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Shell Gamer

Nothing slow about one South Side store owner -- or his Ninja Turtle obsession



The secondhand cash register is the only indication that Ninja Entertainment is an actual business. Otherwise, the inside of the South Side arcade and video-rental store looks more like the basement parlor of some rich teen-ager -- or maybe two rich teen-agers, one living in 2006 and the other trapped in 1992.



A high-definition flat-screen TV, outfitted with an Xbox 360, stands against one wall. Almost all the other wall space is taken up by shelves of videogames and DVDs. The store's immense pop-culture clutter also includes bulky Simpsons, X-Men and Street Fighter arcade games and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pinball machine. Toys, posters, masks and other remnants of the Turtle fad adorn every unused crevice.


Half a dozen high school kids hang around the store just for admission to this Generation-Y utopia, sweeping floors, stacking shelves and taking orders from Milton Barr, the store's brash 19-year-old entrepreneur.


In the last year, Barr has turned down Rutgers University and left his comfortable, risk-free life with his Squirrel Hill family of eight. Now he sleeps in a garbage-filled South Side storefront with only his wits and, eventually, a BB gun to protect him -- all in order to become the proprietor of this teen-age wonderland.


But he may still face slightly bigger foes: the city's Historic Review Commission and the copyright holder of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.


In the middle of high school at Taylor Allderdice, Barr says, he bought a new Lexus with money he made on eBay, selling overstocked videogames and DVDs purchased at local stores. His business began simply enough when he exploited the phase-out of the Nintendo 64 game console, buying $1 games at one Pittsburgh chain and selling them to another for $3 each.


"By the end of the [first] day, I was $1,000 richer," he says. He eventually filled his room, his family's garage and their basement with merchandise, and drove to the UPS store with a backseat full of packages every day after school. His father Gary, an anesthesiologist, says that some weeks his son made more than he did.


"I was so proud of that car because I paid for it with my own money," Barr says of his Lexus. "It sucked when I crashed it into a tree."


Last spring, college threatened to put an end to Barr's fast times. He had already been accepted to Rutgers and had been voted "Most Likely to Succeed" at Allderdice, but jeered at that distinction.


"I wanted to be the first person to get that [title] and not go to college," he says.


Barr's older brother Louie, who had recently graduated from Duquesne University, was preparing to take the LSAT when the two finally realized they had other dreams. Soon, Milton and Louie Barr were looking for a storefront.


They found a one-story corner building to rent at 1020 E. Carson St., at the western tip of the South Side's business district. A fire had torn apart the upper stories a few years ago.


"It was a shithole," Louie Barr says. "There were no tiles on the floor, the walls and ceiling looked like they were going to cave in and there was about two years' worth of garbage in the basement."


"We never left the store," Milton Barr says. "We ordered our food and slept in sleeping bags in the back." They awoke from their first night to the sound of their front windows breaking. One of the two burglars -- whom Barr describes as "the biggest human being I had ever seen" -- saw the two brothers and screamed, "I'm going to bust your fucking head in."


Milton Barr tussled with the hulking man until police arrived. They convinced the Barrs it would be easier to get compensation from the men than press charges. By sunrise, Milton Barr and his would-be assailants were walking to an ATM machine.


The store, which had a black Magic Markered sign, "Movies for Rent," but no name, opened in June. The Barr brothers were its only staff. But customers were drawn in by the 35,000 titles available for $1 rental. Barr describes the typical customer reaction as "Nice store -- why don't you have a floor?" 


"It was weird seeing two guys so young run a business," says Scott Davis, who owns The Pickle Barrel deli two blocks down Carson. "But they gave you that feeling that they were really living out a dream. ... The store became a curiosity for everyone. It's great to see two kids going for it. They made people want to help them."


Davis told the two where to go to obtain a mercantile license and loaned them a cash register. By August, Milton Barr considered the store a success because "we were earning money," he says. "I wanted to stay open, but Louie insisted we fix the place up. We were spoiled rich kids our whole lives. We wanted to get dirty."


They closed the place and stuck gas masks on friends willing to help with renovation. The only person Barr knew with construction experience was an ex-con named Angel, a frequent customer who was staying at a nearby halfway house. Angel tiled the Barr's floor for free, Barr says.


In late February, Barr's video store was ready to reopen with a new theme: the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A spell had overtaken Barr when he found the old toys in his family's home while moving out in June.


The store was now called Ninja Entertainment, and Barr filled the place with his old Turtles stuff and newly purchased vintage Turtles video and pinball games.


"Some things aren't about money," Barr says. "When I walk into the Ninja Turtle museum every day, I feel happy."


Still, there are those little problems of copyright and licensing.


Barr e-mailed Mirage Studios, which owns the Turtles copyright, asking permission to use their characters as the store's theme. They denied his request, explaining that they were licensing to bigger companies.


"They can't sue what's in my mind and, in my mind, I am a Ninja Turtle," Barr says. If challenged, he plans to go to court in a Ninja Turtle costume, hoping that fears of headlines reading "Ninja Turtles Sue Biggest Fan" would prevent Mirage from pursuing the lawsuit. (Mirage could not be reached for comment by press time.)


Barr is still taking precautions, changing the appearance of the Turtles on his shop's outside mural by 15 percent to make them officially different under U.S. copyright law. His turtles now have misshapen heads and unfamiliar color schemes.


That still didn't please the Historic Review Commission of Pittsburgh's Department of City Planning, which prescribes more neutral color schemes for buildings located in the historic district encompassing East Carson Street. The Commission aims to preserve the more traditional look of this and other specially designated areas of the city, and requires façade changes to be approved beforehand in those areas.

According to the minutes of the Commission's Oct. 5 public hearing, Barr objected to painting over his mostly lime green and white decorations with brick-red paint. But the Commission would not budge, asking Barr to come up with another, more acceptable color scheme, saying that the Ninja-themed storefront "is designed simply to attract attention." So far, Barr has not stopped trying to attract attention in his own manner.


Today, Louie Barr lives in New York City, working as a dog-walker, although he is still paid as an "adviser." Ninja Entertainment is only "one-eighth operational," Milton Barr says, with a fraction of his inventory ready to rent. Several more games from the Turtles era make up a small vintage arcade.


Still, he hopes the store will be a springboard for other business ventures. He's considering starting a South Side shuttle service for Duquesne students, plus a second arcade/video store in Dormont. He says he's in talks with a pizza chain to open an outlet in the back of his current store. If he delivers pies, he wants to alter his Volkswagen van to resemble the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Party Wagon -- or something that looks 85 percent like the popular toy, anyway.


"I'm sure when he gets to school," Gary Barr says confidently of his son, "he'll know more than anyone else in his freshman business classes."

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