In 2002, I started what would eventually become the capitalized “The Collection” from some pretty humble beginnings: I had a single “CD tower” of Playstation 1 and 2 games, probably about four feet tall and barely a foot wide. I also had a handful of boxed up retro systems, and maybe a dozen or so anime DVDs (with a modest amount of VHS tapes as well). Obviously, I expanded; as most of you all know, I also had to sell off roughly 95% of my games and anime during a downturn between jobs. Today, the Collection is the largest it’s ever been, and it’s in no danger of having to be sold off anytime soon.
I don’t like to brag– particularly not about stuff that I own– so that’s not the purpose of this post. Most folks don’t see their piles of video games and movies and suchlike as collections– they see them, primarily, as just “stuff”. If they want to get fancy, they may refer to it as a “library”. Really, though, these are cop-outs: if one is really serious about becoming a collector, then there can never be a point where you just have a pile of discs. You have to start early, so that it doesn’t get away from you. I’ve been throwing around terms like the Reclamation List and all that for years now without really explaining the thought process behind it all; I figure, now that the majority of the work is behind me, it would be a good time to take a look at how I built up even this modest collection and how I go about expanding it.
I should note, though, that it’s perfectly okay if you don’t want to be a collector of DVDs, games, whatever. That’s fine. It’s not something that everyone can do or has an interest in doing. The thing is, of course, that some folks out there do want to be collectors, and there’s some stuff that I wish I knew when I was setting out. That’s the purpose of this post (actually, by the time I’m done, it’ll probably feel more like a lecture).
So, without further delay, let’s start with The Ten Commandments Of Collecting:
1) Thou Shalt Organize Thy Stuff Into A Collection. I make a distinction here between “stuff” and “a collection” because there is a distinction, even if it’s primarily psychological. Take, for example, my books versus my video games. My books are all dumped into bookshelves without any thought or reasoning behind their placement beyond “it fits here”. In point of fact, my books are overflowing the meager bookshelves I have them on because I cheaped out and didn’t get tall ones. Contrast that to the video game shelf, which is organized into “active” and “archived” games, sorted by system, and roughly sorted by purchase date or completion date within each system. It’s easy to tell which one I’m more serious about; because of this investment of time, the game collection feels like more of a long-term project.
2) Thou Shalt Save Every Bit Of Packaging. This one is pretty obvious, yet you’d be surprised how many people don’t pay the slightest bit of attention to it. With video games and DVDs coming in self-storing packaging these days it’s a lot easier to have complete packaging, which means manuals for games and liner notes for movies. However, if you want to go the extra mile, you might also consider saving the extra stuff that goes into the package– ads for other movies or games, for example. The sole exception to this is a one-time-use code, such as a download token or a rewards-program code; you can save the cards for this if you want (like if the card has promotional artwork or something on it) but make sure you obfuscate the code once you’re done with it.
3) Thou Shalt Not Buy Used Stuff That Is Incomplete. This is mostly for video games, but it could come up for DVD boxed sets as well. Buying used can be a real money-saver, particularly if you’re looking for something out-of-print or relatively old. It can be tempting to see the item you’ve been hunting for sitting there as a bare disc, and you know where to find high-resolution scans of the cover art. You should usually resist this temptation. First, it incurs an extra expense on you because you now have to rustle up replacement packaging– for DVDs, not a problem; for games, whose clamshell cases usually are only available direct from the manufacturers, it can be expensive to buy just one or two cases. Second, not having the original packaging severely damages the resale value of the item, making it potentially worthless: the value of an item you can’t get to sell is always $0. Third, unless you have access to a really high-quality color printer, making a replacement slipcover for the game leaves you with a cheap-looking case that screams to potential buyers, “this is probably a bootleg!” and looks ludicrously out-of-place on your shelf. Finally, unless you’re sure that the item had a production run in the sub-thousand copies range, you’re probably going to run across a complete version of the item in a few weeks of diligent searching anyway. I’ve been burned a couple of times on this, particularly with some relatively obscure PS2 games that I really should have known better about, so my policy now is that nothing newer than 2000 gets bought incomplete. For older video games, though, you have to make an exception: nobody saved their manuals for, say, an Atari 2600 game, let alone through up to the N64 era. Cartridges are also far sturdier than discs, so they’re more likely to have lost boxes. It’s usually okay to buy a bare cartridge, especially for portable games, but keep an eye out for the rare complete-in-box set.
