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For the Love of the Game

By David King

Photos By Joe Putrock

The region’s flourishing used-video-game market offers gamers bargains, nostalgia and community

A line of scraggly teens dressed in T-shirts, wrinkled hoodies and baseball caps stretches almost out the door of Pastime Legends Video Games on Mohawk Avenue in Scotia. Emily Petrequin, a soft-spoken, petite brunette, stands behind a display case full of old video game cartridges. A man in a black suit haggles with a staffer about how much the store will offer him for his Nintendo 64. “I have bills to pay. I have to get at least $30,” he pleads. A mother and her young son wait to trade in a stack of old games.

Shoppers mull about, perusing the walls of game cartridges, DVDs, and recent releases. A group of young teenage boys hover around Petrequin discussing recent video-game releases, their coats, the weather and things they want for Christmas. They all have one question for Petrequin, who listens politely as she carries a stack of Super Nintendo games that towers almost over her head into the back room.

“Is Joe going to be in soon?” they all ask at different points in the conversation, as though each time it is a new subject, or that something might have changed. Other teens soon walk in with the same question on their lips.

The second most popular question: “Is Black Ops in yet?” The new Call of Duty game, Call of Duty Black Ops, is a multimillion-unit, video-game-franchise phenomenon. The game has a generation-spanning following and a gigantic online community of fans who spend hours virtually shooting at each other.

If you’ve seen Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, you may recall the scene where Mickey Rourke’s character, Randy, a washed-up professional wrestler from the ‘80s, plays a wrestling game on his Nintendo Entertainment System with a kid named Adam. The conversation goes like this:

Adam: So you hear about Call of Duty 4?

Randy: The what?

Adam: Call of Duty 4.

Randy: What?

Adam: Call of Duty 4.

Randy: Call it doody for?

Adam: Call of Duty 4.

Randy: Call of Doody 4?

Adam: It’s very cool, actually.

Randy: Really?

Adam: . . . This game is so old.

Randy: What’s it about?

Adam: It’s a war game. Most all of the other Call of Duties are like based on World War II, but this one was Iraq.

Randy: Oh yeah?

Adam: You switch off between a marine and an S and S British special operative. Very cool.

Joe Pirro, Petrequin’s boyfriend, is off trying to secure copies Call of Duty Black Ops, which just hit stores today. There has been a snafu with the delivery and people who preordered their copies with the store are anxious to play it. One half of the couple, Pirro or Petrequin, should be on Albany’s Lark Street operating their second store, but right now it is a priority to have the most popular game of the year in stock.

What Pastime Legends does for people, what it means to people from across a swath of age groups, is similar in a lot of ways to the scene between Randy the Ram and Adam in The Wrestler; it bridges generations and collects video games from their very earliest mass-market iterations to the most current. The independent game store is able to succeed because mainstream game stores don’t concern themselves with obscure systems, old cartridge-based games or nostalgia of any sort.

Chain stores like GameStop specialize in selling the most recent releases, but they also make a profit on used game sales. They set “trade-in” values on games that are a fraction of what the game originally retailed for. Say you paid $59.99 for the latest Fallout game. When you are finished with it and want to trade it in toward something new, the chain stores may offer $25 if the game it still extremely popular. If the game has been out for a while or is not popular, the offer price declines steeply.

Stores like GameStop leave lots of room for the little guy to make a buck. Pastime Legends offers $40 in credit for most games released within a month, and pays cash and offers credit for games that other stores no longer touch. The store than sells those games at a slightly higher price and hopes to turn a profit.

Those Atari games in your attic may be worth something. Maybe not a lot, but something.

The formula has been so successful for Pirro and Petrequin that they have gone from buying and selling games at a flea market to opening the store in Scotia (which Pirro owns) and a store on Lark Street (which Petrequin owns). They aren’t the only ones in the game. Frank D’Aloia owns Forgotten Freshness, a store in Mechanicville that does a business similar to Pastime Legends. He has been buying and selling games online under the Forgotten Freshness moniker for about 10 years, and has had the storefront for about five. He does lots of specialty sales online and caters to a niche collectors’ market, as well as offering new releases and popular old games.

Jay Street Gaming has two locations—a shop on Jay Street in Schenectady and a location in Colonie Center. The formula clearly pays. D’Aloia, who inspired Pirro to open his shop, says he admires what Pirro and Petrequin have accomplished—especially the locations they chose—both accessible to foot traffic. D’Aloia’s location does not enjoy much walk-up attention.

The two entrepreneurs do business back and forth, but D’Aloia says he thinks the area may soon be oversaturated. “I think we are going to find out in the next two or three years which stores make it—who is doing it the right way,” he says. While D’Aloia and Pirro are friendly, there is tension between some stores. Pirro and D’Aloia decline to discuss it on the record.

