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.
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.
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.