4) Thou Shalt Not Pay Full Price (Unless Thou Must). This is another obvious tip that causes some folks to scratch their heads when they realize how much money they’re basically giving away. Because video games and DVDs are such a rapid market, they drop in price dramatically and quickly compared to other, more obvious collector’s items like Hummel figurines or old books. We’ll focus specifically on video games for this commandment but the principle is the same for DVDs and CDs as well. On release day, a new console game costs $60. If you’re excited to play the game and literally cannot wait for it, then by all means buy it at that price, as long as you value the entertainment you get out of it at that $60 mark. For me, a game like Final Fantasy or the like is easily valued that high, so I have no problems snagging the game on day one. However, as time goes on, retailers see that game sitting on the shelf for weeks, and start dropping the price to get it to sell better. If you wait a few weeks or months after release day to buy a game, you can save in some cases $10 to $30 off that initial price tag. It gets better once the game is announced to be on the system’s value-price line (“Greatest Hits” for Sony systems and “Platinum Hits” for the 360… Nintendo hasn’t announced a successor to the “Player’s Choice” line yet). These games are priced between $20 and $30, have larger print runs, and (unfortunately) have gaudy markings on their packaging. If you’re smart and keep an eye on game news web sites, you can get advance notice of when a game is added to these lists and pick up a copy of the original print run of the game at the value price, before the ugly-box version floods the market. Bear in mind, though, that in some cases there are value-adds to the bargain-bin version that make it more attractive; Microsoft, for example, is being very good about this by including download codes for DLC with some of their Platinum Hits games. If you’re collecting to play, this is a pretty good deal and could be an acceptable trade-off to the ugly packaging. And this doesn’t even get into the random deals (like, for example, the rash of “buy two, get one” deals from mid-to-late 2009) that some retailers offer!
5) Thou Shalt Purchase Thy New Stuff With An Eye To Collecting. Movies and games are a fast-paced field to collect in, because there’s always something new coming out. More to the point, there are so many different genres within the field– sci-fi, first-person-shooters, romances, tactical strategy– that everyone’s collections can be unique. There’s always going to be “must-own” items… and there’s always going to be crap. Lately there’s a silly trend of companies putting out “Collector’s Editions” of their items that have print runs as large or even larger than the “standard” editions; in some cases, the “collector’s” is the only edition released! Worse, though, are the critical darling items that are fantastically good but completely overlooked by the public; these are the kinds of items that have what I like to call “worldwide print runs of twelve”. It’s an obvious exaggeration, of course, but these items appear in retail on their release day, stick around for maybe a month or so, and then are never seen again except on eBay and under a dozen layers of dust in some godforsaken pawn shop. The bottom line is, do your homework. If you know enough about the genre you collect in and the companies producing the items you collect, you can easily know what you have to line up for on Day Zero and what you can let slide until it hits the bargain bin.
6) Thou Shalt Have A List Of Thy Collection At All Times. You’ve been there before, trust me: you’re on vacation somewhere remote, and you wander into a used game store or a pawn shop just to have a look around, when you spot an absolute steal of a deal on an item that’s fairly uncommon, even though it’s a bit of an expenditure now. You snatch it off the shelf, make sure it’s worth buying, and walk to the counter before realizing, “Wait, don’t I already have this?!” Doubt creeps into your mind. If you leave it at the store, you’ll get home and realize you didn’t have it; if you pick it up, you’ll head home and see that you do have it, and now you have to offload it. Obviously the second is better in that you can turn a little profit off of it, but wouldn’t it be better to not have to be in doubt at all? These days it’s fairly easy to have access to some kind of document storage from anywhere in the world. Most of us carry some kind of portable device, be it a smartphone or an MP3 player with a screen, or even a netbook. Consider having, at the very least, a flat text-file list of what’s in your collection on your portable device. If you want, you can even put the prices you paid for the items on it as well if you’re looking to make flipping items a side venture. Software tools exist to help manage these things; I use the excellent Delicious Library tool for the Mac (and was lucky enough to get the iPhone app before it was pulled– even if it hadn’t been, the tool can publish a web-based gallery of your collection which any smartphone or mobile web device can access).
7) Thou Shalt Not Treat Thy Collection As Your Retirement. I think a lot of people were burned out on collecting in the late 90’s and early 2000’s with the Beanie Baby craze. These small, relatively obscure dolls were being traded at ridiculously high aftermarket values for only a short while, until the manufacturer could ramp up production and flood the market, driving the aftermarket values into the toilet. People saw these dolls, not as items of intrinsic value, but as bonds or investments; obviously, they chose poorly. I ran into a similar problem myself: when I was unemployed in early 2005, I wound up having to slowly and steadily sell off my entire collection of games, DVDs, and CDs just to keep myself afloat. I sold some items at decent prices but the majority of them wound up being sold far too low because nobody else could give me cash at the time. I’m not proud of it, but I see it as a valuable lesson: the minute you buy something, its resale value is cut in half. Games, DVDs, and CDs (these last ones especially) depreciate in value far too rapidly to be considered a serious or even minimally viable “investment”. The only game that could ever act that way is blackjack at a casino, and even then the odds are in favor of the house. The point is, if you collect something like games and movies, make sure you get some intrinsic value out of the item equal to or greater than the depreciation of the item. Use what you collect– gently, of course– so that if (heaven forbid) you have to take it all to the pawn shop, you can do so with no regrets.