Earlier in November, Pirro, Petrequin and some of their staff sat cleaning and stocking recent acquisitions while discussing their lives as store owners.” We work 100-hour weeks,” Pirro says. “I haven’t had a chance to actually play a new game, read a book, or watch a movie in a long time.” He sports an unkempt, black beard, a Ren and Stimpy hoody and a pleasant smile. He’s looking a bit worn out, but he talks video games, art and cinema in a whirlwind of words. Petrequin, in contrast, chooses her moments to speak. She makes her points quickly and then returns to her work.

“We have about 50 resumes on file, because everyone thinks, Video games! It’s got to be fun,” says Petrequin, “but it is a lot of work.” Games that are purchased have to be cleaned, tested, catalogued and priced every night. Video-game systems need cleaning and testing—there are usually stacks and stacks of product waiting to be processed by the end of each night. It is only recently that they began bringing in help.

But that is only the half of it. The young couple are involved in the arts community of both Schenectady and Albany. They set up games during Proctors movie nights and plan to hold a “Second Saturday” event at the Upstate Artists’ Guild in Albany. That event will feature a video-game tournament alongside work by local artists. And they are hosting a Wii tournament at Albany’s Hackett Middle School, with proceeds going to benefit the school and to buy educational games.

Sleep is a rare commodity for the couple; they split their nights between their sparsely furnished apartment in Albany and a relative’s house in Scotia. But their involvement in the community is earning them plenty of goodwill.

“Video games are our stories, they are our mythology,” says Peter Hughes, advertising manager at Proctors. Hughes was integral in getting the couple involved in events at Proctors, events like It Came From Schenectady.

“Generation X grew up with comics, videogames and movies. It only made sense to invite them,” says Hughes.

At one event, Hughes says, Pirro and his friend brought an Atari and connected it to one of Proctors’ big screens and played Pong. “There was an art show going on in the gallery upstairs, and suddenly all the people who were enjoying wine and cheese turned to watch this game being played on the big screen,” says Hughes. “They all knew what it was. They couldn’t turn away.”

Pirro and Petrequin aren’t complaining about their schedule; they know they’ve come a long way in the last few years, overcoming major obstacles, and they are finally making money.

Pirro had an idea of exactly how popular vintage video games were when he took his collection of systems with him to Herkimer County Community College years ago. His room was almost always full of visitors who came to play their favorite old games. Soon they were asking to buy them. But his college experience was cut short.

“My parents had a financial crisis. I had to go home to help out,” says Pirro. “I was still looking for a job while helping out at their business, but they really wanted me to get another job, so in the meantime they said I should pitch in at the flea market.” Soon Pirro had a section of his parents’ flea market to sell his games. “I got a job at a bank, so I would be working all week and then spend all weekend at the flea market. In those first weeks lots of people just wanted to sell me things, so I would spend my paycheck by the end of the weekend.” Meanwhile, Pirro was helping to pay the mortgage on his parents’ home.

It wasn’t long before people were buying from the booth, so he offered Petrequin, who was working at Stewart’s at the time, $100 a month to help him with advertising. “Sales basically doubled after I started,” Petrequin says.

At the Albany store, the conversation stops for a moment as a hopeful customer knocks on the door. The lights are dim and the door locked, but customers keep coming. The Lark Street location has been inundated with customers since it opened this fall. Both locations offer neighborhood kids a place to hang out and talk and play games; but kids are by no means the only customers.

“Joe and Emily have such a love and deep knowledge of video games and video-game culture,” says Hughes, who is in his mid-30s. “You walk in there and it is a treasure trove, like if you were to walk into an antique store or comic book store. But they have a copy of Mario Brothers just like you owned when you were a kid.”

Pirro is always looking to help customers rediscover that one game that defined their youth. “Joe asked me what I was missing,” said Pirro. “I said, ‘I’ve been looking to replace my copy of Final Fantasy 7 that I traded in years ago at Electronics Boutique for something like five bucks.’ One day Joe came in—the game costs about $60 now—and he handed it to me and said, ‘It’s yours. You’ve done so much for me.’”

Pirro loves what he does, and while it may be a cliché, genuinely seems to want to make people happy. “It just feels so good to see people smile when they walk in,” said Pirro. “I went from working at a bank where everyone is angry and blames you for everything, or at least takes it out on you, to a place where people just come in smiling and saying, ‘I remember this! I had this when I was a kid!’”

