Are a lot of (F)LGS deaths self-inflicted?

Image by Tommy Ironic. Used under CC BY-NC 2.0. Sometimes I feel a bit sad about the fact that I have no local gaming shop where I can browse through the latest RPG products, talk shop with the regulars and join into store-organized games. But I usually come to my senses real quick and remember the gaming shops I’ve known over the years.

The common myth is that local shops are getting killed by online shops, but in my opinion this is only part of the truth. Over the years I’ve come to realize that FLGS death is at least 50% suicide.

Let me start by telling you about the shop I regularly visited during the late 1990s. It was a small, dark and pretty cramped store in a backstreet about 15 minutes on foot away from the train station and every other major store. So if you didn’t know about it’s existence in the first place, you never found it by chance. But that was in my opinion not the reason it had to close down in the end.

Even though the shop was small and dark I actually liked it. They had lots of different roleplaying games on their shelves – from popular games like D&D to the more rare ones and even some pretty obscure ones. I could spend hours there leafing through game books I’ve never even heard about. But where there’s light there’s darkness.

One of the employees was a very grumpy fellow who usually told people that what they were buying was actually crap. His favorite target were people who actually bought one of the overpriced Games Workshop miniatures from them. It was also a really pain in the ass to get him to help you if you had a question. The other one was a more cheerful fellow but had the uncanny ability of driving female customers from the shop in no time.

Both of them were actually totally unable to order anything for you, so if they didn’t have the product you wanted in stock you could either buy something else or just return on another day in hopes they finally had it in stock.

When this shop went under another opened in another part of town. The shop’s interior was larger, better lit and much more friendly. But alas it had a lot of the same problems. The people working there were not that motivated and the word “service” was obviously not in their vocabulary. What annoyed the hell out of me was that they even tried to sell a couple of pretty damaged books for the regular price. I can’t remember that they ever gave you a discount on any damaged books and usually these books never sold because of this.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I just wanted to get the price down. But I think it’s just wrong to trying to sell obviously used stuff for the full price. That’s just not very customer-friendly in my book.

Finally this shop closed after a couple of years and was replaced by a new one that opened just a few dozen meters away. Again you ran into the same issues: a staff that was unmotivated and didn’t know shit about what they were selling. You probably can already imagine how this story ends. Yes, one day this shop closed as well.

I really would love to support brick & mortar gaming shops, but hell they don’t make it easy for me. I am sure there are great game shops out there – with motivated employees who actually know what they are selling, who organize events, provide additional service (like participating in programs like Bits & Mortar), who order books for you and keep you informed about what’s new in gaming. But all the local game shops I’ve been in weren’t anywhere close to that.

So I am forced to buy everything online. The only thing I can do to support the little guy is to buy from online shops like Sphärenmeisters Spiele instead of relying on Amazon too much. Aside from that you can always support your favorite publisher directly by ordering from their own online stores (if they have something like that).

What do you think? Are brick & mortar gaming stores responsible for their own deaths? Or is it the fault of us gamers? Please share your comments below!

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

13 thoughts on “Are a lot of (F)LGS deaths self-inflicted?”

  1. I hear you, absolutely.

    My own (now sadly gone, due to rising shop rental costs that are driving all of the independent retailers out of my nearest town ) FLGS was, thankfully, excellent. Back when I was in my teens this store was a bus-ride followed by an hours walk to reach, but I and my friends religiously made the trip every Saturday.

    Dave (the owner) was always happy to see anyone who entered the shop and would cheerfully chat for hours about some game or other. Despite the shop being tiny it was frequently full of folks, and Dave knew his regulars well. He would order in whatever you wanted, and also buy things on spec if he thought you’d like it, offering a discount if you wanted it or putting it on the shelf if you didn’t.

    Man, I miss that store.

