One of the very clear things to which I can point and say, yes, the hobby used to be much more "magical" in my youth is the state of game stores today. When I first got into roleplaying back in the late 1970s, game stores -- real, honest to goodness game stores, as opposed to comic book stores that happen to sell games, for example -- were pretty amazing places. They were utterly unlike any place I'd ever been and did a lot to help initiate me into what seemed to be a secret world I never knew about. Getting my first copy of Call of Cthulhu from the now-defunct Compleat Strategist in Baltimore was vastly different experience than ordering the AD&D Monster Manual from the Sears Catalog a few years earlier. It's no wonder I was hooked forever by gaming.
The Compleat Strategist was a local branch of a game store in New York City. Back in 1981, when I first went there, they were located in an old Baltimore row home. I can't recall the precise address anymore. I have some dim recollection of its being not far from a muncipal park, perhaps Patterson Park, but I may be completely wrong about this. Sometime before my senior year of high school (1986-87), they moved to a smaller, more cramped storefront and the place was never quite the same for me. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
I went to the Compleat Strategist because I'd seen advertisements for it in the back of Dragon, along with ads for Chaosium's new Lovecraft RPG. I couldn't find Chaosium stuff at the local book stores or through the Sears Catalog, so finding a shop that actually specialized in wargames and roleplaying games was the only way to go. That shop was amazing. The shelves were lined with all sorts of games I'd never heard of, as well as filled with guys, typically much older than I, who seemed to live in the place, because they were always there. What was even more amazing to me was that the place had a game room in the back, where there was always some game or other being run. I used to enjoy just listening to these games, since I never stayed long enough to take a seat at the table myself.
What was most remarkable to me, after all these years, was the obvious love the guys who worked there had for the games they sold. Well, not all of them. Much like grognards, these guys were an opinionated lot and wouldn't hesitate to tell me their opinions of this module or that one. They were thinner, younger versions of the Comic Book Guy, but I liked them all the same. I can't stress enough how, for a kid of 11, they made me feel like I was "one of them." My age didn't really seem to matter. They regaled me with stories of their adventures and home campaigns and talked to me of games I'd never played. Sometimes, yes, they made me feel like an ignorant rube -- "You didn't know that spectres were called Nazgûl in early printings of D&D?" -- but they did this I think, not merely to show off their superiority, but to entice me and initiate me. It was a kind of gaming hazing and, rather than be discouraged, I became determined to beat them at their own game by eating, drinking, and breathing gaming trivia.
I guess it worked.
I'm sure there are still stores out there like the Compleat Strategist, but they don't seem to be the norm. By the mid-80s, I bought most of my games from shops in the mall, like Games & Gadgets, which was either a subsidiary of Electronics Boutique (now EB Games) or another company bought out by them, or at toy stores like Toys R Us or Kay-Bee. So long as I could get the games I wanted, I didn't really mind, especially since I lived in the suburbs and The Compleat Strategist was downtown.
As I get older, though, I look back on that store with increasing fondness. As I say, I am sure there are plenty of such shops out there, but they don't exist in Baltimore anymore (or in Toronto, where I presently reside). Nowadays, RPGs come from bookstores or online vendors rather than quirky little places filled with weirdos who want to tell you about their characters. Some might see this as a good thing and, I'll be honest, sometimes I appreciate the anonymity of modern game stores. Still, there's a magic missing from these more corporate shops. I no longer feel like I'm part of a secret club or a fellowship of like-minded people. Heck, I don't even really feel like I'm part of a hobby shared by the owners of the shop. I'm just engaging in a business transaction and nothing more.
Maybe I'm just getting old cranky; it wouldn't be the first time. But I think there's more at work here than that.