It gave me great pleasure to interview Joe Tartaglia from 8-bit and Up on the second floor of 35 Saint Marks Place in New York City. A treasured diamond in the rough, 8-bit is a spacious local game store that only a handful of adventurers and retro gamers alike know about, but many others have yet to learn about this prized treasure floating right above their heads.
After his wife passed away, Joe was looking for an investment since no pension or retirement was made available to him. With kids, he made an attempt to try the food industry but didn’t do so well. Not knowing much about stocks and bonds, Joe centered on something he did know. With a background in computer programming, Joe knew a thing or two about video game hardware/software, repairs, and video games; after all, Joe is a computer nerd. Living through the birth of the personal computer, Joe got to own the first IBM PC and Apple 2 computer, “I have always had a soft spot for old computers like the Amiga and there were games for them but they were more computer games than consoles.”
His first and favorite game of all time is Tetris for the MS DOS.
When it first hit the US it ran on Microsoft Dos and I was working as a consultant for Chase doing programming. There were about 70 of us writing, and someone got a copy and it started to get passed around. I saw screens playing Tetris all over the office. So I installed it on my machine, and I had a blast but needed to work. I was struggling to keep myself focused.
With his heart set on opening a video game store, Joe hoped to have a store that offered so much more than your average chain.
The thing that makes me so happy is when people come in. We have the games organized by history, so Atari is at the beginning of the store and as they are coming up the stairs they are screaming ‘OMG, this is my childhood! I haven’t seen this since I was five years old!’ I hear it every day. These customers are familiar to going to GameStop, which is so generic and sterile so the products really have much variety. They don’t carry games before 2 years ago. People are then so accustomed to going to these places and seeing just stuff from the last couple of years and that’s it. So when they come here, they see all this craziness like Nintendo Power Magazine, rare games, and things you don’t often see. Sometimes they are running around on their phones saying ‘OMG, you won’t believe what I found!’ and it makes me feel so good. I’d like to see more people come in.
In New York City, the opportunity to witness local family own shops are on the decline as chain stores, high rises, and higher rent make it almost impossible for mom and pop shops to survive. However, the major differences in local game stores and chains is the customer service and rapport you just can’t get anywhere else.
When I go shopping I don’t go to Home Depot but to a local hardware store because the service in corporate stores is horrible. Home Depot will have an aisle of… let’s say screw or nails, and you go in there and they will not have the simplest thing you need. I can’t believe it. This is 50 yards long, and they don’t have it. So they order anything, they don’t know what they are doing, and there isn’t anyone that could or would help you. I go to a local hardware store that was taken over by two boys in their 20’s, now they are 60. When you go in there they know everything and can help with you anything. They got stuff in there that you won’t be able to find. He will see me and say ‘I see what you doing. You’re fixing a faucet. Take this because when you take it out it’s going to break.’ And he is right and it does happen. That kind of service you can’t get at a Best Buy or GameStop. They just sell so many different things, and the workers are not well train to do that. They might transfer someone from TV department to video game department.
Unlike chain stores, that can have locations that are closer to trains which are considered prime spots of retail and are “higher profile,” local game stores may not have that kind of luxury.
We can never get those locations as an independent store. We wound up here on the second floor of Saint Mark’s and even though it would be better on the ground floor, it’s just too expensive down there so we improvise.
And indeed they do by offering to do repairs on consoles, video games, phones, laptops, and computers. They can fix consoles from as old as NES up to next gen models like the PS3 or Xbox360. Joe mentions he is happy to fix disks and CDs to the extent of the customers well being.
I feel comfortable with the idea of selling used consoles and offering if it stops working to repair it. Sometimes, however, I feel terrible repairing disks after someone bought it from someone in such a bad shape. I tell them to go back and get a refund since I’m going to charge them for the repairs because it’s so bad.
Such hospitality and customer service would never be seen at a chain store. What’s important to mention here is the extent which a chain gaming store employee could offer a customer when it comes to customer service. The value of a game whether good or bad remains the same price so if a game is worth more than the chain store is offering the customer loses. Likewise, if a customer sells a game that is in poor shape for the same value if it was in a good shape, the customer that buys it loses as well. Having a closer rapport and closer contact with a costumer helps both the customer and the business and builds a long lasting relationship. Such rapport is harder to find with bigger chains.
It's not just about selling only video games, 8 Bit also sells anything related to video games.
We have strategy game guides, old magazine like Nintendo Power, which you can’t get anymore. We have action figures and our latest thing is our 8 Bit Digital Art and video game jewelry from LDH Designs. They have been selling very well. Our customers love them. We also sell video game buttons that one of my employees sells.
Besides selling, there is another more important side to the video game business: the buying side.
Buying games and things is equally as important as selling. If you don’t buy anything you’re not going to be able to sell. This is probably the most fun part of the business that game stores overlook. We buy most of our retro stuff from our customers. We do get some stuff online. We work very hard to buy good stuff and we work hard to get people to bring stuff here to sell… we hear how people who throw out stuff like a SNES in the garbage. You’d hate to see that, so we make a concretive effort to buy some crazy things. Sometimes it’s not video games, like decorations and jewelry of video games. Certain things we have to turn away because they are irrelevant or make no sense. We will go off the beaten track to buy unusual items and we try to give more than pawnshops and more than GameStop.
