It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since Charmander, Squirtle and Bulbasaur first graced us with their glorious 8-bit selves on the original Game Boy. Today, Pokémon is a cultural phenomenon, with a presence on multiple mediums and over 275 million games sold worldwide. Having taken everything from television screens to luxury clothing stores, Pokémon have made their invasion plans clear– and they show no signs of stopping.
JapanLA kicked off its month-long Pokémon pop-up store with a launch party on Saturday night: an hours-long Nintendo nerd takeover I had the pleasure of attending. I went with my roommate, another Pokémon fan who had spent Pokémon Day with me driving to local GameStops to find and buy loads of merchandise. (I justified my outrageous spending by explaining to him that it was a holiday.)
We left for West Hollywood at around 4:30 p.m., the Los Angeles traffic gods smiling down on us and allowing us to arrive just after 5. While I had expected a line, what we were greeted with was a human-snake that, by the end of the night, wrapped around an entire block-and-a-half. Even if we’d left our apartment a few hours earlier, we’d still be fairly far from the front: the first attendees in line had arrived at around 1:00 a.m. Undeterred, we took our spot – numbers 500 and 501, I’d guessed – and we played the waiting game. We were sandwiched between two couples, one of which had traveled six hours by car from San Francisco to be there.
(There I am in the bottom-left corner: the guy with the red hat.)
Immediately my 3DS’ StreetPass light began flashing. Fellow trainers of all walks of life surrounded us, dressed in things as simple as Ash Ketchum’s hat to full-on Team Rocket Executive garb. Many had come decked out in their favorite Pokémon costumes, including one man who had completely transformed himself into an Ampharos.
Our excited conversations about Pokémon GO and how we’d dress if we were to set out on a real-life Pokémon adventure were peppered with in-line trivia contests and giveaways. The two San Franciscan boys behind us received a set of stickers when asked how far they’d trekked to be there that night. Meanwhile, the boy and girl in front of us were accompanied by the latter’s little brother, who had traveled from North Dakota and, after expressing his sadness he hadn’t received the prize, was given the same set of stickers. Later, he’d barely miss out on a second reward after neglecting to get a trivia question about Vivilion’s Abilities right. “I forgot about Compound Eyes!” he shouted, disappointedly.
Among the many cosplayers that evening were a set of Pokémon Breeders, who were walking the line with genuine, genetically-engineered Pokémon. No, just kidding; they were puppets. Check them out in this video:
Following over three hours of countless challenges from foolish trainers who had no hope of ever defeating me, numerous jokes about Pokémon game tropes (“Hey, you look like you’re in a hurry! Let’s battle!”), and my tendency to become extremely envious of other people and their supa-fly Pokémon T-shirts, my roommate and I had finally reached the stop sign that was 50 feet away from the entrance of the store.
There, on Melrose Avenue, was a food truck selling ice fluff, a kind of odd, light, shaved ice treat with a special, Pokémon-themed item that night (although my gut feeling tells me they just rebranded a product they were already serving to draw in us Poké Fans).
The offerings of ice fluff weren’t enough to distract me, though (but I can’t say the same of my roommate): I could finally see JapanLA! Others were leaving the store, passing by with their newly-purchased PokéMerch in hand. Bouncers on-the-alert were positioned by us on both sides, helping to keep out the riff-raff. I knew that, any minute, I’d be surrounded by the PokéStuff of my dreams.
Then, inside, was when the disappointment hit. I’m not naïve: I realized our position in line wouldn’t secure us the much-touted exclusive stock of T-shirts and plushes, but I’d hoped JapanLA would have anticipated the event’s popularity. Presumably, just minutes after the store’s doors had opened, most of the shop’s items had been snatched up, leaving the unlucky back-5000 with paraphernalia one could easily find cheaper online.
That isn’t to say I was completely let down. Pokémon music from every generation was blasting from the store’s sound system and the atmosphere inside the shop was just as enthusiastic as the outside. Episodes from the Indigo League anime series were playing on a wall-mounted television, while hungry fans grabbed and clawed for whatever items were left.
Few T-shirts remained, and the one I had my eye on (a minimalist Eeveelution shirt) had apparently only received 150 prints. Left on shelves were a few TOMY plushes, copies of the Pokémon Adventures manga, themed hats, wallets, and lanyards– and even a $400 gold Pikachu necklace.
Not wanting to leave empty-handed, I grabbed myself a hat and lanyard and stood in line, again, to check out. Near the cashiers was a wall, behind which a photo booth was stationed where friends and family could take fun, Pokémon-themed pictures of themselves. I, of course, was far too cool to participate in such nonsense, so I bought my things and went on my way. I even received a fashionable tote bag– a Pokémon Boutique-exclusive item limited to purchases of $30 or more.
After exiting, my roommate and I journeyed two blocks to our car (parking in Los Angeles is always a pain, but it was particularly bad that night in that area), observing the remaining fans in line. While its length had certainly decreased, it was still nothing to write home about.
Once we were buckled in and ready to take off, I expected the waves of regret to crash into me, but, surprisingly, they didn’t. I realized it wasn’t about how much money I could have spent or what cool items I could have bought: it was all about the experience. The two of us had enjoyed hours in line, chatting with others who loved Pokémon just as much as we did (and those who loved it way, way more), racking up StreetPasses and all around just having a ball (a PokéBall, that is). Would I do it again? Absolutely.
Of course, the buying-stuff part is super important, too, so, like the two boys from San Francisco behind me in line, I’ll be back at JapanLA next weekend, hopefully when exclusive Pokémon products are a bit more plentiful.
The Pokémon Boutique at JapanLA will be open until March 27th. If you’re in the area and interested in celebrating the 20th anniversary of Pokémon in style, be sure to check it out!
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