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Cracked LCD- There Will Be Games HD IV: Tyranny and the Hired Hand


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.

Cracked LCD- There will be Games HD part 3- I Built My Dreams Around You

death star

Here it is- the long-delayed third part of the There Will Be Games HD remaster project. Yes, it is in fact an indicator that I was lazy this week and didn’t feel like writing anything. But there have been a couple of requests to continue on with this rerun series, so somebody out there will be happy to see it.

Close up on a drawing of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The camera pulls back slowly, revealing it to be an illustration on a dusty, shrink-wrapped copy of Steve Jackson Games’ DINO HUNT. Zoom out to show the game lying in a pile of rubble—broken pieces of wooden slat wall and the detritus swept from under shelving units now long sold away. The zoom continues back to reveal the heap of debris against a field of blue-gray industrial carpet lining the floor of an interior space. Slow dolly as we back through an empty room, out a floor-to-ceiling glass windows and into the parking lot of a small strip shopping center. Slight tilt up to a back-lit blue sign, giant letters that spell out “Games” with a hex and gear motif. It’s a cold day in Atlanta as we stand at 551 10th Street, sometime in February 2008.

It’s now 2004. The storefront, which will be empty once again four years later, is then an abandoned Laundromat and three people in front of it are talking to a realtor about leasing the space that would become Atlanta Game Factory. The rent is maybe a little too high and the entire place will have to be gutted, but it seems like the perfect location- it is on the Georgia Tech campus and has easy access from the northern suburbs and I-75, the major highway running straight through Atlanta. A three year lease is signed and construction begins.

Remembering how we put together Atlanta Game Factory is definitely a bittersweet thing for me now- on the one hand there’s the apocalyptic finale I never could have foreseen that would be the culmination of the creative energy of that time but then there’s also the memory of a really great feeling that always comes with taking the first real steps in making something- whether it’s a painting, a piece of music, a written work, or a retail store- move from concept to execution. With a large scale project like a retail store, it can be a dizzying experience, and throughout that time when we were inching closer and closer to opening the store there were so many points at which I felt like I couldn’t believe it was all really happening. But like any undertaking, there was still a lot of work between those sparking, scintillating moments of wonderments and actually walking through the door and into an operational store. And of course, there are a million variables, speed bumps, pitfalls, and unexpected challenges that crop up along the way. Things you never considered suddenly become the most important thing in the world, if only until you work them out.

We worked out a rough division of labor. Much to my wife’s constant chagrin, I’m a terrible handyman so I was thankful that the Barrister largely managed the build out- not a small task considering that industrial washers and dryers had to be taken out and disposed of, flooring had to be replaced, every wall painted and repaired, and an infinity’s worth of muck and soap scum scraped off every exposed surface. Dollar Bill’s experience in setting up retail storefronts proved to be indispensable in terms of the acquisition, planning and logistics of getting Atlanta Game Factory off the ground and his business instinct was definitely an asset in making early critical decisions. I was charged with figuring out what we were going to carry, our retail strategies, organizing events and getting a community started, and doing a lot of the customer-end things. But at this point, we didn’t even have furniture.

We all agreed that we wanted the store to look nice, clean, and approachable. But as in any situation where three individuals come together, even with a unified idea or concept, what that really meant in terms of the store’s visual style was wildly different. My initial concept was to keep everything industrial- wire shelving, metal and glass, alternative building materials, and a general aesthetic that was very stylish and thematic.

When I went to go see the fixtures and furniture the Barrister had picked out it was the first of many disappointments Atlanta Game Factory would ultimately represent. The slat walls and free-standing shelving units were a light blonde wood that looked clean and durable but at the expense of any sense of style or creativity. What was worse was that the tables and chairs they had picked out for the open gaming area were not only extremely expensive but they were unremittingly ugly- imagine asking a couple of completely average men with little or no taste to go pick out nice table and chairs out and you’ll pretty much have a good idea of what these looked like. Black lacquer, glass table tops, and an unholy and morally wrong conjunction of wood and chrome. I didn’t even want to know how much they cost. Regardless of how much of the startup budget those hideous things cost, I still have one of them in my backyard that my wife uses as a painting table.

