The strip mall is an unassuming work of stone and mortar situated next to a busy street somewhere in the borough of Ephrata, Penn. Cars and trucks carom by at high speeds, the road feeding arterially into a junction that spreads out across the county as the automotive pulmonary system of southeastern Lancaster County. A large neon sign blazes in the darkness of this cold fall evening:
“Complete in Box.
From Every Era”
Figures seen through the brightly lit windows move back and forth across the large expanse of the store front, giving the impression of vitality and commerce. An American flag stirs atop the pole that juts from a thin median of grass in front of the building. Across the busy highway, a Big Lots sits boxy and impassive, its parking lot mostly empty.
The Clash at Trout Run
Complete in Box is a thing that should not be– a privately owned small business that traffics almost exclusively in ‘retro’ video games. In this case, the term ‘retro’ refers to video games at least five to ten years old belonging to gaming consoles which are no longer in production.
During the late 1990’s, Lancaster County was rife with boutique stores which sold retro games and accessories.
As the independently owned stores closed, options for purchasing games locally dwindled. Now super-chains like the Targets and Wal-marts have moved in, offering only the very newest video games and their accompanying systems. Despite this new economic landscape, Spenser Brossman quietly financed and opened a small video game store in the Trout Run Business Center. His endeavor is modeled after the video gaming boutiques of yore.
It should not be, yet there it stands.
Out of the cold, past the glass doors and into the warm glow of retail, the store reveals itself to be a delightful hodge-podge of geek-appurtenances from floor to ceiling. It has a distinct feeling of hominess– the inescapable sensation that this space is the logical extension of a teenager’s bedroom. That teen is of course wild for the video games of the not-so-distant past.
The store is divided into two distinct sections– one dedicated almost entirely to retail sales and the other serving as an ad-hoc gaming museum and arcade. It is this latter half that makes the store a strange and unique creature among its peers, ostensibly a shrine to geek culture.
Close to the rear and adjacent to the storefront, a long row of arcade machines line the walls. Titles of the machines include: “Deluxe Space Invaders,” “The House of the Dead” and “Smash Tv.” Their monitors flicker dimly with attract screens scrolling, waiting to be activated by would-be patrons. The machines have all been switched to a free to play mode– a courtesy gesture from Brossman to his patrons.
Towards the front of the retro area, beneath the plate glass windows, a space has been set up that emulates the home gaming experience. A plush tan and brown sectional couch has a small flat-screen television positioned in front of it.
Connected to the television is a kind of a modern hybrid gaming console that allows for classic NES and Super NES games to be played on the same machine.
A small, cluttered counter is located centrally in this half of the store, strategically placed to oversee the goings-on of the area. Brad Canull, an employee, works at the counter refurbishing old video game consoles that have been traded in by customers. Canull has a mop of dark, shaggy hair, a thick beard, and he wears a bright red Arsenal Football Club jersey. Toothbrush in hand he scrubs away at the plastic housing of a Nintendo Entertainment system that has yellowed with age. A box of doppelganger NES consoles rest on the floor, while another large stack of dirty Super Nintendos sits on the counter nearby. Restoring and reselling these systems is a large part of the Complete in Box business model.
“We go through a fair number,” Canull says,“it’s nice [when] they look somewhat new.”
Along the very back wall of the retro gaming area is a row of small glass display cases similar to those found in a jewelry store. A printed sign placed inside reads “The Best Games of Each Generation AND All Time.” Several video games from classic systems are carefully arranged within the glass box, including titles such as “Kaboom” for the Atari and “Super Mario 64” for the Nintendo 64. Each item is accompanied by a sheet of wry text justifying their esteemed status. The cases serve as a kind of tastemaker barometer for classic gaming, letting the patrons know Brossman’s enterprise encompasses more than just commerce– there is a reverence for the history of the gaming culture located here.
The impresario of this entire venture is Spenser Brossman, who sits in a rolling chair in his crowded stockroom.
Brossman, a native of Lancaster county, is a graduate of Drexel University where he double majored in psychology and math. His story for the inception of Complete-in-Box is ambiguous in the details, but clear in intent. Returning to Lancaster, he decided to sidestep the pitfalls of the post-graduate employment hunt, instead diving headlong into opening a video game store. It was mixing business with pleasure, as he has always loved video games and gaming culture.
The economic model for nearly all video game retailers involves purchasing older games from customers in exchange for cash, credit or trade value towards other games. While big box stores only deal in modern games, the Complete in Box method extends far back, often seeing systems and games from the 80s and 90s brought in and traded for credit towards the newest games and their systems. Brossman refers to this in industry slang as, “the circle of life.”
“We get a lot of trade-ins. People in this area seem to have a lot of things… they seem to like to trade in,” Brossman says.
This is a boon to the Complete in Box ecosystem, which traffics only marginally in new game sales.
“I think at the end of the year we do roughly 70-75% [used]… and the rest is new.”
A carefully selected and organized catalogue of games are for sale from every era.
Taking one look at the interior of the store, this seems readily apparent. On the retail side of the space, massive racks are filled to capacity with games spanning many generations of consoles back through the 1980s. And while there is a presence of Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Wii U, the three most contemporary gaming consoles, the stock is small by comparison. Brossman is quick to point out that he always aims to stock the latest games and systems and prides himself on carefully curating the titles he sells, hoping to avoid the flotsam and jetsam of inferior products that are being made perpetually. This system seems to be working so far, though it has one obvious drawback: “We do sell out [of new titles] constantly.”
The economic model employed here is lopsided, strange and unpredictable. In a sense, these older games are akin to electronic antiques, earning a fluctuating price tag based on amorphous attributes like scarcity of like items, historical/cultural context and, of course, the physical quality of the product. Brossman has seen his share of rare items offered for trade-in value. He likens the experience to the TLC show Pawn Stars– a reality show where people haggle over the pawn value of a variety of antiques, Americana and rare curios.
“We’ve gotten in a lot of really rare Atari games. Like, obnoxiously rare,” Brossman says.
Brossman often dips into short asides like this, revealing his deep well of knowledge on the video game industry and its history and culture. The business he has created is more than just a source of revenue and employment; it is the fulfillment of a lifetime’s worth of passion and deep seated interest in the industry. At home, Brossman keeps his own collection of classic and retro video games and systems. Yet despite the fact that Complete in Box presents him with frequent opportunities to add rare and interesting gaming curios to his personal collection, he resists the temptation. While the move is certainly shrewd from a business perspective, aiming to keep stock of even the most rare items, to Brossman it is more about pleasing his customers.
”So everything that I take from [from the store] I think, you know, this might be a person we… [it’s] not necessarily the money of it, but like will be made happy from it. Like, ‘this is the one game that I need!’”
Brossman struggles to clearly articulate his feelings on the matter, but one gets the sense that his desire to share his love of gaming with like-minded people by way of his store easily trumps his need to create a ‘perfect’ collection for himself.
Symphony of the Retail
The phrase ‘complete-in-box’ is terminology used by video game collectors. It indicates that all original items are present, including the game, the manuals, advertisements and related ephemera. In short, it is as close to perfection as a used item can be, and the status is prized among collectors.
As a business and a local fixture, Complete in Box embodies this spirit. The store has everything a geeky collector could ask for– video games new and old, comic books, action figures, movies and more. But most importantly, Complete in Box offers an appropriate sense of reverence for the hobbyists and their coveted pastimes. Brossman’s store, his staff and his customers share a unique passion for the ineffable joy that belonging to gaming culture brings. The experience is complete.