A Blast From the Past

March 11, 2014

Sean Kelly just wanted his Intellivision back. Thirty years later, the area businessman has amassed a collection of about 30,000 video games. He’s opened two stores, called Videogames Then & Now, specializing in the resale of retro games and consoles. The newest one opened in Des Plaines last month.

That lifelong obsessions with pixels and electronic beeps and boops can be traced back to the late 1970s when he got his first Intellivision, an early video game system and a chief competitor to the more popular Atari. But within a few years it looked like computers would take over. Kelly sold his Intellivision and his games ---- even his favored “Sea Battle” --- and bought an Atari computer.

The home video game market had crashed too, sending many companies out of business and forcing others to abandon the industry. While many blame it on an oversaturation of bad software, Kelly believes it was also an age thing. His was the first generation of gamers, and as they got older they spent more time on girls and other hobbies.

There were other things to occupy his time in those teen years too. Kelly worked at White Hen, those little convience stores that used to sit on every block in Chicagoland. Not content to be just an employee, when Kelly reached 15-years-old he applied with White Hen’s corporate office to open his own franchise. They ignored him. He turned 18 and bought a Subway instead. Three years later, White Hen finally got back and offered him a franchise. He sold the Subway soon after.

By then, Kelly was dating the girl who would become his wife. Chasing girls no longer seemed so important, and his interest shifted back to video games.

“When I snagged a girl and secured one, I wanted my Intellivison back.”

He began perusing bulletin board systems, a precursor of the Internet that allowed hobbyists to connect across the country. There he found others like him who wanted to return to their retro games. Groups formed and they soon began trading with each other.

Kelly had a leg up on many others. When he was 18 his parents had moved to Silicon Valley in California where many video game companies were still liquidating stock after the industry crashed. That let him snag games at ridiculous prices off shuttered assembly lines or at flea markets.

“I was buying them up for a quarter, a dime,” he said.

Soon, he was a big-time collector. One of his biggest scores came in 1998 when he headed down to an old warehouse in Laredo, TX. There he bought up 50,000 still boxed cartridges from the Atari and Intellivision era. He’s still selling some of those games 16 years later.

Kelly had an impressive library of obscure games, little known prototypes and popular hits. He had made technical contributions to the community by extracting game data and designing new shell casings that would hold compilations of old games. He got involved in classic gaming exhibitions. But for all that he still had thousands upon thousands of pieces of software he wasn’t doing much with.

Then a change happened in 2001 and White Hen was sold to Clark Retail Enterprises, a gas station company that had been targeting small grocery stores. Kelly said the company began pushing lower margin items like chips, effectively turning the stores into gas stations without gas. Many of his fellow franchisees went out of business. He didn’t like the trend and sold off his store in 2002.

Kelly spent a few months taking stock of himself. He had no college degree and had worked his whole life in convenience stores. But he was tripping over video games. Maybe there was something he could do with that.

Just like when he asked to open a White Hen at age 15, Kelly took another chance. He opened Videogames Then & Now in his hometown Norridge in June 2003.

Eleven years later, it was time to expand and Kelly found a spot at 963 Elmhurst Rd., Des Plaines, near his in-laws home in Mt. Prospect.

“I think I tapped everyone’s basement and attics,” he said of the need for a new neighborhood.

Business has been quiet since he opened in Des Plaines four weeks ago, but that’s how he wants it. If it weren’t for the big blue Sonic The Hedgehog sticker on the window it’d be easy to miss the small store.

The slow start gives the shop time to build up an inventory of used games and minimizes his financial risk. Kelly is the only employee for now, working seven days a week rarely seeing his wife and four daughters. Time to actually play the stuff he sells is unheard of.

“I play way fewer games than the people who come into my store.”

The shop is a haven for retro gamers. Old systems like the Atari 2600 line the walls and ColecoVision carts pack the shelves. He even does repairs. But the store also has some newer items, like “Super Mario 3D World” for the Wii U, to bring in the more modern crowd.

In an era where brick and mortar stores like GameStop have struggled to stay relevant, Videogames Then & Now has carved out a niche among the old school. Kelly’s customers are largely those who enjoy the refined gameplay of older titles and nostalgia over the blockbuster productions of today.

“Just because a game is older doesn’t mean it’s not fun anymore,” he said.

His original goal of recovery his Intellivision has been long since met --- he now owns three sets of all 128 Intellivision games.

Preserving that early history of the industry has become Kelly’s new mission. He joined fellow collectors John Hardie and Joe Santulli in founding the Videogame History Museum, an exhibition of bygone games and consoles that travels to trade and industry shows. The trio is now working to find a permanent location to house the museum and their combined collections.

“We have the history already,” Kelly said. “We just need to show it.”

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I wonder what the 128 Intellivision games are? ;-)



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