The Nice-ification of the Hobby Shop

Hobby Shop

In the last few months of 2022, I started playing Magic: The Gathering again for the first time in about a decade. I got into it with Arena, the fully-digital version of the game, but then began going to weekly drafts at a local game store in Brooklyn. I haven’t spent much time in game or hobby stores in a long time — again, probably about a decade. And what struck me most about the experience was how nice these places are now. When I was a kid, hobby shops were poorly-lit, gnarly little spots with grim carpeting run by balding guys who looked like somebody’s childless uncle. As a rule, they didn’t serve coffee.

One of these places, J&F Hobbies, was located in a small retail plaza next to my primary school, owned by a Wallace Shawn-esque scowling man who seemed to resent everyone who came into his shop. The store sold comics, RPGs, miniatures, and models. I was enthralled by the enormous glass cases filled with tiny little painted elves, dragons, and skeletons whenever I went in, and spent a considerable amount of money from birthdays and Christmas on Rifts books there. One time the proprietor tried to sell a friend of mine on Magic with a fantastical pitch about summoning monsters, wielding ancient artifacts, and casting forbidden spells. My friend asked: wait, for real?

Then there was Comic Connection, which sat on the block behind my high school for what seemed like forever. I was never really into comics, but Comic Connection was a great place to buy Magic and Pokemon cards and hang out. They had a Black Lotus sandwiched between thick slabs of lucite mounted on the wall, and there was only one major rule — “crazy bread” from the Little Caesars pizza place across the street was absolutely forbidden. I’m not sure why that was. If it was the smell, well, the place already had a pretty distinctive odor of its own that I don’t think some garlic bread could noticeably worsen.

Comic Connection
Comic Connection, April 2017

Probably the “nicest” of the game stores I visited while growing up was Bayshore Hobbies, which was — unusually for the time — owned and run by a woman. The shop was a tiny little place about a five minute walk from Comic Connection that focused more on models and card games. Rose, the owner, cultivated a quiet, calm atmosphere that I loved basking in whenever I got the chance. Even it, though, had a sort of aura of impropriety about it thanks to its tiny basement given over entirely to anime VHS tapes, among which, it was often rumored, were many films of a sensitive nature.

Many (most?) hobby shops like these are long gone for a number of reasons. Amazon and online retailers squeezed their profits, rents went up, and in some cases, their owners just retired. J&F moved sometime in the late 90s or early 2000s, then finally closed — the owner is probably dead by this point. Comic Connection seems to have moved in 2019, though I can’t find any information about a new location, so that might never have happened. And Bayshore Hobbies shut down in 2013.

Bayshore Hobbies
Bayshore Hobbies, June 2009

As places like these died out, the late 2000s and early 2010s saw a rise of classier joints with warm lighting and full kitchens. When Settlers of Catan and other Euro board games started to catch on in Canada and the US, we got board game cafes. When superhero movies blew up at the end of the decade, comic stores began to realize that judging or harassing potential customers was a pretty shitty business model. And that’s great — playing Magic in a Brooklyn hobby shop with a diverse range of people while having a beer is pretty nice. At the same time, there was a mystique that the older breed of game stores cultivated, one that made you feel like you were doing something forbidden or transgressive. And in a way, you were — comics, board games, and RPGs weren’t nearly as mainstream in the 90s and 2000s as they are now. They were the province of weirdos, outcasts, and losers.

It’s great that more people can enjoy these things these days, but I’ll probably always miss the kind of hobby shop that didn’t go out of its way to make you feel welcome, with a gray-haired lunatic behind the cash register waiting for you to stop browsing issues of Dragon so he could go back to doing whatever it was those guys did when nobody was in their stores. Probably best not to think about what that was.

10 responses to “The Nice-ification of the Hobby Shop”

  1. Steve Avatar

    One of Bayshore staff bought the majority of the store stock and opened a place in Jackson Square. The kids seem to like it, and pre-covid it was teeming with Magic and D&D nights. The kids are alright!

    I went into Comic Connection once while a Pokemon TCG event was happening and the air was humid with the lingering odor of stale sweat and McDonald’s fries. The Crazy Bread rule makes sense

    1. merritt Avatar

      Nice! I’ve been in Board Games Central once or twice but didn’t realize the link between them and Bayshore. That’s cool to hear.

