As one of the UK's top tourist destinations, the walled city of York attracts millions of visitors each year, most drawn to its fascinating historic architecture, excellent shops, fantastic tea-rooms and - of course - its majestic Gothic cathedral, which is one of the largest of its kind in Northern Europe. Among the myriad delights tucked away in its narrow, maze-like medieval streets you'll find an unlikely retro gaming nirvana; located on Gillygate, a stone's throw from the aforementioned York Minster, lies Sore Thumb Retro Games. Small yet unmissable thanks to its bright-yellow paint job, this remarkable store could well be the UK's best retailer of old-school and vintage games, hardware and memorabilia.
I don't pass that judgment lightly, either. I like to think I know my retro. I started collecting back in the mid-'90s, before retro gaming was even really a "thing"; one of my local game stores was selling off Japanese Mega Drive and Super Famicom titles for £5 a pop and I happily snapped up several games I'd pined over during the earlier part of the decade but had never been able to afford; now these systems were unfashionable thanks to the arrival of the PlayStation, Saturn and N64 so collecting was cheap. From there, my haul grew over the decades and I cast my net further afield, heading down to London on several occasions to visit the legendary Rathbone Place CEX store as well as its dedicated - but sadly short-lived - retro outlet a few streets away (this was long before CEX shifted away from imports and into the realm of DVD and mobile phone sales, it should be noted). The arrival of the web saw me purchasing the vast majority of my burgeoning collection via eBay or other online resellers, and until very recently I've struggling to find any brick-and-mortar stores which can match the glory days of the '90s - until now.
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I happened across Sore Thumb Retro Games entirely by chance; I'd recently taken the family to York for a short break and - as is my usual custom - I did a quick check on Google to see if there were any decent video game stores in the city. Sore Thumb popped up instantly, accompanied by some intriguing photos of glass cabinets packed with rare titles, both western and imported. My interest was piqued, and one day I left the rest of the family shopping and ventured underneath the shadow of York Minster, through the weather-worn city gate and BANG - there was Sore Thumb's bright storefront to greet my eye.
The window was packed with retro gaming goodness, including boxed NES consoles, home micros and even a full-size Star Wars Stormtrooper, emblazoned with the sign "I'm not for sale". My heart was beating in a way it hadn't since the days of my London retro gaming shopping trips as I pushed the door open, but the pessimist in me felt the need to curb my enthusiasm, as I'd been in many similar stores lately and come away disappointed.
Disappointment was not something I'd need to worry about here. Stepping into Sore Thumb was like walking into a gaming paradise; every available bit of wall space was covered in games, accessories, consoles and merchandise from the past five decades of gaming history. In one corner sat an Atari 7800, surrounded by cabinets packed with rare Zelda and Pokémon items, as well as a fully-boxed PAL copy of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night priced at £250 (the European version sold poorly but came bundled with an art book and CD, making it highly desirable these days). At the front of the store two opposite walls are reserved for Nintendo and Sega; as you walk in you'll find NES, SNES, N64 and GameCube titles in abundance to your left, while on the right there's a massive selection of Master System, Mega Drive and Saturn titles to peruse. Hanging from the ceiling are controllers of every type and description, and as you delve further into the store you're faced with a massive wall of black - hundreds of 32-bit PlayStation games, with their (rather boring) uniform case spines.
Opposite to this is the "import" section; a little bit of Japan in Yorkshire. Japanese games for the Famicom, Virtual Boy, Neo Geo MVS, N64, PlayStation, Game Boy Advance and Super Famicom rub shoulders with anime figures and other collectables - the perfect place to lose a few hundred pounds of cash in a heartbeat. The aforementioned cabinets draw your attention to the rear of the shop, their contents being the most valuable in the whole store. Gaming collectables such as Sonic toys and fully boxed Tamagotchis (I couldn't resist buying one for my son to keep his 20th anniversary one company) take pride of place next to some of the rarest PAL, North American and Japanese releases, including some choice Japanese Saturn shooters and a Sega Mega Jet, a portable (but screen-less) Mega Drive which was installed on Japan Airlines flights in the '90s.
This is a truly stunning store, and is owned by Lee Cunningham - with Roy Pearson employed to man the shop and impart his wisdom where needed. I sat down with both men to talk about the history of the store and their love of retro.
Nintendo Life: Can you give us some background on your gaming history? What machines did you start playing on?
Lee Cunningham: My first memory was playing a Adman Grandstand console. My dad worked at a scrap yard and he brought it home from a skip in maybe 1982. We could never tune it in correctly but me and my brothers would play the hell out of 'Tennis' and 'Soccer' - Pong derivatives, basically. In around '86 when I was 10 I got my own gaming machine. It was a Spectrum 128k with 100 games on only 10 cassettes. I remember spending all Boxing Day coding the Union Jack flag. With this machine I must have doubled my parent's electric bill as games such as Dizzy had no save facility so I had to leave it on during school time! With the Spectrum I had the ability to save my pocket money and go down to WH Smiths and buy a £1.99 game, and for birthdays a £7.99 one.
During this time I loved playing games such as Lords of Chaos with my mate, Lords of Midnight, Bomb Jack, Joe Blade - just some of my faves. I then jumped to Commodore, seeing a world of colour that I had never seen before, and then to my best machine, an Amiga 500. With games such as Ultima, Moonstone, Midwinter and a all-time favourite Speedball 2 I really got into solo gaming and the 'big campaign' kind of games. I was always a WWF (WWE these days, of course) fan, so I bought a Mega Drive to play WWF Super Wrestlemania, and fell in love with Road Rash, Risky Woods and Mega Lo Mania. In my home town only the posh kids had Nintendo so I didn't get to play one till '96, when I was shown WWF Royal Rumble on the SNES.
