Wednesday, March 20, 2019

What's It Like To Work at Retro Game Camp?

Patrick on left. Holding up Vincent is Bruce
By Jonathan Bilski

If your not a local or you don't know the area you might miss the otaku paradise hidden in the first floor of the Little Tokyo Mall. It's one of the ways into the Japanese Plaza Village. The mall's first floor contains Q Pop and Anime Jungle's multiple stores and then you have a video game store. A video game store where (for now) you can only get games from Japan. Its name is Retro Game Camp. As of writing this, it's been open for about a year. I sat down with one of the staff at the store itself, so he could tell me what it's like to work in a Japanese video game import shop in our own Little Tokyo. And it involves raining soy sauce.

I popped in after telling the Store Manager Shinnosuke Tomioka about my visit. His staff was helping a customer. Not with buying a game boy, but places to eat nearby. Shinnosuke welcomed me and with little introduction I started talking with the Assistant Manager Bruce McClurg, 23, currently going to UCLA, studying Japanese. He has been working at the store since the second week it opened, back in February 2018.

(In back of the store, behind a closed door)

"What's with the rags," I asked Bruce. He answered that they were just drying the rags they use to clean the consoles with. They were drying using a Japanese hang dryer, so kind of noticeable as there were many up on clips. "Actually, I do apologize, some of it is kind of messy. We had a ceiling leaking. It was soy sauce." Bruce told me. I immediately said, "Nani?" Nani, is Japanese for what. And I didn't really do that, I did ask what Bruce was talking about. The resataunt above had some sort of accident and soy sauce started raining from the ceiling at some point covering games and whatever was below in the storage area of the shop.

Bruce told me, Y'know I like ramen, but being surround by hot, dripping ramen broth is not a pleasant experience. I laughed and Bruce continued,

"It smelled completely awful back here for a while. The restaurant did provide us a plumber at a certain point, before that it was a daily struggle to keep it clean." This happened a while ago. I noticed no smell when I was back there talking to Bruce.

After laughing some more at soy sauce coming down. I ask Bruce what his average day is like at Retro Game Camp. He broke it down into simple categories that really don't go into the length of some of the stuff his crew and him half to do.

They are as follows:
1. Cleaning around the shop.
2. Testing out games and consoles.
3. And, mostly serving customers.

Now, Bruce mentioning testing out games intrigued me. If you didn't know, all games inside our Little Tokyo Game Camp are imported from Retro Game Camps in Japan. They need to be not only cleaned, which will get too. But all of them have to be tested.

"There's between 16,000 and 20,000 games in the store, " Bruce tell me.  That means Bruce and the rest of the staff have had to test every single game in the store after they've been cleaned. And then, yet again when they are to be sold. Think about that. That's a lot of testing. And there's only 6 people who work at Retro Game Camp.

"We receive about, maybe 4,000 items at a time [in a shipment]. We don't play through the entire game. But we do check if the cartridge can read and save. And if it can't save we replace the battery." Bruce tells of the start of dealing with each game the comes through the shop.

Older cartridge based games did have tiny batteries in them and won't work correctly if they've died, mostly Famicom games, if you were wondering why some of your older games don't work anymore.

"You get to a point...I can check about 20 Famicom games in under 5 minutes", Bruce says.

On cleaning, Bruce told me an example, "A gameboy pocket's battery casing was rusted shut. It seems the previous owner had left batteries in it." It took him two hours to file it down and clean it. And it still worked and he sold it to a customer.

And then a game or console is retested before the customer's purchase. Which, we're not aware of any other reseller game shops doing in the LA area.

So, that's a lot more extra work than a regular game shop. That's hours of cleaning and testing games.

On serving customers, I've seen it for myself. The staff tries to help you right away being friendly and courteous. If you have any questions, the staff at Retro Game Camp wants to know.

Nicholas Cage likes Godzilla games. "Do you guys have any PS4 Godzilla games? The last one I played was absolutely awful, " Bruce said as Nicholas Cage. Bruce told me that Cage has been a customer and he helped him find some Godzilla games that didn't suck. If a kaiju gamer, you might know that there isn't currently any new Godzilla game other than what Bandai released back in 2015 and I myself consider it a monster turd as a long time fan of the gorilla whale. Instead of anything new, because nothing new exists, they hooked up Cage with a boxed copy of a Godzilla Super Famicom game. Then Bruce and I talked Godzilla games, which he has an extensive knowledge on.

*For those wanting to sell anything, just a heads up. They don't have a buy back license at the store yet. Bruce was telling me they're trying to get one and it just hasn't gone through. So, you can always call or e-mail them to see if they finally have gotten one. I just wouldn't if this post is only a month or two old when reading this.

While walking though the shop and Bruce showing off the Super Famicom section, I ask whose buying these games, because they are all Japanese imports. Bruce tells me most of the time it's college kids as the consoles aren't that expensive at around $60, the same as a new game. And their stock of games being much cheaper than that.

Game Center CX is playing on a screen with random episodes. Another TV is playing old Japanese video game commercials. The floor space is filled with posters of games we never got here before. A demo area in front and wall-to-wall Retro is filled with brightly colored games.

It's not madness, it's game by section. If you look you"ll notice games for certain systems and their genres are kept together. So, you don't have to look everywhere if you're a collector.

See if you can spot the hot sauces from Billy Mitchell the villain from King of Kong.

I start flipping through a binder in the store, while Bruce and I browse the store together. The binder was created by Maude, the other Assistant Manager. "More than any of us she knows rare retro stuff. She is really great. And she created an entire guide detailing all of our products, which ones are import friendly, which ones aren't. How to region free certain consoles, if you wanted to do it at home." She gets some praise points from Bruce.

She's not the only one to be praised as Bruce introduces me to Vincent and Patrick, who are both also learning Japanese. Apparently, each staff member has an area of knowledge of games better than the others. Bruce tells me they work like a cohesive unit. I joke about seeing them in a local Power Rangers like commercial doing poses and transforming. Bruce says he wishes that would happen.

After someone called the other Tsundere they all started telling me about working at the store. I ask, "Where were you when the soy sauce fell?" "I woke up to it, 'Soy sauce in the back room,' " Vincent told me as he was at home. Poor Bruce had to come in and clean it up with a mop and bucket on his day off. I asked if they at least got a free meal from the restaurant above. They did not.

I bring up the Wish List pieces of paper I see around the store. "Because we have stores in Akihabara (famous Otaku city in Japan)...customers can requests an item, for free...and all you have to do is leave a name and an e-mail," Bruce explained to me. So, you have a chance of getting something you really want, whenever it comes in or someone working at the sister stores in Japan grabs it for you and sends it off to the USA. When the item comes in they"ll send a picture to the e-mail you wrote down with the price and can hold it for your for two weeks. No shipping costs to you, the customer.

"Easily, I'd say, it goes for all of us, probably the most enjoyable part-time job I've ever had, Vincent tells me. Bruce adds, "I cannot tell you how much the low stress environment has done for my well-being." You could really tell they meant it. And Shinnosuke wasn't even paying attention or looking at script he might have given them. It was genuine. Bruce ended it with "When you're surrounded by your favorite hobby and you actually care about what you do, it's easy to feel at home."

You can ask Bruce, Vincent, Patrick, Maude and Shinnosuke for help whenever you need help in
looking for a retro game.

Retro Game Camp
Inside Little Tokyo Mall
1st Floor

319 E 2nd St
Ste 120
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Little Tokyo, Downtown
(213) 265-7889