Friday, May 2, 2008

Memories of Game Stores Past

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.


  1. If you're ever down Austin or San Antonio way, be sure to drop by Dragon's Lair. Yeah, they sell comics too. In fact, just over half of the Austin store is comics. But they're still strongly dedicated to games. How dedicated? Well, I was there today, and they had a copy of Dogs in the Vineyard. It was on the wall display rack, face out, too, not shoved on a shelf with only its spine showing.

    - Brian

  2. I never knew you were a Maryland kid as well, James. I grew up and went to school in Anne Arundel County, btw. I never made it to the Compleat Strategist, but I did make a few trips to The Armory in Baltimore.

    I never really had a good local game store, there was Hobby Works, but they were more about model rail and airplanes and not all gaming.

  3. Game stores are a vital part of the hobby and it's a shame to see them go. I know that it's the opinion of many that they are easily replaced by online book shopping, but exactly how does ordering from Amazon promote a sense of community?

    As much as I enjoy posting on blogs like these and in messageboards, just like D&D itself you can't beat the experience of communicating face-to-face. And there was nothing like walking into game stores as a kid and thumbing through arcane rulebooks, looking at miniatures, and watching other gaming groups at the table. These experiences are more and more becoming a thing of the past.

  4. A bit out of the way but the Tin Soldier in Sydney, Australia is that sort of gaming shop. To me, anyway. I was introduced to more board and card games than I can remember down in the basement unit they call home, complete with demo game after demo game and plenty of friendly (if competitive) banter.

    Alas, where I call home (Belfast, NI) has nothing of the sort - the sole gaming shop in our capital city is a dark messy hole that's full of Magic players and so cliquey that I feel uncomfortable just walking inside.

  5. It's been a long time since I set foot in an American game shop, but I've got very fond memories of local stores in the 70s + 80s. Most of those places literally felt like walking into the headquarters of a secret cabal. Only the local headshop could compare in terms of atmosphere. I immediately felt at home, and often ended up chatting with another customer or the owner. I've found a couple places in Hong Kong that have the same one place in particular, the retail shop feels like a clever facade for the war/rpg/card game being played at the giant table in the middle of the room.

  6. Huge reply lost :(

    Salient points:

    - Philly Complete Strategist was also cool; my "best cool" game store as a kid in South Jersey was the Echelon Mall's "Allied Hobbies" which carried a broad repertoire of RPGs, wargames, minis, HO trains, RC cars/planes/stuff, etc.

    - in addition to the local game stores closing up shop, also lamented are the regional conventions, on several levels: no ability to try a new game for free in demos/open gaming, no local flea market to discover new-to-you used games on the cheap, no community to help drive the hobby forward; while regional cons still exist (and thrive, in places like the SF Bay Area, for example), they're not nearly as well-known-publicized outside of their local regions now (no more Dragon Convention Calendar), and in many cases they seem to be failing/folding for the same reasons as local gaming retailers


  7. while regional cons still exist (and thrive, in places like the SF Bay Area, for example), they're not nearly as well-known-publicized outside of their local regions now (no more Dragon Convention Calendar)...

    This is one of those areas where those of us with blogs should probably be doing our best to make up for the loss of Dragon Magazine. I know I haven't done my part to publicize even local or online conventions. :/

    - Brian

  8. Your suggestion has more than a little merit, Brian. I for one am all for this kind of thing. Personally, I need to do a better job of being aware of the local and regional Con scene, such as it is.

  9. Re: Maryland kid

    Yep. Both my parents grew up in Baltimore. I lived in the suburbs most of my life, before attending college in Annapolis (St. John's College) and DC. My family still lives there and I'm very fond of the place. One of these days I need figure out a way to move back there.

  10. Regional conventions are a dying thing and it's a shame. I used to enjoy them back in the day. The Baltimore/DC area had lots of them when I was growing up, in addition to Origins, which used to rotate between multiple locales, including Baltimore, every few years. Without those cons, it becomes harder and harder, in my opinion, to speak of "the hobby," as I usually do, since gaming is ever more balkanized and atomic -- each group plays in isolation from other gamers and there's not much overlap. Online stuff is great and I enjoy being able to talk and debate issues of mutual interest, but it's no substitute for face-to-face interaction.

