December 1995: Three men walked into The Gamesmen store in Penshurst and changed Mary Cusumano’s life forever.
The Gamesmen: their game is computer games and it’s a family business. Since 1982 they’ve watched gaming grow from a niche market into one of the biggest industries in all of entertainment.
This is the story of how Mary Cusumano and her three sons continued one man’s legacy. Against all reasonable odds.
The TV was a wedding present, a Rank Arena. The previous generation had its problems; it was built from poor components, it broke down easily. But the new model? It was indestructible. A good wedding present, they said.
Mary Cusumano. Just married. To Angelo, a hard working young man she met four years ago at another wedding. Mary doesn’t say much about that day — understandable — it was over 35 years ago — but she clearly remembers that something ‘clicked’.
Four years later, in 1981, Mary was happily married, sleeping in a house cluttered with towering piles of Atari 2600 games and one single colour television.
“I can go back all the way back to where it started,” says Mary Cusumano.
This is where The Gamesmen story begins. 31 years ago, in this house. With a wedding, four separate piles of video games and a brand new Rank Arena.
If you grew up in Sydney during the 80s or 90s, chances are you have a Gamesmen memory. Everyone does. Tugging your parent’s arms towards their Easter Show stand, car-pooling from the distant orbit of Sydney’s suburbs. Huddled in the back seat, frantically scratching at tightly-wrapped cellophane on the drive back home.
“The Gamesmen’s game is computer games,” went the jingle. Almost every gamer in Sydney knew it by heart.
The Gamesmen was Angelo Cusumano’s brainchild, a retail enterprise born of serendipity and a legendary, pure work ethic. The year was 1982 and video game retail barely existed in Australia, but Angelo already understood the electronics market and saw the potential of these strange computer games. He knew a market existed and, if it didn’t, he knew he could help build one. Mary remembers being a little confused by Angelo’s early enthusiasm, but her new husband had to make a living. Selling computer games was as good an idea as any.
“Angelo came from an electrical background, and when he said this is what he wanted to do I was like, okay, great,” says Mary.
“But I didn’t really know anything about games.”
No-one did. Not then. Not really. But Angelo helped spread the word, starting in the burgeoning markets of Sydney.
“My lounge room was just filled with piles of stock,” remembers Mary, smiling.
“This pile would go to this market, that pile would go to another. Everyone would come in and pick up their stock for different markets. It was tough in some respects — the business took over my whole home!”
The Sydney markets. Humble beginnings, but a solid starting point and one Mary Cusumano is proud of. In the early 80s Sydney’s markets represented more than a simple shopping excursion, they were an experience in and of themselves — families came in droves to scramble for bargains.
“The markets were a real destination back then,” explains Mary. “It was something people did on a Sunday, it was like a day out, and it was a great way to expose yourself.”
For Mary’s oldest son, Angelo Jr, the markets represent many of his first memories. Of the business, and his Father.
“I was about three or four years old during the market days,” says Angelo Jr. “I can remember some of it.
“I can vividly remember the Intellivision and Atari being sold. Game and Watches as well. Every kid wants to go along and work with his dad, and I was no different.”
‘The long way is the short way.’
Mary’s youngest son Chris Cusumano remembers the words of his father as he carries stock to and from The Gamesmen’s shop in Penshurst. It was one of many famous Angelo Cusumano sayings.
“Sometimes you try and pick up all the stock in one load,” Chris says, “and then you drop it and have to pick it all up again. If you had just made two quick trips you would have been fine.
“The long way is the short way.”
“Our Dad was a man of sayings,” adds Angelo Jr.
‘Stack ‘em high and watch them fly‘ — that was another one. Angelo always thought big. He wasn’t content with trawling Sydney’s markets for the rest of his days. As video games propelled towards the mainstream, The Gamesmen followed, expanding their business with a store in the suburb of Riverwood in 1984.
“I can remember our first shop in Bonds Road,” says Angelo Jr. “This was pre-NES.
“We still had the market stalls at that time, but we also had the Bonds Road store as a showroom where we were able to manage holding stock.”
It was around this time that The Gamesmen decided to invade the Sydney Easter Show.
The Sydney Easter Show — part agricultural celebration, part carnival. It also represented opportunity: retailers could hire space at the event and the exposure was tremendous. Back in the late 80s families would drive from the furthest reaches of New South Wales to attend the event.
In the store today Angelo Jr still gets accosted by grown men who want to reminisce about The Gamesmen’s presence at The Easter Show. It was a culmination of factors. In the late 80s and early 90s in particular, the popularity of video games was steamrolling, especially amongst children of a certain age. Kids would spend hours queuing at the Gamesmen’s retail stand to check out the latest releases.
“It was good timing,” says Angelo. “I don’t know if the same thing could work in this day and age. It really put us on the map.
“Sega and Nintendo, at the time, were all over the Easter show because it gave them a way to expose their products too. The first Easter Show when the Super Nintendo came out; there were kids lining up to play it. From experiencing it at the Gamesmen stand, they went home and where were they going to buy it from? Well, they bought it from us.”
Angelo Jr and his brother Daniel huddle around the Rank Arena, firing red shells at one another in Super Mario Kart. Chris is a little younger and prefers to clamber over the elaborate displays his Dad builds for the shop: a brick wall with Blanka bursting through for Street Fighter II, a helicopter for the launch of Desert Strike on the Mega Drive — they still use that one today, says Angelo Jr. For Call of Duty.
The one thing everyone remembers about Angelo Cusumano is how good he was at building things.
“He was very imaginative,” says Mary.
