It’s turning to summer here in Atlanta, which means soon it will be so humid that you will be able to look out your window and see schools of fish swimming by. For most folks, summertime makes them think of dreadful things like beaches and cookouts. For me, it takes me back to the summer of 2006 when the game shop I owned and operated with two partners , Atlanta Game Factory, was going strong. I think of scorching hot days driving through Atlanta rush hour traffic in my beloved and airless ’82 Chevrolet Scottsdale, trying to get to a local distributor to pick up Magic cards for the Friday Night Magic booster draft. I remember sitting out back priming Warmachine figures and shooting the shit with Peter, Mike, and Elliot. Waking up every warm morning and not caring one lick that I had a twelve hour work day ahead of me. It was my favorite time with the store, the best summer I ever had.
By far the articles that I get the most requests to reprint, especially since Gameshark.com is no more and everything that was posted there was thrown into a Horrible Black Void, are my There Will Be Games series of articles about my time with Atlanta Game Factory. I sent the first one, which is reprinted here for the very first time, to Bill Abner on Valentine’s Day, 2008. So we’re past the five year anniversary of the series, and it’s time to put it back into print for those of you who probably didn’t know who I was all those years ago.
Reflecting on the series- but without rereading it because I can’t bear to re-read old work- it was profoundly personal, but it really was about something that a lot of people don’t really think about. That shadow world of the brick-and-mortar hobby store. I wanted to present all of the trials, tribulations, drama, and triumphs of selling people D&D books and Warhammer miniatures. But I also wanted to narrate what the hell went on, and why such a great place that really touched a lot of folks’ lives went down in flames. It’s just one “FLGS” story of many, I’m sure, but when I wrote this I had never read anything else like it.
So I hope you enjoy it, a lot of people seemed to really like it but I bet it’s one of those things where it’s not really as good as you remember it. For my part, I’ll brace myself for the inevitable flood of emails that I’ll get from people asking me for advice about starting or running a game shop. If you’re inclined to ask, my two pieces of advice are 1) don’t expect to get rich and 2) don’t go into business with a lawyer. Part one follows- there are 12 more that I’ll be posting here in the coming months.
It’s a little after 10 o’ clock, January 6th 2006. I’m in complete darkness in the back of a van taking me to a destination unknown. My hands are cuffed behind my back and I’m sitting on a steel bench with no cushion, no armrests, and no seatbelt. When the van turns sharply, I’m slammed up against an invisible metal wall that I can smell before I feel its impact. The interior of the van is soaked with the smell of alcoholic piss and human filth and all I can hear are the alternating acceleration and deceleration of an engine accompanied by the strangely distant, sputtering chatter of the police scanner in the cab. Somehow, my love for gaming has culminated in a trip to prison. I’m struggling to stay sitting up straight in a pool of constantly shifting blackness, and I’m thinking about three things in this order- revenge, the game of LORD OF THE RINGS: THE CONFRONTATION I was about to play, and the cannoli I left behind.
Alright, I’m getting ahead of myself, going for the big Bond film opening before establishing a context for it all. Rewind the tape and let’s save that footage for later. Cut in scenes from a gamer childhood. All my life I wanted to be a game store owner- at least for as long as I was aware that there were such things. When I was a kid, there were quite a few game stores in Atlanta, where I grew up, and who knows how much money I spent on roleplaying books, miniatures, board games, and dice. It seemed like a good enough business and you could be right there in the middle of your favorite hobby, right?
Come to find out it’s a pretty miserable occupation with long hours, alarmingly low profit, and the whole thing is spiked with the constant stench of post-teenage body odor and rancid submarine sandwiches. It’s a great job if you want to hear extremely detailed stories about the adventures of some guy’s umpteenth level Elven Cleric or have to bust some deadbeat kid for slipping a few packs of VERSUS cards in his jacket. It also may be your racket if you like the idea of internet-spoiled customers constantly berating you for having discounted prices $1-$2 higher than on online retailer with no storefront and zero overhead. Despite all that, and the dire warnings from other hobby gaming expatriates I think that most gamers, at some point in their hobby experience, want a chance to be the man behind the counter- if only to show the world that not all game store owners are grossly obese, socially reprehensible carrion crawlers shaking down kids for their allowance money in exchange for YUGIOH cards.
I am one of the few gamers who actually made good on those dreams of one day opening up an awesome game store- you know, the one in your mind that isn’t lit like a dingy pool hall in some 1960s gangster flick, where the best games are never “special order” only, and everything is 30% off all the time. My store was it—we had it all, and it was clean enough that you could even bring your wife or girlfriend in without the usual “boys locker room” atmosphere that seems to surround places where WARHAMMER 40K is generally played. It was a masterpiece, and despite a rough start and some growing pains it was turning into a real institution. We were the Friendly Local Game Store, we had regulars that I’m pretty sure would have been willing to die for the store. We meant something to people, we were a real community and we did all we could to grow it so that the store would be the absolute epicenter of gaming culture in Atlanta. The last month we were fully operational, December of 2005, we pulled in over $25,000 in sales and we were right on the cusp of entering our era of empire. And then the plug got pulled with a harshness and ferocity that resulted in legal action, destroyed friendships, financial ruin, and the loss of the greatest game store that I, for my part, had ever stepped inside.
So this is the prologue to the great American tragedy that was this store, a story fraught as it were with the classical elements of entrepreneurial bootstrap-pulling, dubious futures, sudden meteoric success, and the greed-laden path to catastrophic downfall. No names are going to be revealed to protect both the innocent and the guilty but I believe that two years on it’s time to finally tell the true story of what happened and along the way share some insight to the uninitiated about the hobby gaming industry, the personalities and situations involved, and why your Friendly Local Game Store matters so much even in the face of online retailers willing to cut profit margins to literal pennies on the dollar. If you were there for the ride, hanging out on a Friday night watching DOLEMITE between hands of MAGIC or working with me to build and support the Atlanta gaming community by participating in store events or as an employee, it undoubtedly will have left an indelible mark on your life and a sense of loss that may never be alleviated. I know that’s how I feel—not a day goes by when I don’t think about the store and where it might have been if it weren’t so savagely waylaid in the prime time of its life.