  2. Tom Gonzalez Avatar

    Agreed entirely. Stacks of boxes in dusty carpeted storefronts owned. I miss my comic shops looking like hoarder’s homes.

  3. Larry Avatar

    The old hobby/board game/comic shop in my area has been around since the 80’s. I remember going in there with my mom a handful of times in probably ’98-’99 and seeing the CRTs playing poorly dubbed anime, a huge D&D setup in the center of the room, and an “18+ Only” section closed off in the back that I found out years later was where they kept all the hentai which was unheard of as an eight year old in the 90s. I think the combination of mom thinking it was a regular board and card game store and the greasy wirey guys running the counter giving us the stink eye for touching all the 20-sided dice was the reason why we never went back lol

  4. Lawrence with the TOPHAT Avatar
    Lawrence with the TOPHAT

    Leon’s The Hairy T on Yonge (Gerrard).

    Loved venturing up those creaky stairs to the Lair of the Spider King (Think D&D Module).

    Traps, Pitfalls and uneven floors greeted you as you meandered his “Maze of Merchandise”.

    The delver in me was always hunting for ancient gaming treasures hidden among the piles of newer fare.

    When a newer location opened on Steeles, the vibe continued in the dark recess of that basement location. Turn on your phone (torch) to see what was on the shelves.

    Their latest incarnation, North of Lawrence, is definitely what players are looking for today. Roomy. Clean. Dedicated play area.

    The Gronard in me does miss those ancient places of yore.

    Tipping my tophat to you Leon.

  5. Stefano Castelli Avatar

    Used to go to The Last Grenadier when I was working in Los Angeles.
    It was some kind of middle road between a shop and a museum and you actually had to dig in the shelves to find interesting things (and dust them off…).

    It closed something like ten years ago, while I still had to decide if it was a horrible or nice place.

  6. Tyler A Childers Avatar
    Tyler A Childers

    I was a regular customer ad Comic Book World in Florence, KY from the time I was 13 to around 38 or so. I even worked weekends for them for a few years.

    They were always the nice shop. It was a mom and pop business, and she said, “If I’m going to help run it, it’s gonna be inviting, not like the flea market stalls and other stores” I’m paraphrasing of course. But that shop has been there since 81. It’s weathered the 90s Implosion, and the uncertainty of the digital age.

  7. WM Avatar

    Because crazy bread is really greasy.

  8. Guy McLimore Avatar
    Guy McLimore

    Oh, does this ever resonate with me! I worked in a hobby shop during summers throughout a good piece of the late 70’s. When I went to grad school at Indiana University in late 1974, I came back for Christmas break with a little brown box of 3 books – the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons.
    It wasn’t long before I had the shop owner stocking polyhedral dice, miniature figures and the first TTRPGs — D&D, Empire of the Petal Throne, Traveller, etc. After grad school, I worked there full time for awhile, in charge of what came to be a full aisle of RPGs, board games, minis, etc.
    This was the very very model of a grungy little hobby shop, which had been in operation since before I was born.. The rent was cheap because the sagging building wasn’t worth tearing down. We had no real cash register, just an ancient manual adding machine with an attached cash drawer. Amongst the balsa wood, model trains, model rockets, plastic model kits, R/C aircraft, etc. I collected some of my most cherished memories. And I introduced Southern Indiana to adventure gaming.
    The place was ABC Hobbycraft in Evansville, IN, run for many years by Ken Ballard, THE hobby man in our neck of the woods. I owe Ken more than I can ever say, and my life would have been so much sadder had he not been there as my boss, mentor and friend. I loved that old hobby shop, and I’ll always be grateful for the time I spent there.

  9. Philip Avatar

    I frequented a video rental place like that. Cramped tinyass basement, mustached proprietor fuckin smoking in there. Rented multiple splatter movies a week there for a bit and spent my insomnia nights watching them on my tiny tube TV until the sun came up while experiencing mild derealization. Good times (?). Still love the feeling I get when I see some oldschool practical special effects.

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