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The Games Room
It is December, 1984.
The sky is a gray slate, the air damp and cold. But I am aglow with excitement. As an 11 year old, newly-minted gamer I am about to visit my first proper game shop. It's a little way out of the Norwich city center streets I know, so my Dad guides me, eyes rolling with loving exasperation.
Nothing like that over this side of the UK. There were a couple of local toy shops that did miniatures, then Cyril Howe, Hamleys and Modellers Den in Bath. Further afield there was Forever People in Bristol... All closed now.
Did just discover Frome Model Centre though, that place is amazing - I need a second longer visit.
My first hobby shop didn't carry games, but it had that same vibe: The Comic Carnival, in Indianapolis. The original location was a tiny shop that was tightly packed with table holding lidless comic boxes containing back issues in taped plastic bags, with many issues mounted on the walls and some particularly rare ones on the wall behind the counter. There was also a couple of spinner racks of used sci-fi/fantasy books, and a wide display area for new comics. I was just 9 the first time I found this store, but it enabled me to continue buying comics even after I got funny looks for buying them in more normal stores. The owner was a short, thin guy with glasses who was missing an arm due to an injury received in Vietnam. They later moved to a larger location in the hipster section of town, then expanded out to various suburbs. To pay for my move to Minnesota, I sold most of my comics there for less then cover price.
When I got into rpgs in my teens, I went to The Boardroom for all my shopping. Jerry (Gerry?) Hunter was friendly and knowledgeable about his products, but always left me with the impression that he didn't actually play any of these games. Maybe he was a closet war gamer. During my first year on the school newspaper, I interviewed him for a story about D&D, about a year before it became a big cultural phenomenon. Eventually a hippie woman started a competing store (The Game Preserve), in a converted cottage on a hill in the hipster section of town. Her cats wandered about the store. Her location was more convenient for me, but I still gave some of my business to Jerry.
It took me three years after arriving in the Twin Cities to settle into my new gaming home at The Source. It was huge compared to other hobby stores I had visited in the past, and sold comics, games, shirts, movies, etc. I gravitated there because they had a large area in back set up for open play, and that was the place to go to play CCGs. Sundays were so busy that players could only play for three hours before getting ejected so a fresh group of players had a chance to play. However, the store made a special exception for Jyhad (later re-named Vampire: the Eternal Struggle). We got our own table and could play all day long, because our group was tn years older on average than the Magic players, and we spent more on cards. Plus, our games often took 2 or 3 hours to play, while Magic players could get a dozen games played in three hours. The Source was such a big deal that they ran late-night commercials on television, and some store employees were allowed to host gaming there after hours. I once played an obscure ccg (Heresy) there from midnight until 5 AM on a weeknight, thanks to a supportive employee and some curious players. When I finally bought a house, it happened to be walking distance from The Source.
I may eventually get comfortable at the FFG Event Center. It has a vast play area, plus they serve food and alcohol. Huge parking lot which is often nearly full on weekends. The bathrooms are amazingly clean, which is why a surprising number of young women show up to play there. I once even saw a table of five women playing a board game, with no guys. They have a large bookcase on one side of the gaming area, stocked with a wide variety of games that people can play for free while at the Event Center. There is also a vast, windowless interior room that they open up for tournaments and other special events.
I recently went into such a store just last week. The Citadel, in New London CT. I first stopped there in the very early 90s, when it was in a strip mall with visibility from I95. Its moved twice since then, into more obscure and hard to find places. It used to be owned by Pat Flory, who was a long time Avalon Hill tournament player - his name was firmly entrenched at the top of the Russian Campaign rankings on the back page of The General. I believe it was sold in the last year or two by Pat.
The selection is pretty vast and one of the better ones I've seen in recent years. Not quite as good as Le Valet in Montreal - probably less up to date, but more older stuff due to lack of clearance sales. The place is a bit dark and disheveled, but not dirty / nasty by any means . Its a basement with a drop ceiling and linoleum floors. They have some open gaming tables. Its one of those places you could spend hours just slowly walking through the shelves. They don't have an online store so you have no idea what you'll find. There is a long 50 foot set of shelves of just RPG stuff for instance. They had a shrink wrapped copy of GMTs flagship, which tells you they don't mark down old stuff . They've got a fair bit of Avalanche Press stuff gathering dust . I didn't see any rare hens teeth other than a beat up copy of AH U Boat and some other AH oldies. They had some ASL stuff - a ASL rulebook, a copy of Hakka Palle and some old Journals and whatnot. A fair bit of GMT and Compass and DG folios . I give them credit for having a new releases section, which makes it easier to find stuff instead of wading through 100 feet of shelving.
These types of stores are a dying breed and for good reason. As much as they might be a trip down nostalgia lane, the mind boggles at how much inventory they are carrying - and probably the owner has no clue about what they actually have in stock. They sure as hell aren't using bar codes. My guess is that when the place changed hands, a fair amount of inventory debt was written off. When you see 20 year old games still in shrink wrap, that's a sign of low inventory turn. Its likely offset by some small amount of inventory - i.e. MAGIC - doing the lions share of the heavy lifting in terms of sales and ROI. The newest location is invisible from the street, being in a basement level at the back of a building below street level. So the rent is likely a pittance, the only thing keeping the lights on.
Hope to visit it next time we're in Norwich, it sounds magical.
trif wrote: Hope to visit it next time we're in Norwich, it sounds magical.
Magical might be pushing it, but it's certainly worth a visit
Great article this, several memories come back to me just reading it.
I've lived in Norwich most of my life but there have only been a few periods where I was in the Games Room much. In the mid 80s my Dad bought me the MERP system from there and I popped into the Games Room now and again to get some other bits and pieces though I always felt a bit overwhelmed in there as a shy 12 year old kid. I remember Duncan ran it with his Dad at the time. I dipped in and out of the next few years but preferred the safer confines and bright lights of Games & Puzzles. And the weird rack of Avalon Hill wargames in Virgin Megastores, games that I frequently took off the shelves, saw the "complexity: HIGH" rating emblazoned on the box and returned to the shelf wistfully.
I made a brief comeback to the Games Room in the late 2000s when my interest in gaming was rejuvenated and I popped in frequently, although the stock rarely changed. Occasionally I'd put a request in to order a game, just to support the place, but whenever I did that it seemed almost like I was causing Duncan too much bother, I think he likes it quiet I then drifted away again before a period where I bought Netrunner packs and Star Wars miniatures ships. Then I stopped playing those games and I've hardly been in since. Always like to take a look in through the window on the way back from the pub late mind you.
The game store that got me into gaming, Tabletop Games in Overland Park, KS, has moved a couple times in the last decade or so. When I first started going there it was a place for the standard type of gamer from circa 10 years ago, maybe middle-aged, generally genial but pretty nerdy. It was very much a niche kind of store. Their stock was impressive, but limited by necessity I'm sure. They moved back in like 2011 to just around the corner, and the game room got bigger. This also coincided with the games explosion that was happening, and the clientele became a lot more diverse and a lot younger. A lot of regulars drifted away.
They moved again after I left the KC area, but I got the opportunity to visit them just last month. They now are about as well-stocked as any purely games-based store I have ever seen. The employees don't know me from Adam anymore, which is just fine, but it is clearly very well-attended still. I was really impressed with their stock of RPGs especially, which I expect is kind of a risky product for stores to carry in volume. I'm really glad to see it apparently healthy and going strong, even if I don't have a lot of connection with it anymore.