Pirro balanced his job at the bank and the flea market for a while, but one day he heard a rumor: Someone was opening up a used game store in Scotia. “We were really bummed,” he says. “We thought we really dropped the ball.” The rumors turned out to be just rumors, but Pirro was stirred. He found a storefront for rent in Scotia and spent his paycheck on the deposit. “I actually overdrew my bank account to make first month’s rent,” he says. “I had to pay the $35 fee, but it was worth it. Our landlord was great. He let us pay the utility deposit in installments.”

It wasn’t long before Pirro quit his job at the bank and Petrequin left her job at Stewart’s. When asked why he thought Emily would be a good choice to help run a video-game store, Pirro responded, “She is really smart. She has a degree and she wasn’t using her talents where she was. She deserved more.”

Having steady traffic to the Scotia store, the couple decided that Emily should open the Lark Street location in Albany. Asked how she decided it was a good idea to dedicate her life to running two game stores and owning one, she replies, “I just trusted him.”

Pirro has big plans. He wanted to pursue art in college, so he hopes to continue to integrate gaming with the art community. He also has grander ideas for gaming events, and he wants to create a local tournament community similar to those in New York City and Rochester. He already does a gaming spot on WGY radio, where he discusses all the latest releases. And now, Pirro says, he and Petrequin are finally making money rather than just reinvesting incoming cash into more games.

The sale of used games has become so profitable that boutique stores aren’t the only ones taking advantage. Walmart recently began to test vending machines that give customers gift certificates or credits on their ATM cards for their games. Best Buy and Amazon are also offering gift cards for games.

But the sale of used games actually is a controversial issue. Game companies have issued studies that show declines in game sales are due to the used-game market. A recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit may endanger the ability for stores to sell used software.

Software companies generally have language attached to their product called the end-user license agreement, which means that buyers don’t own the software—they are simply buying the license to use it. “THIS SOFTWARE IS LICENSED, NOT SOLD,” reads a EULA attached to the extremely popular Red Dead Redemption. The appeals court in the 9th Circuit overturned a previous decision by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in the case of Vernor vs. Autodesk. The judge in that case found that Washington Resident Timothy Vernor had the right to sell a new copy of Audodesk’s AutoCad design software that he had purchased on eBay. Autodesk had a EULA similar to those used by video-game companies.

“We would be OK if they stopped the sale of recently released games,” says Pirro. “We would still be able to sell the older stuff, and that is really most of our business.” And Pirro says he is convinced that game sales would plummet drastically if consumers weren’t able to mitigate their $60 cost by trading in games they have already played. “People won’t be able to afford to keep buying as many games. They will feel it.”

D’Aloia sees it differently. He says the only real way he sees game companies successfully putting even a dent in used game sales is by limiting access to online game play.

Game developers have recently begun including online access codes with new copies of their games. People who buy the game used must pay extra to play online. That move was met with much griping by consumers, but it isn’t clear whether it did anything for game sales one way or the other. And the ploy does nothing to the market for games from the ’80s and ’90s.

So what is it that has made Pastime Legends successful? What has allowed so many vintage game shops to sprout up in the region? Pirro thinks the recession has left people looking for more value in their entertainment. “Instead of paying however much it is now to see a movie for an hour or two, people want something that will last,” says Pirro. And people are looking to return to their past to remember the feeling that games gave them when they were kids.

D’Aloia sees a great amount of nostalgia at work. “Right now, my biggest seller is the N64. College kids in their last years remember, ‘I had a Nintendo 64. I love those games.’ And they want one again. They want to relive their childhood.”

The next generation likely will develop nostalgia for the system they loved as children, he says, and the cycle will continue and it is a good way for store owners to get customers interested in the entirety of gaming history. “If you like this, then you will love that.”

Back at Pastime Legends on Lark Street, Pirro and Petrequin have a busy week ahead of them—the Second Saturday event, a meeting with the Schenectady Improvement Corporation—and, of course, the release of Black Ops, one of the biggest games of the year, a release that they already worry may have a hitch or two.

The couple tell me they have been together on and off for eight years. Petrequin was Pirro’s first girlfriend, and they have been together steadily now for three years. A good portion of those last few years has been spent cleaning dusty old game cartridges, worrying about money and going without much sleep.

Pirro says Petrequin has been trying to reclaim some personal time now that both stores are functioning. Pirro would like to get together with friends on Thursday nights to play games, but Petrequin has made it clear that family pizza night will now be back on the schedule.

Pirro apologizes for talking nonstop, pouring forth long reminiscences about video games and movies, reminiscences that I encourage. “I should have let Emily talk more.”

“I do all the work; you do all the talking” she says with a smile.

I head out the door and leave them behind in their store. I get a phone call from the photographer, who is trying to reach the couple. I make a quick trip back down the street and go to knock on the door, but the lights are dimmer and I see the pair locked in a passionate kiss, embraced in each others arms. It’s enough to make a gaming geek smile.

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