By popular request, here’s another entry in my reprint series of “There Will Be Games”, a saga of hobby game store ownership…this year will be ten years since we opened, I can’t believe it. In this segment we’re up and running but The Man, symbolized in our story by The Barrister, is already coming down on the kids who just want to get their kicks. Who’s ever heard of wearing a tie into a game store, anyway?
“Don’t quit your day job.”
That’s the kind of unsolicited advice you hear all the time levied against a hack post-teenage angst infected poet or some cut-rate bar band cranking out Stone Temple Pilots covers in some scummy dive. But nobody bothered to impart that nugget of wisdom to the Barrister. He left behind a successful law career to be the hands-on manager of operations at Atlanta Game Factory and that decision turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes that we, as a company, allowed to happen.
Don’t get me wrong—I would have jumped at the opportunity to run the place from day one but for one thing…I wasn’t the majority shareholder and for another I was in the middle of a fairly prestigious research fellowship that at that time seemed to offer a much more promising future than hawking copies of MUNCHKIN to Georgia Tech students. I also realized that the business just couldn’t support the kind of astronomical salary I would have required to maintain my standard of living at that time- somewhere in the neighborhood of $30k. Dollar Bill was occupied with his own business so it seemed pretty logical at the time to let the Barrister take the reigns of what was to prove to be a cart being pulled by awfully sluggish horses. What the Barrister didn’t understand is that they just needed a little love to get moving- and for him to stop bleeding the business dry to pay himself a salary that was greater than our monthly sales.
So in those first few weeks, it was the Barrister doing all the heavy lifting, so to speak. He’d go in at 11am every day to open the store and promptly shut down at 8pm, staying later on Fridays and Saturdays just to catch the few waifs and strays who may have noticed the sign on the way to class. There were a few people coming into the store at that time, mostly to make a circuit walk through the store and back out the door once they either realized that “Games” didn’t mean video games or that our prices were full retail and uncompetitive with the online discounters I’d come in almost every day after work to try to kick-start some in-store gaming and stir up activity beyond watching STAR BLAZERS with the Barrister on the in-store TV, occassionaly getting up to grab a bag of chips or a soda from our wholesale club-stocked snack counter. There’s no doubt that there was a feeling that maybe we had wasted our time and money.
It wasn’t long before realized that we were going to have hire some employees so we let the Barrister handle all that and of course a “Now Hiring” sign brought in all sorts of prospective employees, most of whom had never had a job before and many of which probably still don’t some four years later. One of the kids he hired turned out to be a thief; another was hired solely, I’m convinced, for her bra size and three of them turned out to be Atlanta Game Factory Heroes. And my good friends.
Of course, hiring that many employees even for just 3-4 hours a day was pretty costly- particularly on top of what the Barrister was effectively paying himself out of his own investment. Since he lived almost an hour and a half away and had a new baby, it was necessary to have employees to cover at least the bulk of the nights and weekends, although in retrospect it was another big mistake Dollar Bill and I shouldn’t have allowed to happen.
We should have stepped up to work the store more, not only to relieve the Barrister but also to have more hands-on management of what was going on there. With all of our profits going to payroll and other overhead costs, the financial situation was worsened by his shockingly frequent spending sprees on company money. He bought this fancy coffee machine that I have to admit I absolutely loved. He bought and had framed several Frank Frazetta prints that again, I have to admit I absolutely loved although why he chose every one in the catalog with a nude woman on it for a retail store is beyond me. He’d buy new staplers, scissors, and pretty much anything you can get out of a Uline catalog. We wound up with a heat laminator and more storage bins and containers than I ever hope to see again. He was like a college kid with a parent’s credit card, buying unessential “toys” that were tapping too deeply into our budget. The problem was that we weren’t even averaging over $200 a day in sales.
