As I’ve stated before, geeks largely define themselves through objects. Comic books, Magic cards, action figures, t-shirts, they depend to a great extent on things that express their interests. Likewise, they have an interest in things. A comic book geek needs comic books, RPG geeks need RPG books, toy geeks need toys. The geek world relies a lot on the purchasing and selling of objects, and has for some time now.
Which is why I’m baffled that they don’t understand the very rudiments of economics.
An old comic store I used to frequent (because it was my only nearby option) had a bizarre system for handling back issues. The fewer issues they had in stock, the higher the price was. So if me and a friend walked in, and he bought Fistoplex #6, and then I bought Fistoplex #6, I would pay more. Because there were fewer. The store seemed to believe that they were the only source for comics, and if they had fewer, then the comic had somehow become more “rare”.
This is a weird view of supply and demand. And yet it still takes place in comic stores all over the place.
Firefly star Nathan Fillion discovered this when trying to buy a comic book recently. The book, Serenity #1, was only a week or so old, but was “hot,” so the store in question was charging $20 for a $3 comic book. Their excuse? “It’s hot and hard to find.” Hot, yes. Hard to find, not so much. Sure, it wasn’t printed in huge amounts and many stores had sold out, but it wasn’t like paying $20 was the only way to get your hands on one. Yet the store claimed they were “rare” because the store had difficulty getting them in to sell. The store, like my old comic store, believed it was an island in a void, the only place in the world with such products.
Recently I played Magic again with my friends Dan and Mike, playing with some recent preconstructed decks that Mike had. Dan played with one called “Rat’s Nest” which he liked, and he sought to buy a deck of his own. Wizards of the Coast, makers of the game, sells these preconstructed decks in large amounts for $10 a pop. Dan found he couldn’t find the deck anywhere and someone tipped him off as to why: A “rare” card in the deck is now valued at $25, so card scalpers have snapped up all the decks.
Think about that. This card is so rare that it can be guaranteed to be found in a $10, formerly easily-available location. And yet, despite this, the card is “valued” at $25. This is a value system that has no concept of reality. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, the artificial “value” of the card has resulted in the decks being scarce.
Imagine if someone suddenly decided that Campbell’s Chicken NoodleOs soup was “worth” $50 a can. Despite the soup being readily available, cans would vanish from the shelves. People would sell them on eBay, and idiots there would propagate the idea by purchasing them. A fantasy of value would quickly become a reality. Some would say this is exactly economics at work; diamonds are highly “valuable” despite a glutted market solely because they’re perceived to be that way.
The action figure collectors have dealt with this for years. A new figure comes out and is instantly “rare”. Only available on eBay for 500% markup. This is because scalpers buy them and sell them to idiots on eBay at 500% markup. The system feeds itself. If the idiots didn’t buy them, the scalpers couldn’t sell them, and then you could buy the figures at Toys R Us like a normal person. But geeks aren’t normal people.
When I first got into Magic, several years ago, it was at a point when one core set was being changed in favor of a newer set. For a brief time, cards were hard to find, as the one set sold out and the other hadn’t yet been released. I had gone into some local shop and asked if they had any starter decks. I was told that they did, for $20 a pop. The normal price at the time was, I think, $7.50. I laughed, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“You won’t find them anywhere else,” he said.
And then I said something that too few geeks say, which is why we accept this ridiculousness. I said, “Yes, but I don’t have to eat them.” They’re not necessary for my survival. If I don’t get those cards, read that comic, own that action figure, I won’t perish. And hell, most of those things, if I wait a little bit, I’ll be able to buy for pennies on the dollar once the Wheel of Hot has turned and they’re no longer on top. Today’s impossible-to-find Lando Calrissian is tomorrow’s pegwarmer.
So little in the geek universe is truly rare. There’s absolutely no reason to pay over retail for any of this stuff. Doing so merely encourages people to continue to sell things this way. I understand it’s part of geek nature to conflate fantasy and reality, but let’s not apply that to simple laws of supply and demand, okay?