It was clear then, early on, that the high-minded aesthetic concepts that we had talked about were going by the wayside as function began to win out over form and the realities of budget began to reduce some of our grander concepts down to more realistic things. It wasn’t necessarily a total loss- the store was, even at that early stage, looking clean, fresh, professional, and well-appointed. Of my original industrial concept, at least my logo remained and we even had a huge backlit sign made with it- an offset gear inside a hex, an image that I thought captured a fundamental metaphor for what a game is while providing us with a very graphic branding tool. It looked modern, hip, and simple- completely at odds with the various dragons, goblins, wizards, and so forth that other stores recklessly slap on their advertisements and T-shirts. That sign is still over the abandoned storefront to this day.

So with the foundations laid, an actual storefront established, and various other groundwork-level tasks completed we started to talk about some of the finer points and fortunately I had a much larger hand at this stage than I did in picking out furniture. We went about setting up accounts with distributors and lining up contacts so we could start investing in product; the Barrister continued to handle infrastructure chores including getting a PoS (point of sale) system set up, and I was going through catalogs and product lists to identify what we were going to be carrying and how much we were going to have to spend to have a decently appointed store. It’s a lot harder than you’d think to spend thousands of dollars on games.

The impulse, when you’re stocking a store, is to get one of everything. Of course, that just isn’t possible at the end of the day so you have to start weeding out what you think will sell and what will sit on the shelf. We had decided that we would specialize in board games but we would also carry a comprehensive inventory of collectible card games, role-playing games, miniatures, and accessories. Most gamers probably feel confident that they could go through and pick out a good inventory, but there is so much out there that I think anybody would be surprised. It’s easy enough to go through and pick out the SETTLERS OF CATAN titles, the entire DUNGEONS & DRAGONS line, or whatever the current MAGIC: THE GATHERING set happens to be. It’s another to be confronted with a bewildering array of second-tier RPG titles you’ve never heard of, Games Workshop’s seemingly infinite catalog of individual miniatures, or any number of CCGs that are desperately, deceptively marketed to retailers by distributors and publishers alike as “the next MAGIC”. Every dollar you spend is an investment, and if what you buy doesn’t sell, then you’ve either tied up capital in a shelf-warming product or you’ve lost it altogether when you sell a dud item for pennies on the dollar on a clearance table. I actually did a lot of research at this time, trying to sort out the wheat from the chaff. It’s tough to figure out which niche products you’re going to try to sell to a niche audience within a niche business.

With the obvious inventory choices made along with a lot of calculated risks, we three collectively started accruing what was likely the largest game collection in Atlanta, barring a couple of local super collectors. I thought I had done an exceptional job of avoiding all the third-rate crap you typically see gathering dust literally for years in many shops. But even with thousands of dollars pumped into inventory, our new shelves still looked really bare. Our first real disagreement came when I suggested to Dollar Bill that we at least double the investment we had made in product. He agreed, but the Barrister just wouldn’t have it. Not having real hobby experience, he just didn’t get that the store wasn’t really at the comprehensive, deep-inventory level we really needed. We wanted to be a “gamer’s store”- not somewhere someone came to pick up a few YUGIOH cards or a copy of SETTLERS. So Dollar Bill put up some more money and eventually The Barrister acquiesced. Looking back, I wish that he hadn’t.

The problem is that Dollar Bill and the Barrister decided to spend this cash injection at a local distributor- without my guidance. Dollar Bill knew the hobby well enough, but he was also operating under a lot of odd assumptions and prejudices- like the belief that we should have five copies of MUNCHKIN on the shelf at all times. It didn’t help that he was also really susceptible to marketing-speak. The Barrister simply bought anything the sales rep showed him.

So when they came back, we had $2000 worth of MECHWARRIOR booster boxes- purchased in such bulk to get these exclusive Dropships which would eventually wind up broken in our backroom and given away. We had everything Steve Jackson games had ever published, including the copy of DINO HUNT that is still resting on top of a pile of rubble in the abandoned storefront to this day. We had a stuffed Cthulhu in an Elvis costume. We had Monty Python bunny slippers, a giant plush D20, and booster boxes of pretty much every CCG being published at that time. Perhaps the strangest thing the Barrister picked up was thirty of these MAGIC life counters- they were pewter discs with these numbered cardboard wheels sandwiched between them. A sticker was sloppily applied to each of them with a goofy looking monster or other fantasy illustration likely scratched out by some pony-tailed “artist” who used to draw medieval warriors on their folders in school and assumed that was their calling in life. Each one of these life counters was $5 wholesale…which meant that ideally they were supposed to be sold at $10 retail. Later on, we’ll learn their fate.

