Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Ch-ch-ch-changes

The slow decline of the FLGS (Friendly Local Gaming Store) is hardly breaking news, especially to folks who can remember the glory days of the FLGS back in the 80s. It's a double-whammy, really: the hobby is becoming increasingly niche as it is, and, thanks to e-retailing and chain stores, local brick-and-mortar businesses across the board are feeling the crunch--even now, some book lover is probably blogging about the sad decline of independently-owned used book stores.

But although I appreciated all this on an intellectual level (hell, I even worked for an independently-owned used book store for over a year and saw up close how tough things are for local businesses these days), it wasn't until this weekend that it finally hit me hard in the face that an era has truly passed.

I've written before about my initiation into gaming via Wargames West (now itself lost and lamented) and its wonderful catalog. Those early experiences inculcated in me a love of browsing the FLGS, of making a "game store run" even if I had nothing in particular in mind that I wanted to spend my ducats on. (I'd almost always find something. Nowadays, not so much.)

Now, I was never one of those folks who would actually hang out at the game store--I was always of the "get in, browse, get out" mode. But I would savor the half-hour or so I'd spend going over the shelves and racks, and delight in finding something that I'd never heard of, or heard of only in whispered legends. Throughout the entirety of my adolescence, about 99% of my allowance and spare cash went to my local game store (which actually wasn't that friendly...more on that shortly). Probably explains why I didn't date much in high school...

Anyway.

So like I said, my LGS did not have the F, as it were. I won't name names, but if you're from the L.A. area you probably know who I'm talking about. They were named after a type of soldier, and it was the last of its kind... Right, enough oblique references. So the somewhat, well, gruff and (dare I say?) stingy nature of my LGS created another favorite pastime of mine--checking out the game store scene in any town or city I happened to be traveling through in a somewhat masochistic search for friendlier stores. It became a bit of a ritual of family trips--as soon as we checked in to a hotel, I'd grab the Yellow Pages and look up the local game stores, then try and influence our vacation agenda in such a way as to position myself nearby said stores so I could "pop in." Once I started going on vacations/trips of my own, the habit persisted. And I developed some favorite destinations in the process.

One such destination was Metro Entertainment (née Comics) in Santa Barbara (a frequent "get away" for harried Angelinos, which means it was probably the non-local game store I visited most often). Not only was it jam-packed with RPGs, minis, and, yes, wargames, (and comics too, strangely enough) but the staff was both friendly and well-informed. Oh, and it was tidy and clean and well-lit. And they had sales. All of these were massive improvements over my usual LGS-that-shall-not-be-named.

The last couple times I went, I noted that Metro seemed to be, well, shrinking. Even though they occupied the same retail space, there seemed to be less stuff. This, I think, is endemic to 90% of LGSs out there--and it's what used to make LGSs so amazing, that sort of "crammed to the rafters" feeling. At any rate, I hadn't been back to Metro in several years, but Des and I just got back from a little weekend trip down to Santa Barbara, and...well, to say the place was a shadow of its former self would be doing a disservice to shadows.

Let me re-emphasize: I totally understand why game stores have retrenched, focusing on the holy trinity of D&D, Games Workshop (and its imitators), and CCGs. I really do. Change happens. It's not like we're talking about the demise of a decades- or centuries-old tradition here, either. It's a phase or something that existed for maybe 15 years, tops. And thanks to the Internet, nothing's really changed as far as access to ephemeral gaming products goes--if anything, the Internet provides even greater access and choice than even the vaunted Wargames West once did. But, much like comparing PDFs to printed books, there's a certain...loss. A sense that something great has passed by, possibly for good. In summation, ennui!

Post-script: I'd still like to give a shout out to Metro for their continued commitment to sales and discounts. They had several boxes full of Dragon and White Dwarf back issues, all marked at 99 cents (and wasn't it kind of depressing to see a bunch of issues that I used to own in the bargain bin--there's a part of me that still looks at Dragon #215 as "recent"). And, thanks to a coupon on Google, I got 15% off on a couple nifty hardback collections (Dan Dare and Flash Gordon--sweet!). So the trip was not a wash by any means, and frankly I'm happy just to see Metro still in business. Several of our other favorite destinations were long gone, sadly. Santa Barbara in general seems to be changing for the worse.

Post-script the Second: I'd also like to acknowledge that there are still game stores that carry on the grand old traditions of yore. My local example would be Gator Games down in San Bruno. It's in a tiny little storefront, but it's absolutely packed to the rafters, like all good game stores should be. And they have regular sales (I picked up several Rifts books a couple weeks ago at 50% off), and a friendly, informed staff. And, perhaps most importantly, they carry items that I've never heard of, or heard of only in whispered legends...

(Another good one is the Gamescape up in San Rafael, which is similarly packed with goodness and even has a shelf for indie games. Still haven't checked out Games of Berkeley, I've heard that's a good one too. Though they said the same thing about Endgame in Oakland and that left me thoroughly unimpressed...OK, enough rambling about Bay Area game stores.)
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