Roy Pearson: The first time I tried any type of game was when my sister received one of the old Atari consoles for Christmas - the VCS, the one with a wood finish. I think the first game I played was probably Space Invaders. Straight away I was really intrigued. It wasn't till I was about 12 that I received my very own gaming machine and that was the mighty Spectrum 128K. Man, I loved that machine! Games were so cheap too, and there were bloody loads of them. When you can buy something as awesome as Manic Miner for £2.99, who can complain? One of my favourite franchises at the time (and still a little bit now) was the Dizzy series by Codemasters. Sure, the first one was rockhard, but since then I have loved the platforming genre. The only problem was sitting there for 10 minutes waiting for a game to load and then sometimes it crashed and you had to rewind the cassette and try and load it again.
My next gaming machine was when I made the proper move to consoles - it was a Mega Drive. I received one for Christmas with Sonic 2. I did get a SNES a few years later and that's when I realised that out of all the gaming companies out there, Nintendo is my favourite. Sure, they can treat the UK a bit rubbish sometimes (although things are much better nowadays) but when they create games featuring such memorable characters as Mario and Link I just have to forgive them for any silly decisions they may sometimes make. Since I received my SNES, I've owned at least 1 or 2 of the popular consoles during each generation. I currently own all current machines of this generation and lots of the older machines. I also collect shmups, RPGs and platforming games. I am abit of a hoarder! I have just recently purchased an old Amiga 600 at a great price and am loving that too - I have even managed to find a few Dizzy games. Talk about reliving your youth!
Can you give us a brief history of the store?
Lee Cunningham: For 20 years I worked for Royal Mail. Around 8 years ago I started selling on eBay, and this led to me to doing events such as Comic Con, other gaming expos and finally setting up a website. Around 3 years ago I was offed redundancy from Royal Mail, and I used this to set up a market stall which then led to a temporary shop in York. Due to the popularity of the pop-up shop, I found some permanent roots, which is where we are now.
York is one of the UK's top tourist destinations - does the high footfall coming into the city help you in terms of sales?
Lee Cunningham: Definitely, I get customers from all around the world that are visiting York. Also, the amount of UK-based tourism has been increasing, which is great for the city.
How do you source items for your store? How tricky is it to find desirable games in the era of online reselling and eBay?
Lee Cunningham: It all comes down to price. I have a network or use carbooters, skip rats, house clearance and so on. As long as I can pay what they want I get the gear. It's tough, though; everybody nowadays thinks they are online business people because they have a eBay account and everybody can look a 'listed prices' for items. With CEX starting to sell retro this has made it harder for indie shop like myself.
You've devoted a large portion of the shop to Japanese imports and items. Is there a big demand for these?
Lee Cunningham: I wouldn't say big, but its a very cool niche. I think this puts us on the map, as I have a mini Akihabara here in York! For consoles such as Saturn you really need to play the Japanese games to see the full potential of the machine. Plus, Japanese games always look so much cooler than PAL games. It's as if they decided that the Brits are dull so we got grey/black machines and standard game art! But in Japan, it's a kaleidoscope of cool.
When it comes to pricing, most retailers will admit that you can't compete with online sellers. How do you approach this aspect of your business? Do you try to match prices with eBay, or do you have another means of gauging how much something is worth?
Lee Cunningham: Any trader that says they don't compare prices to eBay is lying. As a business we look at the 'sold price' and take a top average. I feel the fact that you can look and feel the item gives us the right to go 'top average'. You will always get punters that will enjoy being in the shop and walking down memory lane, but then troll you about being more expensive than eBay. These people need to realise that this is a living museum we run; it isn't funded by the National Lottery and we have to make money at some point.
What would you say is the most expensive or outlandish item you've ever sold in the shop?
Lee Cunningham: We recently sold the Nintendo 64DD to one of your readers actually; with only 10 games in the library it's an easy one to complete. We have had Panasonic GameCubes boxed and Famicom hotel units. I think the most expensive game was Hyperduel on Japanese Saturn.
Do you still attend any of the retro events around the UK? Are they handy for spreading awareness of your store?
Lee Cunningham: For the past 3 years we have attended every gaming market, Comic Con and expo North of Birmingham. I know that for every 100 flyers handed out you might only get 10 responses, but it's very important to get out and build your brand and let gamers see what you're all about.
Do you find you get a typical type of customer in your store, or does it attract a mixture of gamers?
Lee Cunningham: In our shop we get a wide age range, from 7 years to 60 years, I would say. The fact that we don't sell anything semi-modern keeps our contact with mainstream Call of Duty and FIFA gamers to a bare minimum.
Retro gaming is a massive business now; as gaming moves towards a digital-only future, do you think the market is going to shrink, or grow?
Lee Cunningham: I was worried that this new age where people wouldn't want anything physical. But I have seen a growth in people owning items - be it vinyl, laser discs, retro games, etc. I would say that my business has a sell-by date, as it is built on nostalgia and memories. But I will keep evolving as a business.
What does the future hold for Sore Thumb? Do you have plans for any other stores? Will you be taking your business online, or are you keen on preserving the face-to-face approach?
Lee Cunningham: I have neglected my website for the last couple of years. I have always been a one-man band so the web store was placed on the back burner. I now have a good team in place so we are currently modernising the shop, which will lead to the website opening again for trade and a second store elsewhere in Yorkshire. You can't beat dealing with people face to face, but the truth of the matter is people shop online, so we need get on board.
If you're ever in the vicinity of York then you owe it to yourself to drop into Sore Thumb and soak up the atmosphere, even if you don't intend to buy anything. However, leaving without something is a true test of willpower.