Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Coffee Mug of Distributor Nostalgia

As I'm furiously painting away while I have the chance, I can't help but look at my painting mug and wane nostalgic.

There was once a time, little children, where there weren't anything overbearing industry dominating distributors in gaming.  Well before this intraweb thingy was all the range, distributors held sway over their little regions.  Distribution exclusives weren't a promotional item, it was the simple fact that a small press publisher got his foot in the door with one distributor, but had yet to do so with the others. 

Wargames West was the first distributor I was aware of, simply because of their advertisements in Dragon Magazine.  Their "consumer" catalog was free and I spent many a day perusing it, and highlighting everything I wanted if I ever made more than $3 an hour washing dishes.  The best part of the catalog was that most book entries did have a little blurb describing the product. 

The Wargames West catalog.  Thanks to for the nostaligia here.

As I started working in retail, The Armory reared it's head.   I had known the name from their line of paints and brushes, but as a distributor they were a pretty swanky joint:  Everything was computerized with dot-matrix-printed invoices!  They were also the one universal distributor in the PA/NJ region.  Every game store, comic book shop, and kiosk selling Magic cards in the mall could get an account with them.   For the love of God, the infamous Wizard's Cove in Bangor had an Armory account, and they gave hole in the wall stores a bad name.  This wasn't a regional preference...

Chessex was actually located in Phoenixville, PA, a bit closer than Armory's Baltimore location, but they seemed pickier.   Their invoices were still written in pen, but their catalog was a pick slicker, and driven towards a store manager, rather than its customers.  The one thing I remember most from Chessex was that once you got "in" to their club, you got a slighlty (1-2%) better discount, and terms (usually seven days same as cash) were far easier to achieve.  Nowadays, Chessex is only remembered for their dice, lots of dice.

In the mid 90's with Magic ruining the industry model, and the comic book industry already in a merger tailspin with Diamond, Capital, and a failed self-distributing Marvel coming back into the fold, Chessex and the Armory merged.  More specifically, Diamond, having reigned victorious in the comics mergers, purchased Armory and then acquired Chessex, moving all operations to the Baltimore area as Alliance.   Sure, there were other distributors, but if you were on the East Coast, and wanted one-stop shopping with a decent discount structure, you were forced to work with the evil empire of Diamond/Alliance. 

It definitely had more to do with Magic forever altering the landscape of gaming, but the Alliance catalogs never had the same effect on me.  Companies gutted their backstock  to pay for the the next big CCG they were developing, or some other gimmick game.  For others, Alliance would ignore more small press projects (too many anecdotal stories from designer posts on the web to completely refute that).    Sure, Alliance's Game Trade Monthly/Game Trade Magazine makes the old solicitation books from the distributors look a diner check written by a drunk waitress at 3am, but I don't think it has ever been utilized properly by most game stores.

Anyway, my mug.  When I was managing Griffon Games, I had a great rapport with our sales rep and utlimately got invited down to Baltimore to view what I believe were the brand new Alliance digs.  I went down with my trusted Chief-of-Staff/Assistant Manager Brian and it ultimately resulted to a quick tour of the offices, a paid for lunch at Fuddruckers, and a long lesiurely stroll down up and down the isles of the warehouse, cherry picking the items for the shipment we were taking back with us.  The one thing I learned from the trip firsthand was that pre-orders are important.  At least ten different items we had picked out were unavailable, despite having a whole pallet of them in the warehouse.   Sixty copies of a book/model/dice set?  If all are held for pre-orders waiting to go out once the store ordered again, it didn't exist to to the part of the inventory system that mattered to us. 

The one thing that wasn't affected by such an issue was the coffee mug.  It may have been out of date, but the nostalgia for a simpler time won me over to pay the buck or two at its wholesale cost.

Even if it did mention Armory West's location on the other side.

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