Friday, June 1, 2012

Game Stores: The Last Grenadier

The store, looking a bit nicer than during my last visit.
Background: The Lack of Game Stores
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.


12 comments:

  1. Hey Martin, thanks for sharing this story. It's a sad one, though, when it comes to the Last Grenadier (even the name has something of sadness about it, conjuring an image of the last surviving member of a decimated military unit). There's something so depressing about a game store that withers away...because game stores basically sell playgrounds for the imagination...and when the imagination doesn't have a place to play, bad things happen. The soul atrophies...okay maybe that's a bit melodramatic! ;-)

    In Southern New Jersey where I've lived pretty much my entire life, there's never been many game stores. The handful that I've been in have come and gone like proverbial dust in the wind. There's never more than a handful of game stores in existence at any one time here, but there's at least one or two that have stood the test of time...at least for a while.

    The best one I've encountered in my life is All Things Fun in West Berlin, NJ, where I game on Wednesday nights. Great owners, great space, fun atmosphere, you name it. I feel really lucky to have a great FLGS that I can go to.

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  2. I remember The Last Grenadier, although wasn't our regular store. That was primarily The Game Keeper in Pasadena, and the War Club in La Canada. Very sad to hear of their state now, though It's a miracle they still exist.

    Sean

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  3. I feel your pain, Martin. I've watched three local game stores, at least two of which were great in their prime, dwindle and die. (Well, technically only two have died - the third just morphed into something that no longer resembles the true game stores of old, so it's dead to me.) It's a sad thing, and I think Drance's statement about these store's selling "playgrounds for the imagination" is a fitting way of putting it.

    But I think it's something far more personal when a game store we once knew dies: revisiting a game store that once filled us with wonder and joy, only to find it a hollow shell of its former self, is a sad and sobering experience. It's as if the store's demise somehow echos the tragic fate of our own inner child, as the reality of now strikes yet another blow against our fondly remembered youth. It almost hurts, in an emotional sense.

    (BTW, I think you give the old guy behind the counter far too much credit. I've personally known (and even worked with) game/comic store employees who exhibit the same behavior toward customers, and believe me, it's got a lot less to do with some uncanny ability to read customers than it does with a sheer inability to be able to properly deal with them.)

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  4. In the late 1970's I was a teenager in Reseda, CA. I used to frequent a *true* game store called the Competitor's Castle. It was a magical place filled with games and gamers. Rare was the instance when you could NOT find an RPG taking place.

    The store was one big space divided into 2 sections, the front 1/3 was stuff for sale: books, miniatures, modeling paint, etc. The back 2/3 was three huge gaming tables, 2 huge cabinets and several smaller cabinets, and the obligatory soda pop machine although this was one of the older "small bottle" varieties. The proprietor was a guy named Skip who sometimes told tales of being in the Korean War and loved games as much as the customers.

    On weekends Skip would close the store-front but stay and continue to let us game as late as we needed to (I had to leave at 10pm but others stayed later) to finish a session.

    Beyond RPG's the "Castle" also catered to military miniature gamers and those 2 huge cabinets had about a dozen wide "art" drawers filled with painted armies from many different historic periods. There were also odd-shaped sheets of thick felt-like material used to create terrain for war games on those huge tables. As far as I know these armies were property of the customers and were never locked up. It was a matter of serious honor (backed by the threat of being banned from the Castle) that nobody ever messed with another customer's stuff.

    Occasionally we would play card games (this was before collector card games existed) like Nuclear War. Today it seems that collector card games are the **only** thing one can "always" find in play at game stores.

    Sigh ... them were the good old days indeed!

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    Replies
    1. Awesome - thank you so much for stopping by, reading, and commenting. I really appreciate it.

      Your store you mention sounds awesome and I can almost picture it based on your description.

      There are still some good stores out there, but they don't really have that kind of vibe that you describe, above (at least from what I've seen).

      Thank again!

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    2. Thank *you* Martin for the trip down memory lane. One of my "someday when I win the lottery" dreams is to open a gaming store like the ol' Castle but make it also a coffee house/sandwich shop with sofas for reading & conversations, a large open area for games & dancing (not on the same nights of course), local musicians jamming soft jazz & other relaxing music styles, and no booze so it is family friendly. Like in D&D this *will* happen if only the random numbers will co-operate ... rolling 6d100 and hoping for a mega-number! :-)

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    3. That sounds like an awesome store! However, I think you might want to have some "adults only" nights. I personally like to imbibe a little nip or two while gaming. :) We tend to focus on craft beers, usually heavily hopped stuff from California.

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  5. Kind of depressing but it mirrors much of what I have seen even with stores with a more general selection. I have watched at least two game store and four comic stores come and go in the some 20 years I have been here in Las Cruces, NM.

