This isn’t your parents’ arcade. From a 3,000-square-foot space at the Southland Mall, entrepreneur Charles Story Jr. has assembled an army of flat-screen monitors that serve the latest titles in video games – and a few retro ones.
Opened in June 2017, Game oN brings a new offering to the Whitehaven market. While parents shop at the Southland Mall, they can pay by their hour for their kids to play multiplayer PC games or get a 360-degree virtual reality experience at the facility’s two Vive VR stations.
“Back when Nintendo was just starting out, we thought all the pixels looked amazing. So, looking at the games now, it's unreal,” said Story.
Game oN sees between 500 and 600 customers a month. On Saturday when the store is busiest, the gaming floor is a flurry of about 75 adults and school-aged children racing cars down urban streets, combatting enemy fire, and practicing hand-eye coordination on flight simulators.
During Story’s two decades as an entrepreneur in Memphis, he’s sought to facilitate the best in gaming and media. A native New Yorker, Story moved to Memphis in 1986. After a few accounting jobs at companies including FedEx and Smith & Nephew, he opened his first business – a video rental store.
Charles Story Jr., owner of Game oN. (Brandon Dahlberg)
Quick Drive Video opened in Whitehaven in 1999. A staple at the corner of Winchester Road and Elvis Presley Boulevard for ten years, it was also ahead of the curve. Quick Drive Video’s part-time drivers would drop off and deliver games, DVDs and VHS tapes directly to a customer’s door. Story also opened a second location at the corner of Highland Street and Park Avenue.
There were no late fees and no competitors – until Story felt the creep of bootlegging and online streaming. He closed both stores in 2004.
“I knew that with the video store, it wasn't going to be around much longer. One thing I noticed was people playing video games more and more,” he said.
Story had a few options for gaming at the Quick Drive Video’s Whitehaven location. Kids would visit to play on consoles like GameCube and DreamCast. Twelve years later, he’s brought gaming back to the neighborhood but this time with better graphics.
DeWayne Smith, 27, lived around the corner from Story’s video shop when he was a child. As an adult, he visits Game oN during the weekends to play games like Insurgency.
With his brother, he launched DJS Heating and Air Service in 2011. Growing up around Story’s influence as an entrepreneur helped Smith build his own small business, he said.
“What it did it taught you teamwork and discipline and sportsmanship,” he said of growing up around video games. “When kids get frustrated, they want to throw the game or the controller at the wall. You can't throw anything here. You got to learn to work on your skills. That's what the environment is about.”
Gaming PCs line the wall of Game oN in Whitehaven. (Brandon Dahlberg)
Story hopes that Game oN can be a destination for mentorship as well as entertainment. He and Sharon Willis, Game oN’s marketing manager, visit Whitehaven grade schools to deliver free play vouchers to students who have made improvements in their conduct and grades.
Game oN also advertises a program where kids unlock free gaming privileges if they work on their homework for one hour at the store.
The store is also a certified vendor with Shelby County Schools, which Story hopes will pave the way for field trips. An enclosed room in the back of the store is regularly booked for birthday parties and private gaming events. In addition to three dozen 32-inch monitors, Game oN has mini indoor basketball and tables for foosball and air hockey.
“It's needed here. The kids need some place to go,” Willis said.
Story said that Game oN has found a captive audience in Whitehaven. Being a mall-based business means there’s constant traffic, and he has the advantage of being a familiar face in the neighborhood. People who visited his former video rental store now trust him to supervise their children for an afternoon.
He first tested the Game oN concept across the state border in Southaven, Mississippi. He ran a smaller store off of Goodman Road between 2015 and April 2017. The Mississippi store closed when the lease was signed at Southland Mall.
“I knew I always wanted it to be in Whitehaven because Whitehaven needs it. Because a thing like this here, with a lot of technology, it's more upper scale and should be in upper scale places. They don't really put stuff like this in places where they'd maybe struggle to get people in,” Story said.
While the shop has only been open in Whitehaven for nine months, Story has his eye on an expansion. Outside of a moderate amount of friends and family funding, he hasn’t benefitted from outside investment – a boost that’s needed if he wants to move further into the Memphis market.
“If we can get some backing, I'm going straight over to the University of Memphis area as soon as I can,” he said. With the expansion would come part-time employees. He and Willis are the sole staffers of the shop.
Towards the end of my interview with Game oN, an elementary school-aged patron swung his legs over a chair and asked for help with a console game.
“What do you need?” Willis asked, crouching to teach a pint-sized gamer how to unlock his current challenge.