If you’re in the market for retro video games these days, there is no shortage of options. In addition to online outlets such as eBay, Amazon, and Craigslist, there are thrift stores, pawn shops, flea markets, and swap meets where potential treasures may be found. With the retro game market exploding in recent years, it has grown easier to find games and merchandise you are interested in (albeit at increasingly higher prices). Still, there is one resource that isn’t often mentioned when it comes to looking for games: antique shops.
Bardley, you might be saying, I am a hip young person with a life on the go. Antiques are old and boring, yo.
If you don’t really know what might be found in an antique shop or what one even looks like, you might be surprised. I occasionally visit antique shops and often come away with cool stuff, much of it video game related. The prices can be pretty good, too, especially for newer stuff that the owners don’t pay much mind to. So, for this blog, I want to walk you through what to expect should you decide to take part in the wonderful world of antiques.
‘Antique’ is a very loose term.
When you think of an antique, you often think of things like old furniture and paintings and whatnot, stuff that is 100+ years old that used to belong to someone’s great-great-great grandparents. In reality, ‘antique’ means whatever the seller wants it to mean. I’ve been to tons of antique shops that have fairly new DVD’s, toys that are only a few years old, and merchandise for current celebrities. Finding a Justin Beiber plastic microphone right next to a belt buckle from the Civil War is a weird, confusing experience.
Many antique shops are more like flea markets than high-end stores. Most stuff looks like it has been sitting up in someone’s attic for years, or like someone needed to clear out their garage and slapped a price tag on it. So, many shops are not structured well, with stuff crammed together to make use of the most space. But, this makes it more interesting, as going through an antique shop is often like a treasure hunt. With so much stuff crammed into small spaces, there is bound to be something good hiding at the bottom.
Be prepared to see a lot of the same.
Since antique shops have mostly, well, antiques, you are bound to come across the same kind of stuff in multiple shops. As I mentioned before, furniture is a big part of it, with most stores crammed with ancient bed frames, tables, mirrors, and display cases so heavy you wonder how or why someone hauled them up a rickety staircase. Many of the nicer antique shops are crammed full of glassware, an area that I find pretty boring. Seriously, some stores and stalls are absolutely packed with bowls and glasses and whatnot, with strict signs ordering no horseplay or young children in the area. I don’t know why a plain glass bowl would cost over a hundred bucks, but that’s not my area of expertise.
Then, there are the junkier antique shops, which are my favorite because you are more likely to find newer, more interesting stuff. Most of these types of shops that I’ve been to are located in East Tennessee, so it might be a regional thing. You’re also bound to come across similar items at these places as well, albeit in junkier condition. Many of these shops are located in converted barns or garages, with a lot of stuff unprotected from the elements. You’ll find a lot of rusted farming tools, cigarette and alcohol ads, and metal drink/food signs in these kinds of stores. And Looney Tunes glasses. So many Looney Tunes glasses. Seriously, I think I have seen at least one commemorative Looney Tunes glass in every single antique shop I've ever been in. Those things are a plague. And, wow, these shops can be junky. Here, stuff is often still covered in dirt and grime and everything has a funky, indefinable smell. But, these places often have hidden treasures; you just have to clean them up a bit.
Encounter your history.
If I were to define an antique shop, I would probably call it a museum, except where you can touch pretty much everything. Seriously, stepping into most antique shops is like opening up a time capsule. You’ll find lots of neat local history, with many campaign signs and buttons for elections races for all different positions from decades ago or local newspapers covering historical events of local and national importance. There will often be signs and ads for diners and shops that shut down many, many years ago and of regional sodas that no longer exist.
Many antique shops also have a lot of cool military history that you can actually buy. Many places, especially in the South, have relics from the Civil War, including bullets, belt buckles, and random pieces of metal dug out of nearby battlefields. Some of the nicer stores I’ve been to have original photographs from the war or regimental flags and banners framed on the wall, tattered and torn after years of battle and wear. Then, you sometimes might find officers’ uniforms and sabers, though there is a big market of counterfeit Civil War items, so be on the lookout.
I’ve come across many, many items from World War II, many of which were spoils of war taken home by returning GIs. I’ve seen a German officer’s tanned helmet from North Africa, personal effects of German and Japanese soldiers, and flags flown over military outposts in Germany and the South Pacific. One store I went to had an original copy of Mein Kampf. Though all of this stuff can be astronomically expensive and I have no interest in owning this kind of stuff, I love thinking about the history of it all. How on earth did a German officer’s ceremonial sword from World War I end up in a barn in East Tennessee one hundred years later? It is amazing to think about that kind of journey.
Have an open mind.
