Even well-heeled thinking before splurging

Buddy Stone will tell you without hesitation that he has a store full of things nobody needs. But oh, are they things somebody would want: gleaming jukeboxes, pinball machines with lights flashing, classic video games, a traffic light, walls of neon signs.

At a time when the difference between wants and needs is forcing shoppers to make difficult decisions, such products are a tougher draw, says Stone, the owner of Classic Home Gamerooms on Park Road in south Charlotte.

During the past year, traffic has been down at the 38-year-old store, which serves a clientele that tends to be fairly well-off. But the economic downturn is reaching even that segment of buyers, said Stone, reclining slightly in a vintage barber chair behind a glass counter. A range of signs hangs above him, including one that says “Life is short … write the check!”

The issue these days, said service manager Chris Call, is that people who would have written checks in the past are opting against it, even if they have the money to do so. “People still come in and find our products compelling,” he said. “But they're not sure enough about their position to make the purchase.”

Stone said he heard a report saying that the economic climate now is as bad as in 1973. But he remembers 1973 and thinks today is worse. “I don't remember any times as bad so far as people's thinking,” he said. He doesn't recall traffic slowing as much as it has this year, either.

The store has built its reputation and customer base over time, Stone said, and those longstanding relationships are helping now. Sales have been steady thanks to repeat business, but the drop in walk-in traffic means the store is attracting fewer of the new customers it will need in the future.

The right result in the upcoming election should help settle and reassure people, Stone said, declining to say what that result would be. Classic Home Gamerooms, meanwhile, will endure by continuing to stress its service and experience, he said.

He ducked back into his office to retrieve a recent handwritten letter from a customer elated that the store had located and serviced a vintage video game he'd wanted for 24 years.

“We just ain't got it in us to be dishonest,” Stone said, “and we have to treat people like we would want to be treated.”