Shrink-Wrapped Recall – An occasional series about memories of old game shops. The rest of the series can be found here.
How to navigate the seas of geek-related retail.
Retail is a fascinating area. For example, anyone who lives in or has visited rural England will be aware of the phenomenon of the high-street hippy shop. Provincial England is a remarkably monolithic place; whether it’s the West Country, the Home Counties, or the North, most English provincial high streets look more or less the same: They all have charity shops, they all have Indian and Chinese restaurants, they all have clothing shops aimed at aging upper middle-class women and they all have hippy shops. Hippy shops mostly sell crystals, piercings and hair dyes but they also serve as a one-shop portal to difference. It doesn’t really matter which sub-culture you embrace, chances are that if you peel yourself away from the monolith that is provincial English culture then you will wind up spending money in a high-street hippy shop.
You can read the history of English counter-culture in the changing face of high-street hippy shops: Nowadays, people seem to be interested in Wicca and the Occult and so high-street hippy shops are full of crows, spell books, and witches. Before that, people were interested in Game of Thrones and so high-street hippy shops filled up with dragons. Before that, people were interested in Vampires and so high-street hippy shops filled up with images of broken hearts and pale-skinned hairless men.
The types of objects sold in high-street hippy shops never really change, what changes is the relative amount of shelf-space devoted to each class of product and the iconography that features on the products themselves. For example, back in 2015, high-street hippy shops were full of fake goblets covered in dragons and swords. Nowadays, those same goblets are covered in skulls and pentagrams.
One of the things I find fascinating about all of this is the way that the institution of the high-street hippy shop adapts to the rise and fall of different sub-cultures; a few less dragon notebooks and a few more pentagram notebooks and you’ve shifted your customer base from teenage fantasy nerds to teenage TikTok Witches.
While these changes are more obvious in high-street hippy shops as high-street hippy shops are both quite long-lived and surprisingly agile in their cultural re-alignments, the same thing happens in every retail environment, including that of RPGs.
I’ve written in the past about how different decades have seen changes in the amounts of space that game shops devote to RPGs, board games, and miniatures games. My memory is that 90s RPG retail was more interested in selling RPGs and miniatures than board games but contemporary game shops seem to be predominantly in the business of selling board games with some space dutifully devoted to RPGs.
While I would love to hear what professional RPG retailers have to say about shifts in the market for analogue games, there is also the broader question of how RPG retail relates to the more general category of nerd retail.
Nowadays, there is a clear sense that while the audiences for RPGs, board games, comics and video games do overlap, some parts of the nerd market are clearly large enough to either go it alone or to uncouple for the rest of geek retail. For example, shops devoted entirely to video games are not uncommon nor are shops devoted to what can only be referred to as ‘nerd tat’ like Star Wars-branded clothing, replica Harry Potter wands, and those stupid plastic dolls whose name escapes me. The reason for this is that video games and pop culture franchises are now so mainstream that you no longer need to cobble together an audience by appealing to different more-or-less overlapping subcultures. Liking superhero films is now so basic that you don’t even need to sell comics in order to run a shop selling Marvel stuff.
Of the shops that don’t try to go-it alone, some try to hit all of the markets but most of them tend to limit their appeal to certain well-trodden commercial alliances such as the overlap between RPGs and board games or the overlap between comic books and collectible tat. Someone more knowledgeable about retail psychology might be able to explain why it is that some alliances prove popular while others don’t but it is interesting to note that these alliances are themselves cultural constructs and as such, are not necessarily universal.
The Swiss shop Mix-Image is an interesting example of this phenomenon as they are now quite a large shop that focuses primarily upon video games and collectibles. However, back in the late 1990s, the first iteration of the shop pointed itself at the rarely-witnessed overlap between RPGs and Anime.
This might seem insanely idiosyncratic to contemporary Anglo-Saxon eyes but this overlap was born of the fact that the French-language market for Anime was once the largest outside of Japan.
The reason for this is that, decades before Americans discovered Dragonball Z, French TV executives decided to expand their range of children’s programming. Rather than trying to kick-start a French animation industry or pay top dollar for American imports, French TV executives decided to start buying TV and animation from Japanese companies and redubbing them themselves. This resulted in a generation of kids who grew up watching stuff like Fist of the North Star and Saint Seya in the same way that Americans watched Disney.
My memory of Mix-Image is that it was a small dual-chambered shop in a largely residential area. Lausanne not being particularly big, it wasn’t exactly miles away from the centre of town but it was far enough from the beaten track that you couldn’t just drop in there. In fact, I remember once seeing a couple of kids browsing RPGs in a bookshop and I approached one of them and passed them a Mix-Image card. One of the kids seemed really excited by the idea of a shop with a better selection of RPGs but the other looked at me as though I had offered to show him a dead body, my erect penis, or possibly both at the same time.
The front of the shop was devoted to all things Anime and Manga, it was where the owners had the till set up and it was clearly the thing that interested them most. As someone with an interest in RPGs, I remember walking through the front of the shop where the owners would be having an animated conversation about an Anime series. Once in the back of the shop, I would eventually be joined by one of the owners who would hover silently behind me while I browsed on the off-chance that I decided to steal something. Imagine a less subtle Swiss version of Orcs Nest and you get the general vibe.
Unlike Orcs Nest, the original Mix-Image was a genuinely nice retail space with a large south-facing window and pale wood interior that gave the whole place a sense of light and air that was altogether absent from most counter-cultural retail spaces at the time. Looking at the area on street view, it is mostly hair dressers and corner shops with apartments above them but while I can’t remember the exact location of the shop, I would say that very little has changed in that particular area.
The range of titles on offer was also intriguing as unlike most shops in French-speaking parts of the world, Mix-Image seemed to make a real effort to import the newest English-language titles. Their commitment to freshness was so pronounced that I would often find myself paying a bit more to buy stuff in Switzerland as the stuff simply had not yet filtered through to UK-based shops. I am not sure how or where they got their stock; I assume they must have been importing things directly from America.
While I would be surprised if anyone working at Mix-Image was an actual RPG player, the fact that their business grew to the point where they now operate out of what appears to be a department store speaks volumes on their ability to navigate the shifting sub-cultural alliances that inform geek-oriented retail. It would be interesting to know if they ever made a profit on all of those obscure English-language books but I suspect that Mix-Image went long on Anime, made a small fortune in Pokémon and Magic cards, and then expanded effortlessly into memorabilia and video games.
Clearly they were better entrepreneurs than they were shop assistants.