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Bootleggers Feel the Pinch in Recession

New America Media, Commentary, Charles Jones Posted: Jan 04, 2009

Editors Note: Even the neighborhood bootlegger is feeling the recession as customers become pickier about getting the best bang for the buck. Add in some high profile busts of fake Nike shoes, and the bootleg economy is in big trouble writes NAM contributor Charles Jones. This article is part of New America Medias ongoing coverage of the underground economy.

While most of us have been shopping, spending, laughing, loving, getting and giving, being wrapped up in the "holiday spirit", some of us were moving, haggling, and hustling their way through the season just trying not to lose their faux Ed Hardy shirts. Five years ago your friendly neighborhood bootlegger was the bane of the music business. Now he has grown to become one of the biggest hustlers in the hood. No longer content with or (since the blow up of the mp3 player) able to live off of selling home-burned CDs of your favorite musicians, the bootlegger has expanded his business and become the go to person for everything from CDs and DVDs, to clothing, to video games.

While doing some last minute Christmas shopping for our nephews my sister and I watched as a man attempted to sell a shopping bag full of Nintendo's "Game Boy Advanced" cartridges to the buyer at the video game store game stop at the Rockridge shopping center near my house. I have two sons with Game Boys and thought that a couple of games would be a cool stocking stuffer for em. I tried to bargain with the dude, asking if I could get "six for the dub" (six for twenty bucks) which he declined stating that he needed at least five bucks each. Unwilling to give up the extra ten dollars, I wished him luck at the counter and my sister and I spent the next five minutes quietly roasting him under our breaths.

That's when it really got entertaining though, because, the store clerk soon after handed his bag back to him without taking a single game. "Yeah, uh, sir" he said with a look of disgust "I'm not going to be able to help you with these tonight, they're all fakes". Now, this dude is from the hood and I highly doubt that he had anything to do with the manufacturing of any bootleg micro chips, so in this situation (unless he knew they were bootlegs, or boosted them) he's the victim. But, after almost buying a bunch of those fake-ass games from him, I had no sympathy. I was nearly in tears with laughter. Because for as economically viable as bootleg products as they are, they are, (usually) of very crappy quality, the idea being that they're so cheap that they are easily replaceable.

But that's the get, because lately bootleg products haven't been as easily replaceable due to all the heat that the trade has been getting from federal law enforcement over the past year. In May of 08 a shipment of bootleg designer purses, with street value estimated in the millions, was seized at the port of Oakland. A couple months earlier ATF agents were tearing up local corner stores and hip-hop clothing stores, confiscating all counterfeit Nike, Air Jordan, and Bathing Ape (Bape) apparel. And just before Christmas, in November, another shipment was seized at the port, this time containing over two hundred thousand in fake Nike shoes.

Busts like these instantly drive up prices on the street, and in some cases rise high enough that buying this purse or that pair of shoes at the jacked-up price is nonsensical. After all they are no better in quality. In the summer of 08 it was common to see vendors at the Laney College flea market selling bootleg Air Force ones for as cheap as three pairs for $100. When I last attended a flea market in mid December, they wanted $45 a pair (no deals) for shoes that in all likelihood will fall apart after a month.

It's now all of a sudden a realistic possibility that the large-scale multi-million dollar bootleg operations we have today are becoming a thing of the past, being phased out not by law enforcement but by the free market. Music bootleggers for instance were just five years ago the subject of scrutiny and ire because they were said to be "killing the industry" but with the release and eventual growing affordability of the mp3 player, people no longer needed them and they eventually became virtually extinct. Bootleg CDs now go for a 75% profit decrease, and you can't feed the fam on that, so they moved on to greener pastures. In a recession, people not only look for the best price, but for best fit, best quality, best brand because they don't want to have to go and spend more money than they already do. That in the end seems to be the biggest danger to the bootleg game.

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