Monday, June 20, 2011

Game Stores: Gemco & Other Chain and Department Stores (Sandy, Utah)

So, by now, most of you who have been following my blog know that I first learned about RPGs while living in Sandy, Utah, after my dad was transferred there for his work.  I've mentioned that true game stores were few and far between, although we did have a weird combo of record store/head shop/alternative book store/game store in downtown Salt Lake City called Cosmic Aeroplane, and then a more true representation of an actual game and hobby store called Hammond's.  I visited both semi-frequently during my sentence time in Sandy. 

But, honestly, most of my gaming purchases back then came from chain stores, particularly places like Waldenbooks, Toys R Us, and most especially Gemco and Fred Meyer.  Rather than have a separate post about each one, I'm just going to lump them all together, because they all pretty much shared two things in common back then:

  1. They carried a very small collection of RPG products for sale, and pretty much without exception, these products were all published by TSR.  
  2. They didn't know what these products were or where to put them. 
I'm sure most of you reading this can relate to what I'm talking about here, and honestly, even though it's been more than 28 years since I entered the hobby, some things never change.  My old local Border's, which is sadly now closed, used to move their RPG collection about every four or five months because they didn't know where to house it.  The favorite section, where it usually seemed to keep ending up, was the Science-Fiction and Fantasy book section, where one part of the bookshelf would be given over to RPG stuff, including dice and miniature figures.  Then some store employee would see the dice and stuff and think, "Aha!  It's a game!" and move the collection over to sit next to the books like Chess for Dummies or one of the three million various strategy guides for PC and console video games.  I'm assuming sales must have gone down after awhile because people couldn't find what they were looking for, so the collection would move again to sit amongst all of the graphic novels and manga books.  Later, it would move again, back to the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Section, but this time intermingled with all of the tons of various Star Wars "Cross-Section" books by DK, because someone else noticed one of WotC's Star Wars RPG supplements.  Sometimes you could find RPG books in all four sections at once, because no one told the employees there was a new filing system. 

But, let's bet back to Sandy, Utah, and my younger self, struggling to indulge my collector's personality and trying to get my hands on as much gaming stuff as I could.  I had pretty much no hope of buying any of it, because I was "lucky" enough not to have an allowance as a kid.  My mom believed more in the idea of "we'll go shopping together, and if there's something you really want, we can talk about it."  Of course, in her mind, "something you really want" meant "clothes for school", which wasn't really something that I wanted because all I needed back in Junior High School were enough sets of clothes so that I could make it through the week looking exactly the same as everyone else so that I didn't stand out and get picked on or punched in the stomach.  Isn't that what everybody wears in Junior High School? 

What I really wanted as I got older were gaming books, but the thing was, these were much more expensive than the old $0.99 Star Wars Action Figures that my mom used to buy me on sale at Gemco.  Modules back then were around $5.50 or $6.00, and a boxed set or hardback was about $12.00 but it might as well have been $1,000.00 to hear my mom talk about it.

"It costs how much? I don't understand - I already bought you that game.  Why do you need it again?"

"But Mooooooooooooooooooooommmmmmm, it's this really cool game that has all of these different books and adventures and this one is a quest for a magic sword called Blackrazor which is the coolest sword ever and I heard about it because Steve's mom bought it for him and he let me glance at it but told me not to read it because he might DM it one day but I don't really like him so I really want my own copy so I can find out what Blackrazor does and then see if John and Jimmy and Russ will let me DM it for them.  Please!"

My mom had usually tuned out after the part where I said magic sword."  So, I had to try a different tactic, and that was usually agreeing to go shopping with my mom when she was going to Gemco, an activity that I usually tried to avoid.  For those of you unfamiliar, Gemco was a huge department store that had a combination of groceries and other department-store kind of stuff like a gardening center, toys, sheets, towels, curtains, kitchen appliances... basically, it was like a big Target.  In fact, most Gemco stores were converted to Target stores in the mid 1980s after Gemco went out of business.  The thing was, my mom usually went to Gemco to look at the sewing and needlepoint stuff, which drove me crazy.  But, I noticed pretty quickly that Gemco did have a relatively biggish size wire display rack that had some gaming stuff on it.  So, I would hang around it, knowing that I couldn't afford to buy anything, and wishing that the modules and boxed sets weren't shrink-wrapped so I could read what was inside.

Then one day, a "miracle" happened.  I accompanied my mom on one of her sewing trips to Gemco and saw that someone had busted open the shrink wrap on the Gamma World boxed set that was there.  I already had a Gamma World boxed set that I bought used from my friend for about $2.50.  But, I noticed that someone had removed the module and dice from the box, so all that was left was the rulebook and the map.  Being the helpful person that I was, I brought the game over to a store employee and explained to him that someone had opened it and absconded with some of the contents.  He thanked me, and I went to find my mom.  Later, I swung by the section again before leaving, and I noticed that the store had put a "Opened: 50% off" tag on the Gamma World box. 

Eureka!  Inspiration struck me, and I start to make my plans for the next visit to Gemco, which occurred the following week.  I noticed that they had a few boxed sets of Top Secret, which I was anxious to read since I'd heard some of my friends talking about it, but none of them had brought it around to school so I could check it out.  We got to the store, and I immediately made my way over to the game rack.