In the past, Walmart, Best Buy, and GameStop have tried to buy retro games. The issue is that there needs to be someone who knows about buying in order to buy smartly. Being careful about what you buy by looking at what you’re buying, knowing it’s worth, and knowing how to pay for it are critical components and traits needed to buy effectively. The conditions of products are a critical component in buying that if not inspected could become worthless. Most chipped disks will eventually spread making the game useless; however, scratches can be repaired.
What’s most important is the decision to not buy.
There are times that you have to walk away. We had someone walk in with a bag full of Game & Watches and Japan only versions in the original box with beautiful conditions. The customer knew what they were worth and I had to let him go, because I simply couldn’t afford to buy them from him. He understood.
Making the choices in buying could potentially ruin or save a business like this. Joe does say at 8 Bit and Up, they are generous with their trading-in value. As a local game store, they have the ability to negotiate unlike chain stores that are restricted when it comes to trading-in.
Some people you see they are down on their luck and they are selling cause they need money to pay rent or get dinner. Some kids come in with their savings for a game. In a small store, you can be flexible with prices. Chain stores can’t do that. With trade in we try to be fair but sometimes people aren’t happy with what we buy it for. We tell them they have lots of options like Amazon, EBay, and even GameStop. There are times though that it’s in terrible condition and they expect us to buy it. We try to be as fair as we possibly can but remain being logical. There are some chain stores that won’t take certain things. If you go to GameStop, if you don’t have a controller or a cable they won’t take a console. I’ll take it and just mark down the trade-in value and add the cable and controller. Being empathetic goes a long way.
And that my fellow gamers, is the beauty about local game stores; you’re not being treated as a number, but as a customer on a first name basis.
8 Bit and Up use to be located on the Upper East Side but moved down to the village two years ago. Joe admits getting people to come up to the second floor is difficult and “people misunderstand that yes we do sell lots of old school games, but we do carry the latest game that have come out. We may not look as pretty as the big buck stores, but we carry and do things that they can’t.” Regardless, 8 Bit has its devoted fans whom range from people with a history and passion for video games some owning an Atari, N64, and PS1. Joe says his fans are especially educated with the whole spectrum of video games. 8 Bit carries a large variety of consoles and games such as Odyssey 2, Atari 2600, ColecoVision, NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, Neo Geo, Virtual Boy, Jaguar games, 3DOs, and Madox Odyssey.
The rarest game Joe states he has is Stadium Events; a game that was released by Bandai in 1987 then shortly after bought by Nintendo. After rebranding it, Nintendo had tried to pull the games back and destroy them, however, only 200 got out into circulation and only 22 known copies are left. One of them is in Joe’s inventory. As of recently, young kids are buying retro games in abundance.
We do get a lot of young kids, whom come with these games, but there is a generation of kids we are seeing wanting this game and they are not getting from their parents but from the internet. They come in buying Atari and I’ll ask them do they have an Xbox? No. They have NES or SNES or Dreamcast and I ask their parents and they say they get it from The Angry Video Game Nerd or other websites. They find these old games are fascinating as collectables.
Joe also mentions he gets a few collectors as customers whom are trying to complete a collection of a particular console either relive their childhood or collect them all. 8 bit carries a variety of retro games; however, they do not carry limited edition or collector’s edition games. As Joe states:
A lot of people don’t realize that big companies choke our supply of those special items because the big guys get special deals on those publications. Some special game is only available at Walmart because those companies can afford it. We can’t get that special downloadable sword from a game. We can’t afford that special opportunity that those games have.
Joe strongly disagrees with people who think that working at a video game store is easy. Not only is a great deal of the job knowing about video games, but most of the time it’s providing the best customer service, organization, and cleaning among other things.
People think ‘Oh video Games! You must make a fortune!’ Truth be told, it’s harder than it looks. We aren’t millionaires. People think we are but we’re not. They don’t understand because they see all these game and they think we’re rich. I’m here 60-70 hours a week because I can’t afford to pay anyone else.
As well as selling at their location, Joe attends Comic Con in New York City. “Comic Con is better than the holidays for us. Since we don’t have TV ads or such advertisement it’s harder to get business. At Comic Con, the business comes to us.” Joe also makes it a habit to hold events from time to time.
We do Sunday night tournaments more or less for free. They play fighting game sometimes after 5 until whenever. We run formal tournaments a couple times a month. We just did an event with NYU- a fundraiser for kids with cancer. They played Super Smash Bros Brawl. We worked with a local police department, with an officer who works with kids who get into trouble. He buys them prizes for good behavior, we donate the space, and he get 25 kids playing games together. We also had people shoot documentaries, web series, TV-shows, indie films, and stream tournaments on the web. We had Greg T in our old location and it was fun. It was a Guitar Hero Challenge for Halloween when it was a big thing. We had a hell of time. Monster was giving out free drinks.
Usually the small guy can offer better service and unusual items you can’t get anywhere else. There is a reason for both businesses. I myself understand the importance of a local family game store. Having grown up on the Lower East Side watching as many local fabric shops, bakeries, and food spots close down to the grind of the city’s rent is disheartening. These shops know everything about you as a customer from when you’re a little munchkin.
NYC is one of the few places left in the world where you can actually get that. When you go to Kansas City or Cincinnati, everything is a strip mall or some sort of chain restaurant. You want to eat restaurant food you’d go to Olive Garden. There is very little individuality. There are some places like in Chicago and LA that may have local game store but it’s not like here.
So don’t give into the hype of conglomerates, shop at local game stores and help support these pieces of city treasures.
Be sure to attend Girl Gamer Vogue and 8 Bit and Up Video Game Event on August 3rd at 7pm. For more information and to get free tickets go to our website.