It’s a mild afternoon in Southern California and I’m parking at one of the region’s ubiquitous strip malls. In the self-contained quiet of the car, the ignition off and the radio silent, I control my urge to hyperventilate. I’m nervous. Through the windshield, I see the entrance to the Hobby Store, my intended destination. Somewhere inside there’s a gathering for board game enthusiasts, at least that’s what the internet claimed. I like games.
I like board games. I like card games. I like dice games, tabletop games, puzzles games, hunger games, mind games, and- you get the point. I like games, so why am I nervous?
In the aftermath of several graduations, the diaspora of my friends has left me with more time to binge Netflix and I am totally happy. Okay, so maybe I could use more local friends. I had to take a taxi to the ER, after all. Probably not the best situation for someone like me, but making friends as an adult is difficult, especially when one works from home. Without the structure of school or a workplace, there’s little forced interaction that plants the seeds of fruitful friendships. Instead, I think one has to rely on finding like-minded individuals or clubs or religions. I don’t really know. I’m making this adult thing up as I go. What I do know, or at least what I can remember, is that there was a time in my life when I had friends outside of school or work or even where I lived. But life took me in a different direction and I lost touch with the community I once felt apart of.
I am nervous because today is about more than just games. I am on a quest. Not a magic quest. Not a quest for a holy cup or a bubbler of youth. Not a quest to rescue fair maidens either, although if you see any, please let me know.
Today, at the Hobby Store, I am on a quest to find my people again.
Getting out of the car can be the hardest part of a quest. Inside the car, you’re safe in the bubble of potential futures. Stay in the car, you can drive off and nothing much about your life changes. Get out of the car, and who knows what might happen by the time you return.
The Hobby Store’s entrance is sun-soaked and looks slightly abandoned.
Inside the Hobby Store are stacks and stacks of board games, dice games, tabletop games, card games and- you’ve already gotten this point. Like cave passageways, the aisles are skinny in some places and wide in others depending on how far the boxes bulge from the shelves. Despite the NO SMOKING signs there’s the familiar whiff of cigarette smoke in the dim lighting.
At the front desk, peering over the glass counter, is a fair maiden, the Clerk.
Bespectacled, tattooed, and pierced through the ears, nose and [REDACTED], the Clerk waits for me to say something. With an august manner, I stare at her face and ask, “Where are the board games?”
She points to the shelves I had just wandered through.
“Sorry, I meant the people playing the board games.”
She motions to the back. I thank her profusely with a single nod. My quests often involve the fair maiden rescuing me. It’s how I like to gallivant.
Walk into any hobby store and you’ll find most have a section called “The Back”. It’s where regulars of the store go to play their games. The area is usually furnished with worn tables, folding chairs, and old merchandise. All the smells that greet you upon entering the store are born here. And, like salmon, this is where those smells go to breed and die. The Back is not a place for first impressions. Or civilians. It’s the unfiltered space where people who have diverted all of their resources towards gaming can really let their guard down. No one’s going to care what you look like, how old you are or what your deal is, the place is a piece of shit. By that I mean, it’s perfect.
My first introduction to The Back was during my middle school years at the Hobby Exchange, a gaming and modeling store in my hometown. Being on the younger end of the crowd, playing hobby games downtown felt like the first grown-up thing I could do without a parent cheering me on. Hobby games were tolerated by my parents at best. My mother is still asking me if she can throw away my old cards. (No. I might need them.) Going to the hobby store on the weekends became a minor act of rebellion. An act of rebellion severely undercut by the fact a parent had to drive me and my friends there, but still, it felt like a big deal. At the time, the popular game involved building decks of cards dedicated to casting spells and summoning creatures to do battle against your enemies. I hear it’s still a popular game, but I’ve since sworn off such frivolities, at least until I have a disposable income again.
In addition to the usual mise en scene of the Exchange’s back area, there was a crock pot. Inside the crock pot, dozens of hot dogs simmered. Next to the crock pot there were buns, condiments and a cup to put a dollar in. I don’t recall eating a hot dog at the Exchange, but I always liked that I had the option. The presence of the crock pot, something often seen at home, gave the place a sense of trust. Despite the detritus, there was a shared responsibility to keep things from getting out of hand. We weren’t just customers of the store, we were friends of the store.
