|The store, looking a bit nicer than during my last visit.|
About a year after having been first exposed to D&D back when I was in Junior High School in Sandy, UT, I received my first issue of Dragon magazine, and that's when I started to discover the concept of the "game store." We didn't have any true game stores in Sandy, a small suburb, or even in Salt Lake City at the time, back in the mid-1980s. I've written about the few stores I could find before: GEMCO and other Chain Department Stores, a weird counter-culture store called Cosmic Aeroplane, and a combination toy/hobby store called Hammond's.
None of these really lived up to my perception of what a game store should be, which would be one that carried a complete line of every product I saw advertised in Dragon magazine - not only D&D stuff by TSR, but also other TSR stuff like Gamma World, Top Secret, and Gang Busters, and also things like Space Opera, Aftermath, Middle Earth Role-Playing, and RoleMaster.
I saw ads for game stores in Dragon like the Complete Strategist back on the East Coast, which I knew I would never be able to visit since my family never traveled to that part of the country, or the Last Grenadier, which was in this mythical land called Burbank, which to me meant "Hollywood" and also a place I would probably never visit since, back then, all of our family vacations were either to Reno, where my grandma lived, or to one of the mountain states where my dad traveled for business (mostly Colorado, as I recall).
I was living in a wasteland of game stores and I had this feeling that every day that went by, all of the cool stuff that was there was being purchased by more fortunate gamers who lived closer.
The Plot Thickens: We Move to Southern California
In the Winter of my sophomore year of high school in Utah, my dad came home from work one day and said that he was being transferred. They gave him his choice of Alaska or Southern California, and he wisely chose Southern California (after discussing it with my mom). At the time, I was devastated, because I had a couple of really good friends (Chris and Troy), and it had taken me five years to really get to know them. There was also this girl that I had a tremendous crush on that I thought maybe I would have a chance with, if of course I could work up the courage to ask her out, although I wasn't quite sure what we would do since I didn't have a car or even a license, and this was, after all, Utah, so it's not like there was an abundance of cool places to hang out. But that wasn't the point. I had been crushing on this girl since the 7th grade.
Our time in Utah was also the longest that we had lived anywhere - five years in total. My dad's job transferred him every two to three years or so, but things slowed down after the move to Utah and I felt kind of settled in.
In any event, the transfer was a done deal, so I eventually had to get over my objections and make the best of it. My dad did his best to help, going out early to Southern California and finding me a soccer team, scouting out some local DeMolay chapters (a youth group to which I belonged), and also finding a decent comic book shop near where we eventually moved, a little suburb of Los Angeles, about thirty miles northeast or so, called La Verne.
The one thing he didn't find was a game store.
I Visit The Last Grenadier for the First Time
This was around 1986. Fast-forward about four years or so, and I'm dating this girl and trying to keep up with gaming, even though my last active group had been two years prior when we spent Summer playing Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying. But, I have an itch to have my own copy of the rulebook, because I'm continuing to work on developing my own campaign world and I thought I could steal a bunch of ideas for it. I pull out my yellow pages phone book (can you even imagine doing that these days?) and look up "hobby stores" and see an ad for the mythical "Last Grenadier" - the store I'd seen all those years before in an ad in Dragon magazine. I called them up and asked if they had a copy of the Warhammer rulebook, which they did, and my girlfriend and I drove all the way from La Verne to Burbank, which back then seemed like it was really far away even though it was only about 25 minutes.
I entered the store and for the first time finally knew what a real game store was like. The entire store was devoted to nothing but games - no comics, no toys, just games. (I should quickly point out that this was at one of their previous locations - the one on Olive, as I remember, in the heart of Burbank). The windows had cool displays of miniatures, and the store just felt so huge - racks and racks of RPGs and wargames, by all of the companies I had read about but never seen - FASA, FGU, Games Workshop, ICE... I felt like I could stay in there forever and still not see everything. They also had a pretty big section of used games.