  11. There are two major FLGS in the Boston area that I frequent. One of them is a Compleat Strategist, one of the few remaining. The store has cleaned up its act somewhat in the last few years, but back around 2000 I actually threatened a petition against the store. The place reeked of body odor and old socks every time I went in there. I actually found myself in the middle of a wrestling match between a couple of teenagers who were rolling around on the floor like a couple of weasels, knocking over games and bumping into customers. The manager didn't do anything - he was just laughing away.

    Of course, this is the same manager who, while I was in there once, spent a good half hour relating to a friend the story of his buddy's tactics for picking up women at the beach. Nothing like shopping for games while the store manager is gleefully relating his friend's sexual exploits at the top of his lungs to another customer.

    CS has, in recent years, cleaned up some, but it's still not a terribly "magical" place. It's a tiny store crammed to bursting with games and books. I'll browse around and buy something now and then, and the one time I had them order something for me they were very prompt, but the last time I was in there the current manager (a different one) spent the entire time railing against the evils of "stupid news on TV" to another customer. Not exactly a professional attitude to display when you've got people you don't know browsing in your store.

    The other major store in the area moved a couple of years ago to a new and bigger location, but the move crippled them financially, and apparently the owner has made critical mis-management issues in terms of employees and finances. I posted about this place HERE on Dragonsfoot a few months ago. Sad, classic tale of a store owner who wants to be a "friend" to all the gamers rather than a store owner and businessman.

    On the other hand, a FLGS can be a really cool place. The problem these days is keeping the store alive and maintaining the fun factor at the same time - a very difficult balance.

  12. I agree completely with your thoughts about what a good game store can mean to an impressionable 11-year-old. I would make my mom drive me into NYC to go to the original CS store (11 East 33rd Street; I can still rattle it off without prompting) and was similarly enthralled.

    And Badelaire, I actually worked in the Boston CS for a while in the late 1980's/ early 1990's. It wasn't nearly as bad back then, although I daresay it sounds like the manager is the same guy I used to work for. "Customer driven" isn't exactly a valid descriptor...

  13. If he was a beefy youngish guy into Kendo and macho facebeater stuff like that, it was the guy talking about his buddy's "exploits".

    The guy who is there now isn't so bad, but again, needs to pay attention to when one shouldn't be on a socio-political tirade. Maybe he had seen me enough to figure I wouldn't care (and to be fair I didn't), but it's still unprofessional.

    Regardless, the new guy (who's been there a few years) is far, far better than the fellow who was there around 99-2000, although I don't know if that particular fellow was around when I came to Boston in '95 (when the store was actually not too bad - it definitely got a lot worse before it got better).

  14. You speak volumes James. I too am a grognard (turned 40 last month) and this post is a portal to my freshman year in college and my "afternoon" gig at Dragonware Hobbies in Conyers, GA.

    What a great place to work. Two stories, the upper story just game rooms. Still stay in touch with some of those friends. Dragonware is closed now, mismanagement the likely cause. Badelaire summed up so many of the problems Dragonware had.

    Further back still your post took me. To Decatur, GA and begging my parents to take me to The Hobby Shop in downtown Decatur. A "man cave" of games and miniatures works. I remember the high ceilings and industrial shelving and displays.

    Where have all the good FLGS gone? I have access to one of the best now: just 12 miles from Days of Knights in Newark, DE. DoK harkens back to my days as an assistant manager of Dragonware.

    Good times.

  15. The local game store that I grew up with in Loveland Colorado in the late 70's and early 80's, Thompson's Hobbies, was a wonderful place only because it actually sold Dungeons and Dragons products. Which, for a cow town, was an amazing accomplishment.

    The FLGS of choice is one "Enchanted Grounds", here in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. A mix of coffee shop and game store. A super place actually...full of excellent people always willing to help you out.

    What I absolutely love about a game store is that you can go in and talk about games with nearly anyone present. It's an atmosphere that just begs you to talk about geekery. Online forums aren't any kind of replacement....face to face conversations about armor class or the latest cool adventure is and always will be an integral part in being a pen and paper role player.

  16. I agree wholeheartedly with Brian, the social component is missing. That's what it was all about for me in the 80's at the Florida branch of CS. All those subcultures had a hangout and initiation rites of their own. The record stores, gamers shops, music shops, etc, etc of old used to fill that social role for whatever group you belonged to. Today, that doesn't exist anymore.