What was worse than his careless expenditures and his over-reliance on hired help was that his majority share seemed to foster in him a sense of tyranny, a petulant insistence on doing things his way that gave the store a creepy used car lot atmosphere and a lack of street-level credibility. He wasn’t inexperienced- he had managed a video game store some years before- but he definitely didn’t know the product, the audience, or the concept of the Friendly Local Game Store. There were already signs of his unchecked greed starting to show through as well. Dollar Bill and I had fought him tooth and nail in favor of having everything at internet-competitive pricing but lost. Our snacks and drinks were marked up to almost movie theater prices- sodas we paid twenty five cents for were price tagged at $1.50- often with the price tag stickered over a price printed on the label. Once I watched him approach the sale of a copy of TICKET TO RIDE to a newbie gamer like selling a timeshare, practically hustling a man and his wife into putting down $45 for a game that I knew wasn’t at all what they were looking for.
In retrospect, I think that some of the Barrister’s actions and ideas stemmed from his desire to somehow legitimize what he had invested in as a “serious” business. I think he really believed that what he was doing was laying the groundwork for a HobbyTown-style franchise brand name and every move had to look serious. But I also think that he was never really comfortable with the game store environment or with geek culture in general because he was just too entrenched in the idea of the American middle-of-the-road mainstream at the end of the day. He felt embarrassed that he was selling DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS products, although he had a history with the game himself. He’d dress in khakis, dress shirt, and a tie for work. The posters we received from publishers were forbidden since they made the store look too “nerdy.”
And he fancied himself a manager in the worst possible ways. He actually frowned on in-store gaming since people would bring games from out of the store to play but since he refused to keep the store open past 8pm, there really wasn’t much in-store gaming anyway. And worst of all, he absolutely forbade any of our employees to game on the clock which meant that a customer walking in usually saw some kid sitting at the counter staring into space rather than reading a rulebook or engaging customers in conversation or play.
Of course, when the Barrister wasn’t there, things were different. The store loosened up, there was a much more casual and friendly atmosphere and the employees weren’t so cagey. I told them all at one point to actively game on the clock as long as the Barrister wasn’t going to be in the store. My thinking was that having a knowledgeable staff that was actively involved in the gaming community would be a better way of spending the store’s payroll budget than having those same employees staring off into space, watching TV, or browsing the internet all day long once their cleanup duties and other tasks were done. I found out that one of our employees was actually running a D&D campaign with our staff after hours and I gave it my blessing- as long as he understood that he would be completely responsible for anything that happened. My management philosophy is that if you give people freedom, responsibility, and pride in what they do then they’ll do the best work and I wanted our employees to feel like AGF was theirs and that they were part of the community. All they needed to do was to do their work, meet the schedule, and be sensible about their time on the clock.
After a few weeks, even under the overly managerial hand of the Barrister, the store started to attract a few regular customers and once we got things set up to run Friday Night Magic tournaments and prize support for a few other organized play programs from various publishers things started to pick up a little. There was much more traffic on Saturdays and sales of everything but board games were picking up- but still not enough to turn a profit or pay for enough of our overhead. I started advertising a Eurogame night to try to attract some of the local board gaming crowd since at that time Eurogames were still the most popular segment of the hobby. I called it “TransEurope Express” and made my own faux-Kraftwerk sign to advertise it. It brought in a few new people at first, enough to fill two tables at least but like everything else it seemed to hit a ceiling. And with full retail prices on the board games, it didn’t seem to help sales all that much either. Nonetheless, we were laying groundwork for growth and as far as I was concerned we were on the right track.
But not even two months after the doors opened to the public, The Barrister started complaining. I could tell he was really scared and extremely disappointed, which I can understand, considering how much money was on the line and the simple fact that any time you open a business it’s a make-or-break proposition. He told Dollar Bill and I that the store was failing and that he didn’t think we were going to last even a full year. Two months after the doors opened to the public. Now, if you know anything about business you know that you don’t open the doors and start turning a profit. It takes time to develop a clientele, establish your market, and get to a point where you’ve got the right inventory and right services to generate a sustainable, profitable flow of income. I remember sitting in the store with the Barrister one day, at one of those hideous tables, as he told me “I don’t know what I was expecting, I mean, we’re just two months in.” Looking back, I realize now how his expectations were almost completely founded on his belief that Dollar Bill, an established retail wunderkind, would provide him with coattails on which to ride to a higher income bracket. I guess no one ever told him that there are very few millionaires in the hobby game business. Or that you can’t pay yourself a $50k salary running a startup business and expect it to grow.