My girlfriend at the time was definitely not a gamer and this was not her scene at all, so after a short 15 minutes or so, I agreed to stop browsing. One of the employees came over and asked if he could help me, and I asked if he might happen to have a used copy of the Warhammer rulebook, which it turns out that they did. I was still in college at the time and living on a shoestring budget, so saving an extra $10 for a used copy was a huge benefit to me. I remember as the guy was ringing up my purchase that someone else, a manager I suppose, came over and asked the guy why I was buying a used copy. At this point, I realized that the manager guy must have been the guy I spoke with on the phone when I had called ahead to see if they had the game in stock. He ended up scolding the employee right in front of me, essentially chastising him for providing me with a used copy of the game instead of a new copy. That one single incident definitely put a negative ending tone to what had otherwise been the single greatest game store experience I'd ever had up to that point in my life.
That was, unfortunately, the only time I visited the Last Grenadier at that location. During my last few years of college, my family moved to another L.A. suburb called Chino Hills, which was about fifteen minutes South of La Verne, which meant that a trip to Burbank would now take 35 minutes instead of 20. Also, being in college, I still had no discretionary income and was not actively gaming at the time. My gaming purchases were just renewing my subscription to Dragon magazine every year, and the occasional 2E "Complete" splatbook, which I could get at the Waldenbooks at our local mall. A few years later, I discovered another great game store very close to us in Diamond Bar called "All-Star Games" (the subject of a future post).
A Return Visit More Than 20 Years Later
Recently, just about a year and a half or so ago, I decided to go back to the Last Grenadier. It'd been 20 years since my last visit all that time ago when I was in college. I knew the store was still around because, of all things, a few years ago Wil Wheaton had been interviewed by some online magazine and asked about his recommendations for a "geek tour of Los Angeles" and Wil mentioned the Last Grenadier as a shop that he had visited.
I tried looking them up, but the store (at the time) didn't even have its own website. It took me forever but I finally tracked down a review on Yelp and found the store hours and, more importantly, the address, which had changed since I'd last visited. I drove over in the middle of a weekday afternoon and literally drove by the place about three times before I saw it. It's now in a tiny little storefront in a not-so-great part of Burbank, and as I recall there was no sign out front (or, at least, not one that I could see).
Inside was one older guy behind the counter speaking with another older guy (and I'm in my early 40s, so when I say "older" I mean like late 50s or early 60s) about... something. Military history? Politics? I wasn't quite sure, but they were having quite a heated discussion. The rest of the store was devoid of people but was absolutely jam-packed with really janky, old bookshelves filled with musty volumes of what appeared to be previous library copies of books on military history. I've never seen that many military history books in my life, but I'm pretty sure not one of them was a "new" copy. They were all well-used and giving off that faint mildew smell of books that have gotten too damp.
Down the center of the store, past the bookshelves and reaching all the way to the back, was a long table that looked like it had, at one time, been used for gaming, but which was now just piled with a random assortment of games both old and new, mostly wargames and some strategic board games. Lower shelves toward the back of the store held their remaining stock of the once-massive RPG collection, now mostly taken over by 3.5-era WotC stuff along with a bunch of 3rd Party d20 material, almost all of which I had seen before.
There was a complete lack of organization, so not only were the products from one company scattered liberally throughout the entire back section of the store, but products from completely different decades sat right next to each other on the shelves. I really wanted to take a few pictures with my cellphone but I just knew that the loud "clicking" sound would attract the attention of the guy behind the counter and it would be obvious that I was taking the pictures for the sole purpose of putting them on the Internet later with captions that read, "Can you believe this place is still in business?"
I spent a good hour going through their stock, hoping to uncover a lost treasure of RPG goodness from my youth, but the older material was all stuff that he been in wide circulation, even back in Utah. Even their collection of older copies of Dragon magazine proved to only consist of issues in the 100s and 200s, all of which I already had, having been a subscriber since issue #90.
The man behind the counter never stopped his discussion to greet me or ask if I was looking for anything in particular. I got the feeling that somehow, after years of working there, he must have developed a sixth sense where he could size-up a potential customer as soon as the person hit the door and could tell in an instant whether the person was just there to browse or whether he was going to buy anything. I felt kind of bad that I didn't buy anything, but there was truly nothing there that I wanted.
I had gone back to the Last Grenadier hoping to see another glimpse of that awesome game store that I'd visited all those years ago, and to fine some ancient RPG treasure to bring home. I failed on both accounts.
Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Listening: "Bull Back Nova" by Wilco
Drinking: About to go have a beer at lunch with the fellas. Hopefully a Stone Smoked Porter.