I realize that I’m starting the story in that avant garde, end-at-the-beginning fashion so we’ll hit the rewind button again and cut in some archival footage to give a better sense of linear progression. The story of the greatest game store to ever flog a copy of MUNCHKIN really starts one day in 1994 at a library in a small town in the Atlanta suburbs. I’m a librarian at a tiny community branch and one of the ladies I work with introduces me to her son, whom she’s told me about at length- almost too much at length, but conversations that tend to go on for too long happen a lot when you’re working in a library that may only see ten patrons a day.
She’s sure that we’ll make fast friends given our mutual interest in MAGIC: THE GATHERING, Nine Inch Nails, and the occult practices of ranking Nazi officials. He shows up, looking for all the world like that 17 year old kid who was still an Eagle Scout and at first I think he’s a stuck up tool- for some reason, when he starts using swear words he suddenly seems OK. We become fast friends over games of first MAGIC then other games and eventually we wind up playing D&D, AXIS AND ALLIES, CIVILIZATION, and TWISTED METAL ad nasuem together. We play SETTLERS OF CATAN together for the first time some time in 1996 and together we begin to explore these new Eurogames that I’m blowing my completely disposable, living-at-home income on while paying exorbitant, pre-Rio Grande Games import prices for them.
Years go by and before long he’s become outrageously successful with a business that he started in college and I’m still tooling around in libraries and pursuing the Quixotic dream of a film career. For the purpose of our story, we’re going to call him Dollar Bill.
Dollar Bill was always an entrepreneur; when I first met him he was hawking car stereo equipment and passing out a business card with a line drawing of a Lamborghini Countach embossed on it. He never spent any money. We’d go out with our friends to the record store and drop a hundred bucks on vinyl since none of us had rent or bills to pay and he’d just watch, saying that he was saving his money for when he was rich and then he’d be able to buy anything he wanted. That really happened to Dollar Bill, and as he became successful in one industry he and I started talking about opening a game store but with a level of seriousness that was well beyond the usual “wouldn’t it be cool if” sorts of discussions you hear a lot around a gaming table. We had big ideas, huge concepts that in retrospect were sort of like Frank Lloyd Wright’s design for that mile-high skyscraper- feasible, but not really possible and not really structurally sound. We tossed out a lot of ideas, combining the game store idea with full coffee service, a bar, and a couple of pretty outrageous themes including a shop that would have looked like something from CITY OF LOST CHILDREN.
We really wanted to do something special, something that would be the perfect retail environment for our favorite hobby, but we also deliberately set to establishing a few things that we didn’t want: we wanted our store to avoid all the negative stereotypes and horrendous images of squalor that anyone who’s ever walked into a game store has likely walked out the door with as they left, never to return again. We wanted a friendly, clean environment that was above all else professionally run and managed…very unlike the lazy “permanent vacation” mentality with which many game store owners seem to approach their businesses. We wanted to cater specifically to board gamers, which at the time meant extensive selections of Eurogames and other hobby titles, while also providing a comprehensive shopping solution for folks into role playing games, miniatures, or collectible card games. We wanted to come up with a solution that would demonstrate that a game store did not have to rely solely on the sales of MAGIC and YUGIOH to be successful, and above all else we wanted gamers to make the place their own and recognize it as the premiere place for any kind of hobby gaming in the city.
Despite the serious brainstorming and chin-scratching, it was still all talk at first, like a lot of Dollar Bill’s pipe dreams would turn out to be over the years and I never thought we’d actually move forward with it all. Aside from that, I was having a hard enough time paying rent on a contract archivist’s salary and wasn’t anywhere near a position to invest financially in the idea. Even with a certain sense of inertia surrounding the germinating idea, I don’t think there was a time that we got together for two player games and vintage brandy (often accompanied by the ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK soundtrack CD that never seemed to leave his $10k stereo system) that we didn’t wind up talking about The Store.
Time passed. Dollar Bill’s business was getting big. It had become a very big shark in a very tiny pool and like any business of substantial size it needed one of those litigious lampreys we call lawyers. A couple of lawyers came and went but eventually Dollar Bill found a really great lawyer he could trust his livelihood with and more than that they struck up a friendship. We’re going to call this lawyer The Barrister. The Barrister was an average, middle aged guy that fits the profile of the average, middle aged guy almost to the letter. Successful professional, family with kids, house in the suburbs, minivan in the garage, interested in sports, khaki pants but no tie on Fridays- pretty much an average Joe if ever there were one. Somehow Dollar Bill and The Barrister wound up discussing gaming and there was the shocking revelation that The Barrister was actually a lapsed game nerd- he presented with typical signs, a history of DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS play, a borderline-unhealthy LORD OF THE RINGS obsession, and a complete and comprehensive familiarity with the AXIS AND ALLIES rules.
We invited him into our usual gaming activities and before long, The Barrister was re-indoctrinated into the hobby gaming world in a big way. He was a great gamer too- vicious, competitive, and cunning; at least as far as the Eurogames we were playing at the time would allow him to be. He loved PUERTO RICO and SETTLERS and even talked about starting up a new D&D campaign. There was a certain sense of wonder and discovery that he displayed that was pretty exciting- he was enthusiastic about all things gaming and his heart was really into it all.
It wasn’t long before he was interested- like myself, Dollar Bill, and most gamers at some point in their lives- in opening a game store.
To Be Continued…