    When I moved to univerity, the closest game store was exactly as you described. The assistants were surly, unhelpful and acted like you were intruding into their own little universe. I guess it didn’t help that they were stereotypical WoD players, and we played superhero RPGs 🙂 I went there perhaps four times, then resolved to buy all my gaming material from Dave during the holidays. I don’t know what happened to that store, but I wouldn’t feel an ounce of sorrow if it died a death.

  2. I have to agree. I’ve been to many game shops over the years and usually the ones that wither and die are the one where the service is crap. I only know of one exception, and that poorly managed store continues soley due to several product lines they carry which are unavailable elsewhere in that town. I have also seen a lot of good game stores prosper on the strength of their customer service. I’ve also noted a continuous trend over the past 15-20 years of the successful stores decreasing their rpg & 2nd hand comic stocks, whjle expanding their boardgame offerings. So many stores which used to have racks of rpg books and bins of old comics now have one small shelf of rpgs of limited selection, and no 2nd hand comics at all. I guess they have to follow sales trends, but it is still sad to see.

  3. Too many stores are run by guys who just thought it would be fun to turn their business into a hobby, but who do not have the training, talent, or work ethic to make their business succeed. Running a game store could be a great job, but you have to treat it like a job, not like a hobby.

  4. In short: Yes.
    I’ve seen a dozen game shops roll over & die in my region (the Netherlands). And tho some had good intentions, _all_ of them simply ran their shops into the ground. Either by having Mr. Stinky T-shirt scare the women away, or by allowing some jackass employee to rip them off, and/or by treating customers as a kind of passing migrating animal.
    Sad to say, cuz I did like some of the stores that genuinely tried.

  5. Absolutely. My friend and I frequented a store during my college years where the owner glowered at us and made us feel like criminals just for entering the door. We spent probably $300+ over the course of a few months of regular visits before he’d stop peering at us angrily. I don’t know – maybe his face just always looked like that. After about a year or two, his store shut down, quietly.
    The current shop we have is pretty good, except for the main “employee”. He’s not the owner, but he’s incredibly full of himself, amazingly unhelpful, and just an all-around leering jerk. I wish there were a great shop to support, but Amazon is faster (since they have what I want in stock more than once in a blue moon), cheaper, and more knowledgeable. It’s a shame, really.

  6. I really like to support my FLGS; without it I wouldn’t even have a game group!

    What the OSR needs now is a game club in every major city so that anyone who wants to play, can. Boots on the ground. Network effect and all that.

    I don’t know where these sorts of things happen traditionally, but the FLGS is the closest thing we have right now.

  7. Sadly I have to agree. I remember the shop that had RPG books, boardgames and miniatures. The Boargame guy was nice and helpfull but the RPG guy a spoiled brat that believed Vampire and Shadowrun where the only “real” games and everything else was trash. And he could not stop telling you. They began to move in more and more warhammer stuff. So much so that they relied on warhammer and magic to keep the shop afloat. When games workshop opened one of their own store the rpg shop closed down a few month later. Sad. Now there is no more shop to go to :-/

  8. Yes this definately figures into some of them. But don’t underestimate the online competition. Not only because of lower prices, but even with the service. You get information about products very easily online. And the second hand market with the rise of ebay and private resellers certainly did its part too.

    I have religously made the round trips on all the different shops in my former hometown and seen all of them go under, the dark corner awesome one in the back room of the comic shop where you always got some discount and they had everything, the friendly open one with boardgames included in the middle of the shopping center.

    Interestingly the Simpsons Comic-Book-Guy owner of one of the 2 FLGS in my current home town is still holding out, albeit after getting a smaller shop. I’m still amazed that he has the same overpriced 1E, 2E, and now 3E (A)D&D books on the shelf that i was delighted with when I first found the shop. (Even though I would never have bought them for the prices)

    The other shop is very well run, holding Warmachine and Magic tournaments, well stocked with RPGs, a small boardgame section, even some kids toys, office stuff, snacks and coffee.

    Michael, we’ll have to tour these two this year when we manage to get together sometime.

