You know, it seems like a big part of getting older is feeling that combination of nostalgia and sadness that comes from watching things you associate with your childhood get changed, ruined, or sometimes out and out destroyed. The other day I got that feeling. I was driving on Crossbay Boulevard and I noticed a sign in the window of a store that instantly brought a frown to my face. But more on that in a minute. Back in the summer of 1998, two guys named Don and Jeff left their jobs at a neighborhood toy store called Sukons and opened up a store of their own, right here in Howard Beach on Crossbay Boulevard. That store was called Video Game Central, or "VGC" for short and from 2000 to 2003 I had an absolute blast working there.
So like I said, it was the summer of 1998. The WWF had just reasserted its dominance as the #1 wrestling promotion in America, Bill Clinton was in trouble for inserting a cigar into a three, the pop music charts were being dominated by Next, Usher, Sarah Mcloughlin, Puff Daddy, Savage Garden, the Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls, Opie & Anthony were absolutely tearing up NY afternoon drive radio and the Yankees were well on their way to capturing their 24th World Series championship. Also VGC was open for business. Not since a comic book store known as The Wizard's Treasure Chest closed its doors in 1994 did the boulevard, which is overpopulated with pizzerias, banks, cell phone stores and nail salons, have a store this cool Once its doors opened to the public, it didn't take very long before the store went from a place where you could buy video games to something of a neighborhood institution...
One of the great things about VGC is that we were always up on the latest trends, and that awareness of pop culture was always reflected in what was stocked on the store's shelves. If there was a hot item, from Furbys to Pokemon cards to anything and everything wrestling, Don and Jeff made sure we had it. Its no surprise then that the store quickly became the destination hang out for neighborhood pre teen kids. Actually, "hang out" is the wrong word, because realistically we were a glorified daycare. There's a whole generation of Howard Beach kids whose parents would drop them off at VGC early summer mornings and not return to pick them up until closing time. That generation of kids was raised by my brother, Larry White, myself and the other VGC employees as much as they were their moms and dads (which does make it kinda freaky when I run into them in bars and clubs now). My brother Mike started working there pretty much before the store opened, but because of him I was welcomed into the group long before I was an official employee. The store became almost a second home for all of us. It was like our club house, and we'd stay there playing Perfect Dark and No Mercy til the wee hours of the morning.
VGC Holiday Store Window circa 2000. Left to Right: Kane, Spyro, Marill, a Powerpuff Girl & The Grinch
Art by Tommy Lombardozzi (http://www.tommylombardozzi.com/)
As the years went by, VGC became the destination not only for the neighborhood kids, but for anyone looking for that hard to find toy, for kids who wanted to buy, sell, or trade Pokemon, MLB Showdown, WWF, or Yu-Gi-Oh cards, for anyone who wanted that hot new DVD or video game but didn't want to wait for the manufacturer's dumb street date to get it, and even for anyone who wanted to meet their favorite professional wrestler. Everyone in the neighborhood knew VGC was their hook up.
The ability of Don and Jeff to capitalize on the popularity of wrestling (particularly the WWF) in the late 90's and early 2000's was a key ingredient in VGC's early success. We were all fans, and would all watch Raw and the pay-per-views at the store after hours, usually an impromptu match or two would break out, and occasionally someone would even end up naked. Don't ask. When WWF Attitude debuted for Playstation, VGC had memory cards full of classic create-a-wrestlers for sale. When Wrestlemania 2000 and later No Mercy came out and changed the way fans thought about wrestling video games, we had tournaments with real replica belts, and neighborhood bragging rights, as the prizes.