I could go on literally for several columns about the bad purchasing decisions made by the Barrister, and to some extent Dollar Bill, at this early point. Looking back at it and thinking about the game stores I’ve been in, I can see that this kind of buying is a complete deathtrap- and sadly, too few people in the industry know how to say “no” to junk products and focus on saleable product. Even fewer pay enough attention to trends and interests in the hobby to make good judgment calls on where to spend their money. It’s why every game vendor you see at any convention usually has piles and piles of clearance items being sold at a loss.

It also didn’t help that the Barrister went on eBay and spent hundreds of dollars on some of those auctions for lots of old games. So we wound up with pretty much all of the bad Avalon Hill games (but not, thankfully, OUTDOOR SURVIAL) and a bunch of also-ran wargames. But we actually wound up with a really nice selection of vintage and used games, mostly because Dollar Bill decided to put his entire collection up for sale. So we also had a complete TALISMAN 2nd edition set, the DAWN OF THE DEAD board game, and some other “collectible” items that added some prestige to the piles of junk we were now going to be hawking. I was also really proud that we managed to score what I think was probably the last copy of the French edition of CIVILIZATION available in the US. It really made me feel like we were a serious game store that knew its business. I was pretty sure it would never sell, but it was admittedly a vanity item.

All things considered and despite the havoc caused by my partners buying things without my supervision, I thought that we had a really awesome selection that literally had something for every gamer and substantial depth in each product category that demonstrated our knowledge and commitment to bringing Atlanta the best of the hobby- even in our weakest areas, the RPGs and miniatures departments. Fortunately, those sectors are almost completely dominated by DUNGEONS & DRAGONS and Games Workshop respectively so that made things a little easier. I do have to say that our ill-advised “classic games” section was terrible- I was almost completely against carrying Chess, Backgammon, Go, and the like since most people interested in those games either have them, can get them at a mass-market store, or want a very specialized top-of-the-line set and that was not something that a hobby game store should do. The Barrister, however, thought that nice chess sets would sell so we had a couple of $100+ sets that indeed looked very nice sitting in the display cases until the day the doors closed on the store forever.

And then, there was Poker. This was all right after the peak of the Texas Hold ‘Em fad. So of course, the Barrister decided that we needed to have Poker supplies. Thanks to another of the Barrister’s un-chaperoned shopping sprees, we wound up with all these sets of chips (some of which were very, very expensive), decks of cards, casino dice, metal attaché cases, and so forth. I think his belief was that a mainstream, non-geek product line like that would leverage the more risky hobby products and provide a steadier profit margin. What he didn’t think about is that at that point you could buy Poker supplies at Wal-Mart or even the gas station. Aside from that, it was a fleeting fad and one that was certainly not something into which a hobby store should invest hundreds of dollars. And I also think that he never realized that college kids- our prime demographic- had no interest in buying a $100 set of clay chips. So all of that money was completely wasted. They did make handy life counters for the Magic players, however.

Regardless of what was on the shelves, we had a storefront. And it looked great, even if almost completely uncreative and without any sense of style or concept whatsoever. There were still some particulars to handle before we could move toward opening our doors to Atlanta’s gaming public. The Barrister hired a company to build a website for us, which was unfortunately tied directly to our point-of-sale system and therefore extraordinarily ugly and almost completely unusable and we put some ads in local papers to let everyone know where we were, what we were doing, and when we would be opening. Of course, the Barrister again failed to communicate with me or Dollar Bill for any creative input so the first ad was a hospital green affair with plain typesetting and no graphics- a crude line-drawn map was supposed to show customers where we were. So I complained enough about it and he had a friend design a new ad, which I’ve always referred to as the “Atlanta Death Factory” one. It showed a horrible-looking industrial landscape of environment-destroying smokestacks and machinery. The photo had to have either been taken in New Jersey or Sheffield., I’m sure. I was actually embarrassed to show my friends and family the ads.

By now, the roots of the end should be readily apparent. The Barrister, being the majority shareholder and also the person with the least vested interest or functional knowledge of the hobby, had way too much control over things. Our pricing strategy was one such point- Dollar Bill and I both fought him tooth and nail over selling everything at full retail price because he and I- being involved with the hobby- knew that the Internet deep-discounters would bury us if we didn’t price competitively. But he won out, at least temporarily, and everything was stickered at full retail price with our shiny new pricing guns. But this part of the tale isn’t about the fruit that those diseased roots would bear, it’s about building a dream and being there when that first customer walks through the door and everything you’ve been working toward is suddenly…reality.