With sweat dripping down my face, I nervously approached the two Top Secret boxed sets.  I could feel my ears turning red and getting warm as I grabbed one of the boxes, and then glanced quickly over both shoulders to make sure no one was watching.  I pretended to intently read the copy on the back of  the box while I very slyly slid my thumbnail down one side of the box to make a clean cut in the shrink wrap.  I then spent the next fifteen minutes removing the shrink wrap as quietly as possible so that I could get the box open and remove the two d10s and the module that came with the game, TS001: Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle.  I hid the dice and module elsewhere on the rack, and also moved the other complete Top Secret boxed set off the rack and mixed it in with a bunch of board games. 

I then went up to a store employee, being careful to avoid finding the same guy I had found the week before, and explained that I really wanted to buy this game, but somebody had opened it and removed some of the contents, so it wasn't complete.

As expected, the guy asked me, "Isn't there another one that hasn't been opened?"

"No, Sir," I lied.  "I looked, but couldn't find one.  Can I just get this one for a discount?  It normally sells for $12.00 but one whole book and the dice are missing.  See the picture on the back that shows what's supposed to be in the box?"

He found a manager and was able to get me a special price of... you guessed it - 50% off.  I then had the task of selling my mom on the proposition.  I approached it as a very good bargain.  Rather than focus on what was missing, I focused on what I was getting. 

"Mom, I'm getting the complete game rules in a box for half-off!  It's only $6.00!  Usually the modules themselves cost that much, but this is the rulebook that I can use to write my own modules, and it comes in this box and it's 50% off!"

She relented and put it in her shopping cart.  My plan was to return to the store a few weeks later, "find" the missing module on the shelf, and ask my mom if she would buy it for me to complete my set.  However, my plan back-fired!  On our next trip to Gemco, which was a little less than two weeks later, I found that someone else had purchased the Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle module!  Either that, or Gemco had perhaps just pulled it off the shelf once they discovered that it wasn't meant to be sold individually.  Years later, I received Top Secret Module TS002: Operation: Rapidstrike as a gift, and that's the module that I keep in my old Top Secret box set on my shelf. 

To this day, I have never been able to obtain a copy of the original Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle to "complete" my old Top Secret boxed set. 

Edit: I realize that, like most of my game store memories, this is really more of a personal walk down memory lane that has very little to do with the actual store itself that I'm discussing.  But hopefully it paints a little bit of a picture about what trying to buy gaming supplies was like living in Utah in the 1980s. 


  1. Is this not also an admission of guilt? Through the confessional blogger screen? The sly slip of a fingernail along the taut shrink wrap...

  2. Weirdly I started rereading Operation Sprechenwhatever today intending to do a retrospective on it. It was a halfway brilliant module marred by not running full tilt in it's odder, more experimental bits.

    Clever discount technique there, young Martin.

  3. The birth of a criminal mastermind. ;)

  4. Hah, great story! I'll have to post about my own brush with quasi-legal game acquisition.

    The local store experience for me was Hastings, which had a decent selection of D&D modules and Dragon back issues. I remember when my Dad called it to attention during a visit; I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.

  5. Gasp! Could this be the new rpg blogger controversy?

  6. Allow me to offer Total Forgiveness to anyone who steals from a book store. Seriously.

    Eons ago, I found a damaged book on portrait photography in a chain book store. I asked if there was a discount due to the damage. The 'dude' behind the counter told me it was an accident it was on a shelf: it was going into the dumpster. I offered to buy it from him. He said no. I asked him if I could just have it and again he said no.

    So he forced the scenario that a perfectly readable book needed to be thrown away, even though I was perfectly willing to pay for it.

    I have not had a shred of mercy for the corporate book business since then. If I see anyone, young or old, stealing from a chain book store, I'll happily make a scene to distract the employees.

  7. Hah! I got my first D&D book from Gemco in '81 or '82 when I was 7 years old. It was a Moldvay Basic rulebook from a box that had been opened in the store. I had no idea what the book was, but it was so cool and mysterious I begged my mom for it and she got it for a couple bucks. I carried that book with me everywhere. I still have and use it, as a matter of fact. Erol Otus signed it for me a couple of weeks ago!

  8. @Dylan - Yes, that's pretty much exactly what it was. All these years later, I still feel bad, even though the store isn't even there any more! Sadly, that wasn't my worst offense, but fortunately I've been on the straight-and-narrow right side of the law since I was about 15. :)

    @Kelvin - oh my gosh, I hope not! Then again... it would at least be something new! :)

    @scottsz - the stupidity of corporate entities never ceases to amaze me. It's ridiculous how places like that stay in business. But, of course, I can't condone stealing. :) My favorite "excuse" from stealing comes from a friend of mine who has no compunctions about downloading illegal music and movies to his laptop. I always chastise him for not paying for it, because he's ultimately causing the artists to lose money, and his response is, "They didn't lose any money, because I didn't like this stuff enough that I would have actually paid for it."

    So, I said to him, "By that reasoning, you should go out and steal a Porsche, because you'd never actually pay for one."

    He never has a response to that. :)

    @cyclopeatron - Ha! Such a small world. And I'm so totally jealous that you got Erol Otus to sign your Basic rulebook! So cool.

  9. Juvenile delinquent! j/k It's an amusing bit of nostalgia. And somehow I doubt this scenario had any effect on TSR's bottom line. :P

    As for your missing copy of Sprechenhaltesteele, drop me a line. I've got four of them, and although I probably shouldn't be supporting your past indiscretion, I could hook you up with one gratis.


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