  9. I have two great and a couple less so and farther away shops in my town Austin, TX. There’s been 3 closings in as many years.

    The key to survival seems to be “sell comics” and selling shitloads of Games Workshops & CCG by having constant “tournaments”.

  10. I used to work in a sort-of FLGS, it carried more comics that games, but I always helped people with games when I was there. They continue operating and carrying games and the guys there are always helpful so that’s different. The store has been open since 1991 so they are doing something right. The one thing they don’t have is a gaming area, and they’ve only held demos on very rare occasions.
    There are other local stores that do most of their business on cards or minis but they seem to come and go more often. I think there are some honest to goodness nice people who run stores who despite their best efforts see the business go away. To me brick and mortar stores need to offer something else, a whole experience, and cater to the digital revolution… Oh if I had the cash to open the store of my dreams!

  11. We had a gaming shop in a neighboring city that was well-stocked and run by a friendly knowledgable person. He carried all the new WotC books, but also stocked materials for older editions and many other RPGs (not to mention board games, miniatures, and all sorts of gaming supplies). After a while, he decided to get out of the business and sold it to one of his regular customers.

    It immediately quit being a store and instead was just a place to go to play games. If a customer walked in, the owner would look up from the gaming table and holler from the depths of the store “let me know if you need anything”, and then return to his game.

    Needless to say, customers felt unwelcome and uncomfortable. It was a hangout for regulars who never bought anything. The only redeeming quality of this management style was that I got a lot of great deals (75% off) at their going out of business sale.

    We now have a hobby shop (that sells model planes and shoos D&Ders out the door), a comic book store (with a decent gaming inventory but no service), and a “gaming shop” (where the owner and his friends play RPGs).

    I fear that gaming shops (such as those I grew up with) are going (have gone) the way of the drive-in theater.

  12. Yep. It’s self inflicted.

    My FLGS, Source Comics & Games in Falcon Heights (St. Paul) MN is moving from a 4,000 sq ft facility to a 10,000 sq ft. facility in March to accommodate the demand by customers for game tables. They’re also booming in the PRINT comic business.

    In contrast, one of the coolest comic stores to open in the Twin Cities closed after LESS THAN A YEAR last year. Double Danger Comics. I loved that store because it was:
    1. Beautiful–really the store was like a comic fan’s dream
    2. Had great customer service
    3. Had all sorts of fun touches like framed art, Mexican Coca Colas in a cooler, Golden and Silver Age back issues, a dedicated kids’ section, and of course new stuff

    Why did they go out of business? Who knows. I think the 2 brothers running it didn’t see eye to eye couldn’t stick out the first (hard) year of building a business together.

    The truth is, businesses (not just FLGS) close all the time for a slew of reasons, and there’s rarely one reason.

    But I can tell you this, with a growing comics and gaming community in the metro–it was’t because of competition from electronic sales.

  13. Coincidentally, I just posted a rant about my own FLGS on my blog.

    What’s strange is how different people’s perceptions of the ideal customer service in an FLGS differ. Old Guy, your example of the person running the store only looking up from a game to let customers know he was around sounds like exactly the sort of service I would find ideal. I don’t care if the person serving me is knowledgeable about what I’m buying — I’m able to do my own research, and honestly prefer to. Distributors can keep the shop current, it’s pretty much part of their job. As long as a shop is willing to order things in (and I know that’s not always the case) they’re doing what I need.

    The type of shop staff I really can’t stand are the salespeople. I don’t need that hassle, I don’t want to have to justify my presence in a shop by giving a detailed account of everything I might be interested in, then purchase it and feel as though my presence in the shop is no longer welcome. If I need to know if you’ve got something, I’ll ask. I’m an adult. That’s how we roll.

    As for unfriendly and cliquey regulars putting others off, what can you do? No, I mean, seriously. That’s also an issue for me presently, so any advice is welcome.

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