Thursday, October 2, 2008

Of game stores I've known: Valhalla's Gate in Columbia, MO

Most gamers, if they’re lucky, can relate stories of the local gaming store that helped foster their participation in the hobby. I’m no different, and Sir Larkins’ recent post bemoaning the slow decline of brick-and-mortar retail shops has inspired me to write about my first (gaming) love.

For the first four years of this decade, I lived in Columbia, MO while attending the University of Missouri. College helped rejuvenate my gaming appetite, but it wasn’t until the end of my tenure that I discovered Valhalla’s Gate, then a newcomer to the Columbia gaming scene (which is actually quite vibrant, having birthed several game publishing companies and nurtured many burgeoning designers).

The Gate, as it’s affectionately known, was then an upstart competing with the Danger Room, which occupied an enviable spot in downtown Columbia just across the street from MU’s campus. Despite all that, neither the Danger Room nor its successor entity could gain any real traction, and the downtown storefront closed around 2003 or so. From then on, Valhalla’s Gate was the only game in town, if you’ll pardon the pun.

The Gate had a lot going for it, starting with a huge retail footprint. This was key in a lot of ways. It let the owners take advantage of the store’s high ceiling heights to craft a well-lit, clean interior setup stuffed to the gills with merchandise. Every major element of the hobby got attention, some more than others. RPGs were huge, as were Games Workshop games. Clix-based games had their boomtime too, but they took up far less shelf space. Hobby supplies were next to terrain racks, and even less-popular miniatures games usually had a shelf or two.

What all of this meant was that the store offered a bewildering array of products distributed in a logical, well-organized store setup — as opposed to the pile-it-everywhere approach that smaller stores are sometimes stuck with. It didn’t hurt that the owners were fastidious about cleaning the place, which no doubt contributed to any number of impulse buys from impressed parents of young gamers.

And talk about game space: at any given time, the Gate had at least four fully prepped 8’ by 4’ wargame tables ready to go at a moment’s notice. Another three could be pressed into duty in 10 minutes. RPG and card gamers could pull up a chair to any of the dozen folding tables that populated the dedicated gaming room, which was separated from the retail salesfloor by a short hallway. Add in a (always clean) restroom and a couple vending machines, and it’s easy to see how this place was designed with the gamer in mind.

Anyway, I was lucky enough to land a job at Valhalla’s Gate as one of three part-time employees in the summer of 2003. In doing so, I had the opportunity to understand the store from the other side of counter. I saw how the owners made buying decisions, set up the monthly tournament schedules, organized the special orders and balanced their own personal/family lives in the process. The owners were/are all married couples with children and full-time jobs elsewhere, so life was hectic and they came to rely on the small staff of part-timers who crewed the place.

During my time there, we routinely hosted tournaments that drew gamers from as far away as St. Louis, Kansas City and Des Moines. We even had a father-and-son duo that made a weekly 180-mile round trip to play in the our Lord of the Rings CCG league.

I’ve not been back to the Gate in about three years, but it remains (in my mind, at least) the ideal model for game store retail operation.


B.G. said...

I remember my first game store, Off the Wall, Modesto California. They closed many years ago but I still have fond memories.

Katy said...

I actually went to The Gate last year a few times (obscure German boardgames) and I was scared when I went in, but everyone was friendly and helpful and even ordered the game that I wanted (because it had gone out of print and come back). It took over a month to get the game in, but they called the day it showed up and set aside one of each of the expansion packs, to make sure I had everything I could ever want. I love it.

PatrickWR said...

That may be one of the best parts, Katy: the Gate is ideal for non-gamers and/or casual players -- like you. What game did you order?

PS - I'm glad you found my blog! This one gets far more attention than Crowdpleaser.