And when you’re bushwhacking through the jungles of middle school, you always need a friend. The Exchange went out of business in later years, but I still feel a shiver of the magic when I see the storefront.
In California, they forget there should be a clear line between inside and outside. The Hobby Store’s back section isn’t actually inside the store. Behind the strip mall, there’s a small parking lot with sun tents set up. Under the tents, the usual card tables and folding chairs take shelter in the shade. My first thought is that no matter what, at least I’ve gone outside today. Probably more than five minutes, too.
You know the awkward scene in movies when the new guy walks into a room and everybody stares at him? As it turns out, it’s even more awkward when the new guys walks in and nobody notices him at all. This is my experience as I walk outside to The Back. Hunched over the tables, playing a variety of games I don’t recognize, are the regulars of the Hobby Store. I was right to be nervous. I came here in search of my people but what I’ve found on first impression is not what I remembered.
If these are my people, then I want out of the tribe.
Dressed in t-shirts of all manner (three of them Hello Pony), pants in dire need of mercy, and facial hair that would make a billy goat jealous, the regulars of the Hobby Store are not how I remember the people from my middle school years. I take a seat at an empty end of the table. One of the nearby players pulls out a card game I recognize and I take the opportunity to point at it and say, “I’ve played that before”. The regulars look at me like I’m speaking Klingon, but not the dialect they know. I repeat myself again. The light breeze flapping the tent top muffles my voice. Luckily, someone connects the dots and I’m dealt into the next hand.
The game is a game of bluffs. Because I’m the new guy, no one wants to challenge me first. Good, I think. There’s a long line of fools who have underestimated me, time to add a few more to the list. On my turn, I go on the attack, assassinating the player to my left. He calls my bluff. I call his bluff back. He wasn’t bluffing.
I’m out of the game on my first turn.
Feeling like an idiot, I wait for the others to finish. While I’m silently berating my bad decision, another regular comes over to introduce himself, an ambassador of sorts. The Ambassador asks me if I want to play his Pokémon Role-Playing Game. There was once a time in my life when I would have said “Hell yes” to playing a Pokémon RPG. That time in my life is now.
“You made a Pokémon RPG? Hell yes, I’ll play.”
The Ambassador gets out two binders of photocopied pages. I realize this may be more complicated than I thought. In the actual video game of Pokémon, you have about four moves, well maybe seven, but let’s stick with four. You have four moves in the actual video game, but this guy’s tabletop version involved at least a dozen turn phases before I could even tell my anime critter to use Tail Whip.
And then I get to roll dice!
Fortunately, I’m saved from continuing my slog through Poké-hell when the Alpha Geek arrives. Entering with all the jiggling swagger of an obese man in a black t-shirt, the Alpha Geek commands the group’s attention by passing out a few Munchkin-related stuffies.
The Alpha Geek looks at me, says nothing, and moves on.
Later, I ask the Alpha Geek when the board games will be played. He tells me there’s a tournament starting soon, but it’s a game I’ve never heard of. He admits they pretty much only play RPG’s and a few other games I don’t recognize. I thank him and wander back to my table. The other players have moved on to the tournament nearby. I don’t want to spend $15 losing a game I don’t know how to play, so I slip out quietly.
Walking back through the Hobby Store, I feel closer to the Clerk than I do any of the people in The Back. I feel like I should say something to her on my way out, but she’s busy clerking.
The parking lot doesn’t feel far enough.
I shut the car door. Inside once again, there’s a sense of relief. I had come in search of my people, but what I had found wasn’t a sense of belonging. It was closure. I didn’t realize how much my perception of hobby shops and their denizens was colored by nostalgia for my youth. Beyond nostalgia, there was a sense of neglected responsibility, like I had abandoned my people in The Back, left the crock pot on. In my mind, they’ve been waiting there for my return, wondering what had happened to me, hoping for the day I navigate the narrow aisles to The Back and triumphantly rejoin the unwashed paradise. I didn’t expect a fanfare of trumpets, but I thought at least they would recognize me as one of their own.
They didn’t. I’m not their people anymore.
I am still on that quest.