Before the debris of nearly six months worth of construction and planning had settled, Atlanta Game Factory opened its doors for business October 20, 2004.

Cracked LCD- There Will Be Games HD #2: Money Is Not Our God


Another installment of There Will Be Games HD- read #1 if you haven’t already, it’s like a comic book and you’ve got to read it in order. In this act, we introduce a new character- Money. He’s a real fucking asshole sometimes. But then he can be pretty awesome too. The problem is that the son of a bitch always wants to be the center of attention even when you think what you’re doing is something out of love, passion, or caring. So let’s again return to my first-ever reprint series, and the saga of the ill-starred hobby game shop I co-owned.

When friends gather together and get to talking about starting a business, it’s probably best to run away as fast as you can and never look back- you don’t want to find yourself blinded by the inevitable mushroom cloud that such a discussion will eventually precipitate. But this part of our story isn’t the Armageddon denouement. Pardon the clumsy foreshadowing and let’s check in on Dollar Bill, the Barrister, and myself sometime in the summer of 2004, when we were still working out the details of the ultimate game store pipe-dream sans the down-in-flames finale.

PUERTO RICO. GOA. ATTACK. RUNEBOUND. ACQUIRE. WALLENSTEIN. HEROSCAPE. WAR OF THE RING. These are the games that I remember us three playing together most vividly during that formative period, the games that we bonded over as friends while we laid the conceptual groundwork for what would become our store. We’d meet over at the Barrister’s suburban dream house every Saturday and game all night in his basement, his on-random 500 CD changer never wandering far from a Frankie Goes to Hollywood or Talk Talk track. We’d play for a while, and then talk about the store- casually at first, then gradually more seriously later on when The Barrister starting considering the idea as a viable investment.

Dollar Bill and I were, at this point, very much the brains of our triumvirate and our knowledge and experience was definitely the guiding principle- along with our passion for the gaming hobby and our desire to really do something great with it in a retail setting. The Barrister- in no small part inspired by his newfound discovery of a thriving board gaming culture he had been completely unaware of in his post-collegiate wilderness years of marriage, children, and career- started investigating the franchise opportunities offered by a major hobby retail chain.

But the Barrister didn’t want to sell R/C cars, Lionel trains, and kites. He wanted to sell Rio Grande Games by the case, D20s by the dozen, and Games Workshop miniatures by the pound. And of course that all fit right in with what Dollar Bill and I had already been talking about for years. The Barrister had a youthful enthusiasm at this stage that was really infectious, and one night on the way home I remarked to Dollar Bill that I thought The Barrister really had the right heart to do this game store thing; I knew that Dollar Bill and I would have been happy if whatever we did would be financially solvent and turned at least enough profit to make it worthwhile. The Barrister’s motives, as we would later discover, were not so noble.

Dollar Bill and I exit the frame. The Barrister remains and the camera witnesses what we could not. You know the cartoon grammar for it- the old “dollar signs in the eyes” routine. The wringing hands of the usurer. Cue the ding-scrape sound of a cash register drawer if you need it to get the picture across. Now don’t get me wrong- I’m fully aware that you can love games all you possibly can and have all the passion in the world for running a retail hobby gaming store but that won’t pay the rent, put inventory on the shelves, or open the doors. Money is a much more efficient agent to do those things, and naturally it is one of the most difficult components of the whole equation. With our store, just like any other, it really becomes a story about money and what money does- how it changes people, how it makes things possible, how it can appear and disappear with an alarming (and sometimes devastating) frivolity. So at this point, we’ll introduce money as our fourth Dramatis Personae.

In reflection, it was really kind of attractive to Dollar Bill and I to have a third party involved that was more focused on profit and making money since it grounded our loftier aspirations in something concrete. Dollar Bill was already a millionaire from his success in another industry and I had no expectations at all of making a thin dime out of hobby retail and together we shared a mutual interest in just doing something for the community- and sure, making a few dollars from living the gamer nerd’s ultimate dream would be fine. After a couple of years running a business, I can say that idea, sadly, just doesn’t pan out. If at the end of the day you aren’t making enough money to support yourself or your business then you’re really wasting your time. I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist, but that’s the god-honest truth of it. What really makes a difference is the degree to which you believe that you’re going to get rich from an industry that an overwhelming majority of the population doesn’t even know exists, and one that an even smaller percentage actually gives a damn about. The Barrister was looking for a meal ticket based on my hobby knowledge and instinct and Dollar Bill’s raw business savvy.

