A metallic voice echoes across the warehouse: “The dealer’s room is now open.” That means it’s show time. For the past two hours, Carlson Stevens has been stocking, arranging and preparing himself for the crowd at the Otakon dealer’s room. He stands at the ready, with his friends Erik and Dak as his wingmen, proudly standing under the sign for Mad Gear, Carlson’s company that sells rare and imported games and systems at conventions. For him, this is living.
Mad Gear’s display booth is a treasure trove of all the games of legend. Copies of Chrono Trigger, Radiant Silvergun, and Ikaruga are prominently on display, the glass case smudged from fingers and faces pressed up against the glass. To one side lies a demo of Daigasso! Band Brothers, where anyone with a DS can join in on the musical fun. Up on a shelf sits Samba de Amigo, still in the box, not too far from a Neo Geo console that’s still in the shrink-wrap. Across from that are several Japanese box sets and special editions. Everything is laid out carefully. “Visually, I try to have rare stuff and the paragons of the genre prominently on display,” says Carlson. For those walking by, the booth acts like a flame at a moth convention. It’s a guaranteed talking point.
“Some people are just curious and like to sit back and peruse, but some just want to be paid attention to.” Carlson and his wingmen greet everyone they can who stops by the booth, to get an idea of what they’re interested in. “It’s fun when you’ve got a customer who knows a lot, and so you get to talk about obscure suggestions. It’s also nice to lead in people who haven’t taken the plunge into import games yet. No matter who comes by, it’s going to be interesting.” One guy’s eyeing a copy of Doki Doki Majo Shinpan. Another is debating whether to get food tonight or instead buy a Wonderswan Color and Final Fantasy I. Maybe his friends will let him steal their fries.
Even though this is Carlson’s first time at Otakon, he’s been going through the convention circuit for several years now. Occasionally, some familiar faces pop up. “Whenever I see someone who has bought something from us in the past, I’ll go and greet them and see how they’re doing. I’ll try to remember what they bought in the past and then suggest something based off of that,” he says.
Carlson and his crew are only three people – less if the convention isn’t as huge as Otakon, which drew in 22,852 anime fans this past year. So, it’s up to the center display to keep the customers around and interested while the Mad Gear team is handling purchases, chatting about prices and eyeing shoplifters. The display is a slew of games for the PS1, Dreamcast and all the other disc-based systems of yesteryear, thrown together in a semblance of order. “Flipping through all the discs opens up the chance of discovery,” he says. “It’s like going through vinyl albums at a record shop. You might find something that you never knew you wanted.”
Sales are going great for Carlson. The boxed Neo Geo flew off the shelf right away, and he’s pulling out a few more from the back. The Daigasso Band Brothers display sold a few copies of the game, and they managed to get rid of some more hand-held games at the same time. The sales help cover the cost of doing business at other conventions, where Carlson had to pay travel expenses. Since Otakon is in Carlson’s backyard, he only has to take care of the entrance fee, and he’s set.
Carlson says he puts games that haven’t sold after three or four shows up on eBay, and the stock will rotate out almost constantly. “I try to make sure to mix up my inventory for almost every show. Some people have the same con schedule as me, and so they’ll get disinterested fairly quickly if they keep seeing the same stuff.” Carlson is also constantly managing his supply line – friends and family that live in Japan. At any given time, he’s putting in orders to five or six different people and makes a couple trips to Japan every year.
Finally, there’s a break. Many of the Otakon attendees are off having their first meal of the day, right around 3:00 p.m. Others are packed into FUNimation’s panel room, where they’re announcing their acquisition of Ouran High School Host Club. What does that mean for the people at Mad-Gear? “Free cookies!” Carlson and the other guys working at the booth shout randomly, just to see who will run by. “It’s a great stress reliever and helps break up the day,” he says. “We’ve got to have our own fun, too.” Some customers run over to the stand, but everyone there just acts confused.
“One of our favorite things to do is to get a group together and start doing a demo of one of the music games. We’ll ask for requests, and we’ll play some. As the crowd gets bigger, we’ll start to play ‘it.'” Some of the people in the crowd will get the song Carlson plays right away – namely the ones there for the 4chan.org convention. Others will take a minute. Soon, everyone groans once they hear the voice singing, “We’re no strangers to love.” Some people applaud; others walk away. “Doing a live Rick-roll is just too much fun.”
Even though Carlson and the gang are having fun with their crowd, it can sometimes grow to be a bit too much. People will swarm the booth, blocking aisles, or get to be so noisy that it makes it hard for nearby booths to operate effectively. Eventually, Mad Gear has to start dispersing the crowd, and not just because of noise: If the crowd gets too big, pickpockets and shoplifters start to skim the crowd and booth. It’s an art of sorts – ending demos, switching your focus of conversation and trying to interact with the people in the back. “What’s really important is to make sure that everything’s OK from the other booths,” Carlson says. “I’ll periodically go over and talk with them just to make sure that we’re not too loud or bothersome to them.”
He says being a good neighbor is important when you’re a convention vendor. They all know the trials and tribulations of keeping on their feet for eight hours straight, and so it’s only natural to want to help each other out. “Vendors try to look after each other, and they end up banding together. At one of my first shows, one of the nearby vendors gave me some tips on how to help stop shoplifters from stealing items from the booth.” Sometimes it’s as simple as helping box up after the show, or lending a roll of receipt paper to another booth. Other times, they’ll drive each other’s inventory cross-country, simply because it’s on the way and it saves on shipping.
The group takes care of itself, but if a vendor gets too unruly, the group will report it to the convention staff, which can result in a banning – as has been the case with Hen Da Ne, creators of the yaoi paddle. It’s created such a nuisance that their paddles have been banned from several major conventions.
The metallic voice chimes in again: “The dealer’s room is now closing. Please finish up your final purchases and make your way to the exit.” Now it’s time for the stragglers to make their decisions and pray they’ve got enough gas in their tanks to make it back home, because abandoning that copy of Metal Wolf Chaos would be a crime against humanity. Carlson shakes some hands and fills out the final receipts. Now that the crowd has finally dispersed, it’s time for Carlson, Erik and Dak to head off to the bars and have some well-deserved fun.
Brad Rice is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.