    I found via the internet that the game store I favored in my youth in Columbus, OH (Drowsy Dragon) closed sometime after I had moved to this city in the 1990s. Drowsy Dragon was actually run out of an addition to a person's house but I have never seen an gaming store come close to the selection they had as far as current games. You name it odds are they had it: Dragon Magazine; D&D and AD&D1. Man to Man (the precursor to GURPS); an entire subarea with miniatures, and much more.

    The only thing even remotely close is the used game section of Coas Bookstore and that is at most a half of what Drowsy had back in the day. It was an era and form what I am seeing it has gone.

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    1. Thank you so much for stopping by, Bruce!

      I'm almost a little shocked that a town the size of Las Cruces had that many game and comic stores over the years. I've lived in many a town over the years that didn't have either one.

      Way back in the early days of my career I used to do advertising for Baskin-Robbins and one of my markets was Albuquerque and Las Cruces. I remember how we always had to show the client that we were spending on proportionally the same amount of TV, radio, and billboards in Las Cruces as we did in the "big" markets, since the franchisees there were contributing money to the advertising fund. That was how I first heard of the town. :)

      Cheers!

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    2. We even had a brief time in the early 1990s when there were four comic stores in Las Cruces: Dave's Used books, Modern Comics, Dimension X, and Coyote Comics. Dave's closed around 1995 and Dimension X didn't last 6 months (rumors were that it was badly managed), Modern Comics branched out into anime DVD rentals right across from the University but eventually closed. Coyote Comics died a lingering death with a smaller and smaller selection until it closed. Then there was Monkey comics which had a mixture of comics and used books which moved into a strip mall and then promptly closed. Then we had Dave Comics and Paintball which went more and more into paintball until they closed. Right now Zia Comics is the only comic store I know of and they seem empty the few time I am in there.

      Oh on a side note I found out that Last Grenadier seems to have closed not too long after you originally wrote this. ( http://maiwandday.blogspot.com/2013/04/rip-last-grenadier-of-burbank-california.html )

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  6. I realize this reply is to an older post but I was in a research-y mood today and decided to go digging around to find out stuff about The Last Grenadier (TLG) and discovered some interesting posts scattered on the web.

    FYI: The reason I went looking is because I remembered TLG being in Northridge, not Burbank, and I wanted to check if my memory was at all accurate -- rolling for senility save but can't remember what stat to use.

    1. The first thing I discovered is that once upon a time TLG had several locations, including Northridge (on Reseda Blvd) ... Yay! I made my senility save roll after all!

    2. At the same website where my memory was affirmed I also found this tidbit on the origin and history of TLG. Scroll down to the post by "Sven" posted on Sun Jan 23, 2011 3:21 pm.

    3. After more websurfing I found that TLG as a store was in decline for years before it shut down in 2013. This link from YELP.COM shows a long trail of unhappy customers who loved the selection but not the service. Notable is the comment dated 10/6/2009 in reply to another comment dated 9/14/2009. That comment is a very poor (1-star) customer review and the reply was made by "Andrew P of TLG / Business Owner". Of all the many customer complaints that the store might have challenged it on Yelp TLG chose only this one small complaint to respond to, and then only to attempt to belittle the customer's position. How sad, no wonder they went out of business.

    4. Next, through this website (see the post by "Wyatt the Odd" dated 16 Mar 2013 4:09 p.m. PST) I discovered another "ancient" FLGS, Aero Hobbies, in nearby Santa Monica which wonderfully is still in business.

    5. And finally, from Aero's website I discovered the link to a real gem in all this: a fairly believable claim that a role-player at Aero Hobbies, Gary Switzer, was the source of the very first Thief character class that Gygax added to D&D.

    The *documented* details of that story are recorded here:
    http://playingattheworld.blogspot.com/2012/08/gygaxs-thief-addition-1974.html
    (be sure to click on the scanned page images when you get to them).

    Oh what interesting things we can find when we go digging through the magical webs of the internet!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks so much for stopping by, reading the post, and for your detailed comment!

      And thanks also for your link about Aero Hobbies - that's one of the stores on my list to write about. I went toward the tail end of the previous owner (who I believe unfortunately passed away) when it was a complete mess but also just a treasure trove of stuff that I'd never seen before. My next visit was a few years later when it was in its current form - cleaned up and organized. It was definitely easier to find stuff, but that meant that the "treasures" had been found and purchased already, and it lost part of its "charm" in the process. But don't get me wrong - it's a class-act store all the way. It's just that the previous version reminded me of what game stores were like toward the dawn of the hobby.

      Cheers!

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