29 July 2000

Interview with Jerry Greiner (originally for Classic Gamer Magazine)

[Classic Gamer Magazine introductionThis article originally appeared in CGM #4 (spring 2000), but the below is from my copy as it was submitted and may not reflect any changes the editors made.]

In November of 1999, Jerry Greiner, better known as classic video game dealer JerryG, announced he was going out of business after many years. In February 2000, shortly before the official announcement that he had sold his business, I caught up with Mr. Greiner to get the details of why he’d both gotten into and then gotten out of the classic video game sales business.

Greiner, 58, began collecting classic video games around 1989, although he'd "always been a collector of something." He and his wife enjoyed going to garage sales. Mr. Greiner said, "I kept seeing the Atari stuff and I remember back when my kids were younger having the Atari and playing the games. Kept thinking, 'well one of these days I ought to pick one of these up so I can show the grandkids what their parents played with.' We stopped at a garage sale and a guy had a box full of games and game system. Probably had 50 games, a bunch of controllers, and stuff. Sold it to me for 15 bucks. Then unfortunately at the next garage sale, a guy had a box full of games about the same size. He offered it to me for 5 bucks. I said, 'Geez, I've got to average my cost here,' so I bought that one."

Greiner continued, "Then I got to thinking, 'well, I wonder how many different games are out there?' So I just started buying them by the titles."

I’m sure that part sounds very familiar to most collectors. He remembered setting a limit on what he would pay: 10 cents a game. However, if it had "some weird, neat label on it," he’d go up to 25 cents. "It was easy to go out on a Saturday and, if I’d wanted to, I could have picked up a thousand games, but I’d usually find 20 or 30 or 50 or something I didn’t have." Then he decided he should have a system for each grandchild, but not knowing how many he’d have, he just started picking up extras.

Like many other collectors, Greiner started collecting a single system: the Atari 2600. He recalled, "I remember stopping one day and the guy had these ugly looking yellow carts." The man claimed to have every cartridge ever made for this system. "By the time I left he got down to $5 if I took everything. I said, 'no, I don’t want it,'" Greiner continued. "I figured it was some weird junk that wasn’t worth anything. Then [later] I realized it was a Fairchild [Channel F] and then all of the sudden I wanted a Fairchild. I haunted the flea markets and thrift stores and garage sales until I finally found a Fairchild."

Although his collection has branched out to include other systems, the Atari 2600 remains his favorite. "It'll probably be the last thing I give up. They'll probably have to bury it with me," he said.

When asked what his wife and children thought of his new hobby back when he started, Greiner at first said he wasn't sure. He literally filled up their house in Oregon with his collection, he said. When they prepared to move to Arizona in 1996, she said, "I want a house we can live in. So let's find one with a three car garage so you can put the games in the garage and I can have the house." However, Greiner said, "she's been very supportive and understanding of all the stuff that I drag in." Both of them enjoyed going to thrift stores and garage sales. It showed when they moved because they had a six week garage sale, made almost $12,000, but didn't even get rid of half of their stuff.

Around 1991, Greiner stumbled upon an early issue of The 2600 Connection newsletter and saw an ad for Games and More, who had Atari games still in the box. He called, and the owner started ranting how he was tired of collectors calling up and then complaining about his prices on the old games. Nobody complained when he charged $30–40 for an NES game, but people got upset if he even asked for what he paid for the older systems' titles. Greiner asked how much the owner was selling old games for? The man replied $5–10, but he was going to just throw them out because they were taking up shelf space. Greiner told the man he was really interested and asked what the man had. The owner responded he didn't have a count, but he had a list of the titles he had and read some off. Greiner asked, "if I took more than one, what would you want for them?"

"Five bucks a piece. If you took a bunch it would be even cheaper," the man replied.

Greiner asked, "how big a bunch and how much cheaper?"

The owner told him, "if you take everything I have I'll sell it to you for 50 cents a piece, whether it's a piece of hardware or a game and I won't charge you for the common stuff."

A week later $1800 in shipping charges showed up on Greiner's doorstep. That was almost three times what he paid for the merchandise itself, which was all Atari 2600 items. His wife asked, in the way wives do, what he intended to do with it all. Thinking on his feet, he replied, "I'm going into business!" His first sale was to a man in New Orleans: Kaboom! for $4.

Over time, more people with large supplies of games came to him to sell cheap. Sometimes he told them to junk it because he didn't know what to do with more of it. One man in New Mexico tried to sell him a bunch of Intellivision games. After going down to a nickel a game, Greiner still refused because he didn't have room for it. Finally, the man said he’d send it to him for the cost of shipping, but Greiner still said no. He regrets it now, somewhat, but at the time it seemed the correct thing to do.

Over the years, business has been up and down, but enjoyable. Most of Greiner's profits were spent on his personal collection or expanding his inventory. "It's not like everybody thinks," he said. "It's not a way to make a million dollars. I don’t think anybody's going to get rich selling old video games. It's particularly tough if you're trying to do it as a dealer with taxes and those requirements." He believes eventually collectors who sell a lot but aren't officially in business will discover the pleasure of dealing with the IRS. "It costs me more to try to keep track of the paperwork than to pay the taxes," he quipped.