“The store was always known for its displays,” continues Angelo Jr. “A lot of the stuff we still have today. He built stuff. These days you see that kind of thing, but back then it was all new…”
Angelo worked hard, and he drove a hard bargain. In a lot of ways he helped build the market for video games in New South Wales, and he continued pushing throughout the early 90s. At its peak The Gamesmen was a family franchise, spread across four locations in New South Wales. Angelo’s game was computer games. He was the face and voice for the family business he started back in 1982. Children would walk into the store and point at him — the man on TV. The Gamesman.
“He wasn’t a gamer, he was just a hard worker really,” says Angelo Jr. “He saw a niche and just jumped in. A lot of people still comment on him, the suppliers. He was one of those people that would go in hard!
“The staff still remember his way of managing people, and the business, all the little things he would do.
“He was a protector.”
December 21, 1995. A Thursday — late night shopping. The Gamesmen store in Penhurst was packed. Only four days till Christmas. Mary remembers about 40 people being in the store. Angelo Jr thinks it was closer to double that figure.
“And then three people just decided to change our lives completely,” says Mary.
“Two of them remained inside the store. Another one went out the back and, you know. That was where my husband was.”
Angelo was shot twice. He did not survive.
“I was here when it happened, I was 13,” says Angelo Jr.
“It was essentially a plan to rob the store, to rob customers and it went pear shaped. Afterwards there was a standard reaction of shock. I couldn’t understand what was going on; very quickly there were police and staff and they wouldn’t let me understand what was going on. Before I knew it I was home.”
Home, Mary believed, was where the remaining Cusumanos belonged under the circumstances. In the wake of such a tragic event, she strove for consistency, and The Gamesmen store — the business — was a part of that.
“It was tough,” says Mary. “It was horrific. But I was not going to let that incident change our lives, because that would have made things worse.
“I always thought that keeping things as normal as possible for them would be the best thing. Whether that would be living in the same home, where we have all our memories, where we all lived together, or the business — that was important.
“I just thought it was part of keeping things normal for them. And I’m sure that would have been part of Angelo’s plan. Especially having three sons — I also have a younger daughter — I’m sure Angelo would have wanted them to work in the business, so why not keep it for them?
“We’ve held onto his legacy. You don’t just walk away from things that are tough in life, you grasp it, you just carry it through and I’m sure he’s there helping us along the way. I know he’s proud of what the boys have achieved. That’s what’s really been a part of us wanting to be here. It’s our reason to still be here.”
Without fail, each morning, one of Mary’s three sons turns on the Rank Arena, and opens the Gamesmen store — they want to continue the legacy.
A sticky fingered kid picks up the controller; he hits the buttons aimlessly. The TV’s colours are saturated, and the picture flickers every once in a while, but it works. The Rank Arena — Mary and Angelo’s wedding present, the same television the three boys huddled round when they were young — now sits in the corner of the Penshurst store, a testament to the continued strength of a family who’ve refused to buckle in the face of overwhelming obstacles. Seven days a week, from opening till close the TV stays on. It hasn’t broken down yet.
“Keep moving forward” is what the Cusumanos say to each other every day. It’s a new saying. But their father, Angelo Cusumano, can no longer man the store he opened in Penshurst back in October of 1989. Only the remaining Cusumanos can do that.
Each brother in turn — Angelo Jr, Daniel and Chris — tell the same story. They graduated high school one day, started working full time the next. Being the oldest, Angelo made the decision first — the decision he always knew he would make.
“I think very early in the aftermath I made the decision. Because I had worked with Dad before and I knew I wanted to get involved, that I would work in the business,” says Angelo Jr. “You’re dealt some cards, those were the cards we were dealt. We didn’t like them, but the positive is that we’ve managed to keep it going, and it’s given us a chance to make a decent living together, as a family. I don’t think he could be any happier.”
“We want to continue the legacy,” adds Chris. “Keep the dream going.”
In a drawer in Chris’ desk there’s a DVD. On the DVD, in sequential order, is a recording of every single commercial The Gamesmen ever created, right from the beginning. The early ads star Angelo and the catchphrase is always the same: “Computer Games are our game”. To begin with Angelo Senior is a little wooden, but you can visibly see the improvement as the years go by. He “finds his mojo”, as Daniel puts it.
But then there’s a moment, a strange transition. Angelo is no longer in the commercial. In his place, a very young Angelo Jr — he can’t be any older than 17.
“Now computer games are my game,” he says.
Mary looks at the list. 300 names. It’s a long list. But she’s gone through 600 before, this is nothing. She double-checks the first number and starts dialing. One by one Mary Cusumano will call every single customer who pre-ordered to let them know their game has arrived.
Mary could send a simple text message to the customers who pre-ordered the latest Call of Duty, but it’s a job she enjoys. So she dials the phone numbers. All of them.
“That’s important to me — to call them,” she explains. “I still give them a call.”
“Mum will sit there and have conversations,” laughs Daniel. “We’re like ‘get off the phone!’”
“It’s something I can’t help doing!” Says Mary. “And that was something my husband used to tell me when we were out at the markets, ‘stop talking to customers for so long.’ I would always tell him, ‘that’s just part of the service!’”
In their store in Penshurst, The Gamesmen built a museum. It has every console you can imagine set in chronological order. Above it is a timeline, charting the progress of video games: where they’ve come from, where they are at this present point in time. Throughout the last 30 years, among the most the most pivotal turning points in gaming’s history, The Gamesmen have been present, “rolling with the punches,” as Angelo Jr puts it.
Inside a store dripping with the history of video-games in this country, The Gamesmen built a museum. It somehow makes perfect sense.
“To us it’s about where we’ve been, and where we are today,” says Mary.
“He’d love it. He’d love it.”