Despite prophecies of doom and dire predictions of failure, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sent a reporter out to cover the store for one of those filler stories they stick in the Sunday Living section. Somehow they caught wind of the store and sent this lady down to interview us and take some photographs. Some of our regulars and employees wound up in one of the pictures playing a game of AMUN RE (or it might have been POWER GRID) and in another one of our CALL OF CTHULHU CCG players was apparently “…admiring the gruesome creatures depicted on his cards”, according to the caption. We were interviewed and gave the usual hobby gaming party line. The Barrister framed the article and put it on the wall underneath one of those Frazetta prints.
We didn’t really see an increase in business from the article- most gamers don’t tend to read the Sunday Living section. The turning point for the store, the point at which we really started to hit our stride, had to be when we got the call-up from Atlanta gaming luminary Ward Batty to set up a table at one of his legendary Atlanta Game Fests. We were offered the opportunity to be the sole retailer at the event which was expected to bring in over 100 attendees- not bad for a board gaming event. The Barrister declined the offer without consulting Dollar Bill or I and when we talked about it he told us that he didn’t think it was worth it for 100 people.
I told him that he was dead wrong.
This was an opportunity to really get out into the Atlanta board gaming community and establish us in the hearts and minds of its constituents. I didn’t really care if we went and sold a single game as long as people heard the name, saw our flyer, and remembered to stop by the store if they were in town. I told him I would handle the entire thing from top to bottom and I practically browbeat him into calling Ward back. I did a couple of orders with our distributors to make sure we had the latest titles and I put out an announcement that we would be there on an Atlanta gaming mailing list. I convinced the Barrister that we had to do special pricing so we agreed on a “Buy Two, Get One Free” deal- a sort of tricky way of giving a steep discount but masking the numbers.
It was a smash success. The event had nearly 200 in attendance over the weekend and on Friday night alone I sold over $1000 in games- more than the storefront did in some weeks at that point. I brought a gigantic pile of candy and snacks and some used games from my collection and was literally making money hand over fist. I was meeting people, talking games, and offering to play and teach new purchases. It was exactly the kind of vision I had for the store. But when the Barrister stopped by to check on things, the tone changed- just like it did in the store. It became more about sales. Separating customer from dollars. The Barrister was out of his element and it really showed. He thought I needed to be at the table around the clock to keep people from stealing, but if you’ve ever been to a board gaming event and seen the piles of games left unattended by their owners you’d know that theft is never a problem. When I showed him our sales figures, he just huffed. I don’t know what he expected and I was glad when he left.
The best outcome though, as I expected, was that people knew who we were. We started to see a lot more board game traffic and the other outcome was that we switched over to the “Buy Two, Get One” pricing in the store since I had proven that the loss in profit was made up for by volume purchases. Selling one game at full retail price to someone is actually much harder than selling three with a discount. What’s more, I was becoming the public face of AGF. Gamers knew that they could come into the store when I was there and talk games, play games, and learn about games. They knew that I would give them an honest opinion if they weren’t sure about buying something and that I really gave a damn about games and selling them in the right environment.
So with the Barrister losing his zeal for retail and realizing that neither Dollar Bill nor CARCASSONNE were going to be his ticket to a new Lamborghini Countach, he decided to resume legal work as a side hustle and his involvement in the store was in decline. There was a sense of surrender in his behavior and his attitude toward the store, which he just didn’t want to be bothered with anymore since he had bet on a slow-starting horse.
In early 2005, not six months after the store had opened, Dollar Bill and I decided that we should attend the GAMA (Game Manufacturer’s Association) trade show. The Barrister wasn’t interested at all, which really showed his increasing detachment from the hobby business. We were really OK with him not going at that point though since we earnestly wanted to learn more about the industry and really get immersed in the business side of things, establish contacts, and of course see what games we could look forward to over the next year. I’m sure the Barrister thought that we’d figure out some way to make him rich while we were there.
So Dollar Bill and I headed out to Las Vegas.