And of course, VGC had the legendary wrestler signings. Thanks to VGC, I got to meet Mick Foley, The Big Show, Chris Jericho, The Hardy Boys, The Dudley Boys, Trish Stratus, Chyna, Billy Gunn, Jerry the King Lawler, Rey Misterio, The Hurricane, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Edge, Shawn Michaels, Randy Orton, Kane, Brock Lesnar, Rob Van Dam, Lita, Carlito, Batista, Ashley Massaro, and John Cena twice (and probably a few others I'm forgetting). I even got to pick some of them up at the airport and take them to breakfast, which (with the exception of Brock who was a real dick) was an absolute fanboys dream. I also still get recognized occasionally, since one of my other duties was to sit at the table and hand the wrestler's the pics during the signing, which means I'm in pretty much everyone's wrestler photos.
Of course, things changed as the store got older. The actual retail space doubled when we knocked down the wall to the back room. Jeff left for other opportunities. Mike and Larry left to deliver pizza. Employees came and went and came back again. Through all of that though, at least for me, it really was such an awesome place to work and to hang out. Looking back, we really had so much fun, and I'm kinda sad to say there'll never be another place like it. In recent years Don would always tell me when I stopped in that VGC was doing way more business on the internet then what came in through walk-in traffic. So I guess it shouldn't have surprised me the other day when I saw that sign. Video Game Central has moved. Maybe the fun, the magic and the mayhem will be recreated in the store's new location in Maspeth. But for me, I'll always start to hear "This Used To Be My Playground" by Madonna cue up in my head when I walk past 156-40b Crossbay Boulevard, because a neighborhood institution is gone, and the boulevard is poorer and less interesting for it. Also I can't help but wonder, what the hell is Lonnie gonna do now?
Before I end this, I want to throw out some shout outs and two very big "fuck yous". First fuck you to the Gamestop corporation. VGC singlehandedly proved there was a market for a local video game store, and when Don wouldn't sell to you, you went and opened a store a few blocks away, like the vulturish cocksuckers you are. Enjoy your soulless dick store. I hope someone shits in your pudding. Next, fuck you to greedy landlords who can afford to have empty locations in your commercial real estate space. Keep choking local businesses to death with your absurd astronomical rent increases, that's really great for the economy. Fucking cumdrinkers. Oh, and to anyone who noticed that my usual strictly capitalist beliefs seem to have fallen by the wayside with those last two statements now that I'm talking about something that has sentimental value to me, well that's only because go fuck yourself.
Fuck you corporations, landlords, and anyone who incorrectly accuses me of hypocrisy
Anyway, VGC Howard Beach, you will be missed. I'll never forget the laughs and the fun. BIG HUGE CRAZY shouts out (and if I leave anyone out, I'm so sorry, its not intentional) to Don, Jeff, Lonnie, Mikey, Larry, Paul, Mel, Vickie, Anna, Tina, Ro, Jay, Steve Klinger, Boov, Suren, James Kampta, Kristen, Dawell, Jane, Anthony Modaferi, Brown Steve, Steve Dwyer, James Vicari, The Zaccheo Brothers, Zack, Goldberg, Jose, Sanjay, Jimmy, Stanciu, Mikey, Froggy, Scheinberg, Ali Baba, Anthony Devito, Andrew Darigo, Duck, Steve, everyone who ever called and asked "do you sell video games?" after we'd pick up the phone and say "Video Game Central", 112, Danielle, Tina, Juliana, Walter and his brother and sister, Heavy Set, Whitey Ford & Paper White, the kid with the white trash mom who would throw a tantrum every time she'd come pick him up even though he'd been there a good six hours, Turan, Santino, Tom Freeman, Matt Alfieri, Jeff Goldenberg, Koala, Daniella, Helena, Mike Mandel, Larry Scheper, Phil the Retard, the Waldbaums Troll, Franco, Alphonso, The whole Santore clan, The kids from KFC who would bring us food but weren't allowed to stay for the pay-per-views, Steve Calabrese, and Frankie Ass.
Oh and in case any of you are wondering, Video Game Central is alive and well at its Maspeth location (60-45 Eliot Avenue, Maspeth, NY 11378) and on the interwebs at http://www.videogamecentral.com/
GET ME IN THE GAME!