8) Thou Shalt Not Fear Parting With An Item, Or Even Thy Collection. Like I said above, times can get tough. If you get laid off, or if an emergency comes up, or if some disaster strikes, you may need some cash. In extreme circumstances, your emergency reserve of money could run out and you’ll need to find some way to make up the difference; selling off an item or two from your collection could save you, but it’d be painful. After all, you worked hard to find that item, and it cost you a pretty penny! The thing is, though, if you already got your money’s worth of enjoyment out of the item, then you should have no problem selling it off. Don’t become too attached to your collection, to the point where you start neglecting essentials in order to preserve it. You need to eat and survive first. If the literal worst happens, and you need to sell the whole thing off– or if it gets stolen– you’ll want to make sure you have the most current version of your list ready and stored somewhere safe, so that you can use that to reclaim the items slowly (or report it to the police). Don’t feel you have to get it all back at once: it took you a long time to collect it the first time, so it’ll take you just as long the second time. Or the third time, or the fiftieth time (though if you have to sell your collection 50 times in your lifetime I’d be more concerned about getting a steady income first). Although, in the interim, it could be wise to sell off items strategically if you’re coming up a little short on your entertainment budget: sell off stuff you know you’ll be able to buy back later at a price far lower than you sold it for. For example, if you’re not into multiplayer games, selling off a high-profile game once you finish its single-player campaign is a good idea, while the resale value is still high; you can then wait until the next version of the game comes out to pick it up on the extra-cheap.
9) Thou Shalt Know That Some Purchases Are Forever. Lately there’s a fairly big trend in the video game industry in particular to include single-use codes for downloadable content with new games; other games make such extensive use of DLC that you can easily wind up spending as much if not more than the game’s initial cost on add-ons. These purchases can never be passed on to anyone else: you bought it, and now you’re stuck with it. This isn’t as bad as it sounds for certain games. Stuff like Rock Band and Guitar Hero DLC is well worth the cash. Others, like map packs for games that eventually have only one or two players online each month, are not so valuable. Also, DLC is usually if not always tied to your hardware. Come to think of it, hardware itself should be considered a “forever” item simply because it’s better to get a new item and not have to worry about how badly someone else abused the console before you. Finally, game peripherals like guitars and extra controllers are nice to have, but they have almost no resale value by themselves and add only a little value to a console being sold. A special case should be made for CDs: it’s my policy that I don’t buy CDs anymore unless the artist is one I really like, or the music isn’t available digitally. I also buy CDs used whenever possible, and if I must buy new I try to do so direct from the artist (usually at a concert). Music is increasingly a digital medium, so this makes sense from my perspective, though as always your mileage may vary.
10) Thou Shalt Know Where Thy Collection Is Going After Thou Art Gone. A collection is a nice thing for you to have, but as always, you can’t take it with you once you pass away. It’s probably a good plan to have an “exit strategy” written up, even if it’s not a formal will. There are a million different ways you can do this, but the three most obvious ones are: sell it all off, split it up, or pass it on. You can say that the whole wad will be sold on eBay in one grand, dramatic gesture– you’d be surprised how much people will pay for a full collection if it has some rare or well-preserved items. Alternately, you can split the collection up and sell it in lots; a single lot of maybe 6-10 games with a fair distribution of rare games can sell for more than the games would alone. Finally, you can pass the collection on to a friend, relative, or group; this could itself be done in its entirety or in bits and pieces. Myself, I don’t yet know what’s going to happen to my Wall O’ Fun, but I’m leaning towards donating it to some local hospitals and charities so that people can get some enjoyment out of the things which brought me such fun– of course, that’s a very far-off thought.
Finally, while these are by no means commandments, here’s a few tips on finding those hard-to-track-down items that you might be missing. (Again, this is going to focus on video games primarily, but the techniques apply universally.)
Check online. eBay, the Craigslist for your area, and even your local newspaper’s online classifieds can oftentimes find what you’re looking for at decent, if not great, prices.
Flip lots of games. “Flipping” is the sales technique of buying several lots of games from many different sources, taking what you want out of the lots, recombining them, and reselling them at higher or more attractive prices. It takes a little bit more startup cash than just buying single games, but done effectively you can make it a self-sustaining cycle.
Garage sales. This would be mostly for retro or older games; most of the time people are going to send their current-generation stuff to GameStop. Still, it’s a great way to kill a summer Sunday afternoon, and sometimes you can find some genuinely good stuff.
Pawn Shops and Flea Markets. At the time that I’m writing this, I live across the street from a weekend flea-market site. There are two video game dealers in the building, and in the summer when the outdoor stalls are up two or three of those usually have a pile of games. I’ve come across some high-value items there… and I’ve been burned on more than one occasion. This is risky and a bit more expensive than buying online, but it has the advantage of being able to negotiate prices and not requiring shipping fees.
In the end, taking up media collecting as a serious hobby can be rewarding and fun, but it can also be really nerve-wracking if you’re not prepared for it. Obviously, I’m not setting myself up as an authority or anything, but these are all just stuff I’ve found out since starting the Reclamation project. It all comes down to what you get out of it; if you want it just to have it, or if you want it to watch/read/play it all at some point.