But at that early stage, I really thought The Barrister was just a guy in love with games that really wanted to do something special and grow a profitable business- I had no idea at this point that his entrepreneurial drive was founded more on his assumption that Dollar Bill’s already proven-to-be-lucrative coattails would provide him an easy trip to a higher income bracket. Were we na?ve? Probably. Were we just ignorant of the fact that a middle-aged man weary of his profession was looking for a way out? Definitely. Did we really think The Barrister, one of those Guys Who Seems to Have His Shit Together, with his very serious game store business plan folders and his hobby gaming industry research would be a trustworthy business partner? Beyond a shadow of a doubt.

So the idea was starting to become very real. Money was discussed. The Barrister attempted to get a bank loan to cover a large percentage of the start-up costs but the banks declined to fund a business that was seen as unprofitable, unsuccessful, and unproven. Dollar Bill had agreed to put up a substantial amount of money to bankroll the store, likely the result of counting his spilled change in the floorboard of either his Mercedes or his Jaguar. With my meager job as a contract archivist in a labyrinthine government organization, I had no money to put up whatsoever at that point so most of my commitment was going to be “sweat equity”, brains, and heart. Any work on, for, or toward the store that I did was toward my share of the business. We had one meeting over at the Barrister’s place where we were supposed to meet with his mother-in-law to see about borrowing money from her but nothing came out of it. So The Barrister decided to finance his share in other ways, and thus the seeds of our destruction were sewn.

So now, we were stakeholders in addition to friends and fellow gamers. In addition, The Barrister was still Dollar Bill’s attorney so we had a pretty strong bond between us beyond just being gaming buddies. The real planning began in earnest and somewhere there is an e-mail paper trail accounting for almost every part of the planning. We visited potential store sites, driving around all over town looking for the perfect central place, which we pretty much realized was impossible in a city like Atlanta where “out of perimeter” folks seldom mingle with “in the perimeter” denizens. We talked product mix, discussed concepts for the store, and started to work out all these little details like hours, what point-of-sale system we were going to use, and what sort of fixtures we wanted. Dollar Bill’s experience in retail helped us tremendously and a lot of these things- particularly the logistics of setting up a retail storefront- were made infinitely easier by his involvement. It was both really amazing to start to see it all come together as well as tremendously disappointing; when you see that your grandest ideas are just not feasible from a financial perspective your store suddenly doesn’t look as special or unique as you imagined it.

We had big ideas. My platform was that the store should something very modern-cutting-edge in graphic design, layout, and concept. I threw out some ideas inspired by high-end restaurants- you know, the ones with one-word names like “Salt” or “Toast”. I wanted us to look like a very trendy, clean, upscale store where cool people would shop. We could have called it “Hex” or “Cardboard”. Dollar Bill was a little more realistic, but only slightly so- at one point he pitched a retro-futurist concept that would have been rooted in SOLARIS and 2001. The Barrister was one of those kinds of people who just couldn’t think in those kinds of terms and was satisfied with glass cases, slat-wall shelving, and industrial carpet. Which, quite frankly, is probably the way hobby game stores are doomed to look from now until the last one closes its doors, presumably sometime in the next ten years at the rate of closure such businesses face.

The names we tossed around were often hilarious and it became something of a joke to outdo each other with something more absurd than the last, usually some reference to Nazis or devil worship coloring the joke monikers. We all agreed that we wanted to avoid the usual fantasy nerd names like “The Wizard’s Tower”, “Android’s Dungeon”, “Excalibur” toward which pandering, lowbrow retailers often tend. At one point I hit upon an idea to do something inspired by Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s CITY OF LOST CHILDREN and somehow that got mixed up with another idea of using Soviet-styled artwork and graphics and that mix of industrialism and constructivism gave birth to our name. Dollar Bill insisted on Atlanta being the first word since he was convinced that appearing first in a phone book or on Google would lead to success. Since he was already rich who were we to argue with that logic?

So it was that we became The Atlanta Game Factory.

Cracked LCD Classics- There Will Be Games HD #1


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 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…