Greiner feels the hobby of collecting classic video games has grown since he went into business. "I think things like eBay have been very helpful to the hobby, but they're also very detrimental. I'm not sure, in the long run, if it's going to kill the hobby or increase the hobby. It's been good from the standpoint that it brings recognition among people that these things have value to somebody and it encourages more people to look for them. But I think the detrimental part has been that no matter who you talk to in the last couple of years, it's extremely difficult to find anything at all, the reason being every collector buys everything he can with the idea of selling the excess on eBay. And so there's not the stuff out there for somebody like myself or the collectors who started when I did to go along and say, 'oh, look at this, I think I’ll just buy one of these for the heck of it,' unless we're the first guy at the sale. The change that I've seen is that there's more customers who buy from me because they want to play a 2600 game than there are collectors who want a particular title or label or something."

When asked if the expansion of the Internet might play into this, he said yes. "When I first started, basically I did snail mail catalogs. Now I haven't printed a catalog in three years. Most of the same names are still doing business with me, except now they're using the Internet."

I asked Greiner if the decision to leave the video game business had been long in coming and if it was a difficult one. He said, "it was probably a matter of several years in coming. It was very difficult to make the decision because I didn't really want to get out of games."

He decided to keep the hobby, but quit the business. He will continue to maintain the video game museum portion of his former web site at www.atari2600.com.

"I guess the biggest problem for me and the biggest reason that I decided I had to quit was I was just unable to keep up [with shipments]," he said. Another big factor was that both Greiner and his wife have health problems. Greiner is fighting diabetes and recurring exhaustion. However, he will continue to help the new owners, a young couple, with the business for an undetermined amount of time. (Basically as long as he feels like it.)

He'll keep a personal stock of rarer items for trade. "When I first started accumulating things, I was accumulating them for trade. I picked up a number of contacts from The 2600 Connection and the Digital Press. Everybody had the good stuff that I wanted and they wouldn't sell it, they wanted to trade for it. So I started trying to collect the better stuff to use for trading. And then people would get mad at me because I wouldn't sell it. Finally I broke down and sold some stuff. This time I don't intend to break down and sell stuff."

Greiner did, however, sell large chunks of his collection as part of getting out of the business. Much of it brought a higher price than he had anticipated. He said it was difficult to part with some of it, particularly the obscure stuff he hadn't had time to play.

When asked what he would do with all the new space, he replied, "I'm not so sure there's going to be a whole lot of space left." His wife wants to actually put a car in one garage. Another is used for his office. The third he'll fill with shelves. There's also a storage building in back that he may store household items in or make a game room out of. He will free up a patio, which has some boxes on it that he never unpacked after receiving them. All of these areas were filled to the ceiling with boxes of games and consoles.

"I've met a lot of nice people and good friends through the hobby. I've had people stop by from all over the world," Greiner concluded. "It's been more fun than work, although it's gotten kind of stressful at times. Hoping I can get a little more rest, get my health built back up where I can do more things. I hope I can make the game show in Las Vegas this year. I missed the first two." I hope you can make it, too, Jerry. No doubt it'll be even more fun for you now that you're "retired."

Postscript (11 June 2013)

Jerry did indeed make it to Classic Gaming Expo 2000, the same year I was there.  He even came by the Classic Gamer Magazine booth (which allowed Cav to take a photo for the interview), but I never managed to meet him the whole weekend!

At the time this was written, any serious video game collector on the Internet knew who Jerry Greiner was. He was active on the rec.games.video.classic newsgroup, too. I'm sure I could write an entire blog post on Greiner, but for now I'll just concentrate on the interview itself.

I contacted Mr. Greiner about an interview the same day he announced everything was for sale, 11 November 1999. At the same time, I asked CGM publisher Cav if he wanted to run it. If he didn't, I'd put it on my Classic Video Games Nexus web site, which was moderately popular at the time. Greiner agreed to the interview, but didn't have time to compose a lengthy e-mail, so would only do it on the phone or in person. As cool as in person would have been, he lived in Arizona and I was in Alabama, so that wasn't going to happen. Cav did indeed think it was a good idea, so I was reimbursed for the phone call.

For reference, here is the first paragraph of his announcement about selling out.
Because of the failing health of both my wife and myself, and because my space and spare time is getting scarce, and because I need to spend all the time I can on my regular job commitments I have decided to sell off all or parts of my collection and game stock. There is probably not anything I won't sell if the offer is right, including individual items or complete collections from my "want to keep" list.
Due to various things on both our ends, the interview didn't take place until mid-February 2000. I had a microphone that attached to a phone with a suction cup, so with his permission, I recorded the call. I also took copious notes. Thank goodness I did, because it turned out the computer caused some sort of interference that made some of the audio unclear. Theoretically I still have that cassette tape somewhere.

Because of the interference and because we both tended to ramble a bit during the interview, I went with the above narrative rather than reproducing the interview verbatim. Writing is also more enjoyable than simple transcription. Cav and Sarah were both very pleased with how it came out. The deadline for CGM #3 had already passed by the time the interview took place, so I didn't write it up until #4.

Shortly after the interview was conducted, Greiner announced the business was sold.
Effective at midnight, Sunday, March 26th, 2000 the Atari2600.com website and videogame business will be operated by Joe and Lottie Cody.
The couple bought the entire business, except for what Greiner kept for his personal collection or sold before coming to terms. He wasn't done with the hobby, though, as in March 2001 he finally released the first edition of the JerryG Guide to the Classic VideoGames. (He had released at least one "beta" version before that.) He worked on a second edition, but as of now, it has never been released.

Greiner "retired from the hobby" in 2012 and began selling off his personal collection. Much of it was selling directly to individual buyers. But a year later, he was still working on selling it off, mostly on ebay by that point. As you can see, even though he sold the bulk of what he had when he sold the business, his collection's size was still most impressive.

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