After going on and on about why I like antique places, it’s time to prepare for the actual hunt. In my experience, no two antique places are the same, even if one is across the street from another. Some might specialize in different kinds of collections, while others are a mish mash of anything you can think of. While many have old, old furniture and glassware as I mentioned before, some might surprise you. I went to one antique shop out West that was simply a section of a woman’s house turned into a store. As it turns out, her deceased husband had been a huge Star Wars fan over many years and had left a sizeable collection that she was selling. Antique malls usually have stalls separated by types of merchandise; I’ve seen some stalls filled with traditionally nerdy stuff like action figures, board games, and comics.
While it is helpful to have something in mind that you're looking for, you’ll probably find something interesting that you might not have considered or thought about before. I usually keep my eyes peeled for video game related items, but have come across pretty neat or crazy stuff I eventually purchased.
Do I have to get there early?
With a lot of thrift stores and flea markets, it is usually a good idea to get there as the doors open for the day to ensure that any newly displayed items of interest aren’t grabbed by another eager hunter. With antique shops? Not so much. At most shops, there usually won’t be more than maybe 10-15 people in the store at one time. Plus, most customers are retirement age or older, most likely with different interests and searches than the 18-35 crowd.
I’ve returned to a handful of antique places over the years and seen many of the memorable items still there. But, that doesn’t guarantee that something you’re interested in will still be there. If you’re undecided about something, you might want to get it. I remember one place in particular had a briefcase filled with Intellivision games with the controller inserts, but passed it up because I didn’t have the system to play them. Went back a year or so later and it was gone.
What about the owners?
In your mind, you might be picturing the owners of these shops as territorial, hawkish folks, eyeing you carefully to make sure you don’t touch anything, hostile to your very presence. But, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most owners are all too happy to have your business and are ready and willing to give you a hand if you have any questions. Most owners are older folks and can be really sweet. I’ve been in some smaller stores where the owners chit-chat with you while you shop. Be prepared to hear all about their grandkids.
Okay, but what about the games?
I’ve seen a pretty wide range of game related stuff at antique places, but most of it tends to gravitate towards older stuff from the 80s. The most common stuff I’ve seen is Pac-Man related: glasses, records, lunch boxes, all from when the US across the board had Pac-Man fever. As with every flea market and thrift shop in existence, you’ll probably see a lot of sports games. Those things spread like the plague. Really, the best advice I have for finding video game stuff is just to keep an eye out. As I’ve said before, some antique places are crammed full of stuff, so what you’re looking for might be buried beneath a table full of Beanie Babies or something.
If you’re still not convinced that antique shops are a viable place for finding cool, older stuff, here are some finds I’ve had in recent years:
I found this at that shop out West I mentioned before. I’m fairly sure it's a reproduction and not the real thing, but I still think it’s neat.
You’ll probably see a lot of lunch boxes out there. The older ones made from metal look really nice, but cost a lot more than these plastic ones, even more so if they still have the thermos. Before I went out antiquing, I had no idea there was such a large market for retro lunchboxes. Some older Disney or cowboy-themed ones from the 50s and 60s go for a huge chunk of change.
Now for some video game stuff. This is a stuffed Mario doll from 1988, a prize found at those carnival games, if my information is correct. I found it in the back of a barn in East Tennessee for a dollar. It was covered in dirt and grime and had a bit of a smell to it, but I was able to clean it up just fine.
On the left is a double-pack of key chains of Guile and Honda from Street Fighter. I don’t know much about it because the backside of the packaging was completely torn off. In the middle are little buttons I found in different shops. On the top is a Game Boy Advance button from early in the handheld’s lifecycle, which I assume was worn by staff at gaming stores. The Pokémon button in the center is from 1999 and looks Halloween-related. On the bottom is a promotional button for a series of Pac-Man glasses from a fast food chain. Okay, I actually bought a glass from this promotion at an antique place, but cannot find it for the life of me. On the right is a Magnavox Odyssey 2 game called K.C. Munchkin! It is a Pac-Man rip off that the makers were sued over.
I love me some comics, so I always check for them at antique shops. In my experience, there are two types of comics usually found at antique shops: golden/silver age comics from the 50s and 60s of Batman and Superman, or a glut of overpriced comics from the buyer’s boom in the early 90s. Occasionally, you’ll find stuff in between those two eras. I saw that Superman comic for $2 and just had to pick it up. With a crossover like that, it has to be good. Daredevil is one of my favorite comic characters, so it was a blast finding a 70s issue featuring one of the first appearances of Bullseye.
Last up is a Nintendo 64 holding case I found for a few bucks. It is a little scratched up, but still looks pretty cool.
What I love most about antique places is that you never know what you will find. Even if you don't wind up buying anything, it's a treat walking through so much history. No matter what your interest, you are bound to find something you like, as antique shops honestly carry just about everything. So, if you find yourself with a free day in these summer months, why not check around your area for your local antique shops? You just might hit the collecting jackpot.