I’ve noticed a disturbing trend on social media as game stores have seen a general decline not at all helped by disappointing Magic releases: Store owners, maybe even some who have read this and other blogs, will acknowledge their clubhouse status and embrace it, telling their customers that they’re not in it for the money, but rather to serve the community and the local gamers. I wanted to talk to the owners of those stores.
While it’s always possible that this sort of statement is made out of some nefarious intent, I believe that it’s usually made to save face. The context is almost always that your store has fallen on hard times and needs help, or that your store is cutting corners in fixtures, cleanliness, or product selection. Maybe you’re doing something you’re not supposed to be doing, like selling promotional materials given to you by a game company, or maybe you’re not doing something you’re supposed to do, like collect sales tax or pay employees over the table.
Somebody objects. This isn’t how things are supposed to be done! This is not what I expected from a business. Aren’t you trying to be successful? Your response, finally: “I’m not trying to be successful. I’m giving the people what they say they want for little or no personal benefit, so how about you lay off? I’m the good guy, here.”
I believe that in the moment, you are being sincere. Everyone is the protagonist in their own story, and it’s natural when confronted with one’s business’s failure to produce the intended results to draw the bulls-eye around the place their arrow landed. A place where people can play games for free is nominally a public good, so that’s what they’re going to do. With the way that our culture lionizes the impoverished small business owner, it’s a tempting out.
You know what your community needs? You.
I’m not even talking about the state of your store. More fundamentally: They need to have a store owner if they’re going to have a store.
If your community is going to have your services, you have to be fed. You have to be able to depend on the store to pay your bills. You have to be able to go to the doctor when you get sick. You have to have reliable transportation to work. You have to pay to some sort of a future to look forward to, unless you’re planning to live on Social Security and Medicare in your golden years.
But those are just your base needs. You can meet those by doing the game store gig part-time, or by partnering with several other folks and sharing the load.
After your base needs are met, your community needs your patience and your endurance, and those things cost money. Let me explain.
I have been applauded at anniversary events in my store. I had an employee tell me that I’m the best boss they’ve ever had. I’ve seen customers gasp in wonder at finding something in my store. I’ve flown first class to a trade show where people wanted to hear what I had to say. I got to have a schedule where I made my own hours and could leave the store in the hands of my amazing employees while I went on adventures. I drove a convertible through the Nevada desert in the springtime to go spend a week with a friend in the industry.
Those are amazing things. Those are the things people want when they talk about owning their own business. I would do those things for free.
I’ve worked 90 hours a week for three months right after purchasing the store. I’ve laid in bed at night and felt stabbing pains in the bottom of my feet, then gotten up for another twelve-hour day. I’ve sold personal possessions to have money for one of my Prereleases. I’ve gotten up at four in the morning to meet the police when the alarm went off. I’ve fired employees that I considered close friends, and been faced with the fact that they could have lasted if I’d trained them differently. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on products that turned out to be a mistake. I’ve scooped human waste off the floor and into the toilet because there was nobody else to do it. I’ve been generous to customers that I thought were my friends, only to have them transform into enemies later. I’ve been scammed, shamed, shunned, and vilified.
I could go on, but it would sound like whining, and that’s the last thing I’d want to do, because on the whole I’ve gotten a great deal and this business has been one of the best things to ever happen to me. My goal is to convince you there were moments in my ownership of this business when I would have walked away without the paycheck, or at least the promise of a future paycheck. Without that paycheck, you’ll walk away, too.
The pressures might be external, like a sick parent or a spouse who is tired of paying the bills alone. It might be internal, like a break-in at the store, your key employee leaving you with no notice, or a player revolt over a tournament ruling. There are going to be bad times, and they will wear on you, and you are going to want to quit. Most game stores, or at least game store owners, last less than three years. The previous owner of my business didn’t make it to three years. We have a local competitor that changed hands this year, and that store’s first owner didn’t make it to three years. Ask anyone that has been in this industry for any amount of time, and they’ll tell you that burning out and going home before their store has even found its feet is among game store retailers’ core competencies. There are exceptions, but they’re rare. The churn is real, and for every owner who closes up “to spend more time with family,” there’s at least one more who thinks that they’ll be different, and that they’ll finally be the ones to give the players what they want.
Break the cycle for the good of your players. Yes, even you, local competitor. If you want to provide a store for your community, you will need a paycheck. They are not likely to understand, but if you’re going to be there for them in year five, or year ten, you need to make some money. It’s nearly impossible to live a life devoted to totally selfless service. Most ministers draw a paycheck and almost every non-profit organization pays people to manage its affairs. If your aim is to provide a game store where your community can come together, then your first responsibility is making sure that your store has an owner who will have a reason to stay when things get tough.