haggle here, as the clerks rarely have the authority to change prices.
Tag Sales are perhaps the most swingy in terms of potential value. Ninety nine times out of a hundred then you’ll find nothing more than a box of grandma’s undergarments and the complete run of JAG on DVD. That one lucky find however, makes it all worth it.
Now, I must admit I’ve never been a dedicated tag saler, as it requires getting up early on weekends, days I typically reserve for recovering from the previous night’s bender. That being said, on the days I’ve managed to get up I’ve snagged some pretty incredible tag sale scores.
To maximize your chance of success, check your local Craigslist for tag sale listings the day before and make a game plan. As you’re driving to these locations, don’t forget to keep an eye out for signs pointing to other tag sales. Sometimes a quick drive-by is all you’ll need to establish that a sale isn’t worth your time (that Victorian-era television probably wasn’t used to play Mario), though if you see some wires sticking out of a box, or a stack of DVDs sitting on a table, grab a parking spot and find yourself some treasure.
GameStop is the devil, and the kind of place a real game collector shouldn’t even consider. Not only is it impossible to find a bargain, but the chain also has absolutely no respect for collectors. I almost got banned from a GameStop for trying to return a Zone of the Enders Limited Edition, after finding out that the artbook was heavily damaged. The manager was such a dick I actually had to go to another GameStop to handle the return. With customer service like that, it’s no wonder more gamers are going online to buy their games.
Perhaps the only reason to check GameStop is to see if any of the overpriced collector’s edition games have made their way to the clearance rack yet (c’mon Metal Gear Rising…), or to grab some pre-order bonus not found elsewhere. Otherwise, stay away!
Honestly, eBay should always be your last resort. It’s very easy to get sucked into the world’s largest auction house, making it hard to not bid on every game you see. The site is designed so perfectly, it’s almost impossible to stop oneself from clicking that beautiful ‘Buy it Now’ button. One minute you’re absent-mindedly browsing PlayStation games, the next you’re dropping upwards of $100 on rarities like Suikoden II and The Misadventures of Tron Bonne.
My name is Vito, and I have a problem...
That’s why the most important thing to remember is that eBay will always be there, so there’s no reason to rush out and buy up every item you need for your collection at top dollar. Hell, I recently dropped $70 on a copy of Tales of Destiny, only to find a copy for $5 just a month later. If there’s a particular item you know you can’t live without, by all means start bidding, rhough know that whatever deal you get on eBay will never compare to the thrill of finding a deal in the wild.
Anyhow, I hope this little guide serves as a good introduction to any of you interested in starting up your own game collection. As a warning, it can be quite an addicting little hobby, so don't feel like you need to rush out and buy everything in sight. Start off collecting for your favorite retro console, then branch out as your budget allows. If you're lucky, you'll soon have some epic scores of your own to share!