This past week I saw something disheartening on my Twitter feed. It was a link to a Reddit thread (I know, I know, I know) in which a woman was soliciting advice for dealing with a creepster at the only local game store within two hours… only this creepster owned the store. Many of the responses were actively unhelpful. A particularly interesting response came from representatives of Wizards of the Coast, as one of their Reddit functionaries chimed in to the thread being like “we can speak to the owner.” But would that resolve the situation?


I don’t know. On the one hand, I think Wizards of the Coast needs to be enforcing base-level norms to ensure that everyone has a place to play where they feel comfortable. On the other hand, in any other situation I’d be far more skeptical of the idea of a for-profit company setting the agenda for independent businesses were it not for the communal aspect of the Magic experience.


The bigger issue, though, is that LGS owners tend, in my experience, to be a somewhat touchy bunch.


I mean, I get it. To run a LGS means opening a small business in a country where entrepreneurship is significantly less valued than it seems. It means having to risk your own credit and labor to run a store that relies significantly on middle class disposable income at a time at which the middle class is being systemically winnowed by public policy decisions. And it means having to be responsive to market trends in a way few other small businesses have to be.


An example of that last point: back in 2006ish, my partner went to a newly opened LGS and checked out their box of mixed lands, 25 cents a pop. In that box she found a number of original dual lands. She asked the store owner if he was sure he was selling them for a quarter apiece, and he was, so she bought all of them. Later, the store went out of business. I’m not saying our good fortune caused the LGS to fail, but clearly the store owner didn’t have a full appreciation for the complexity of the MtG market.


On top of all this, LGS store owners have to walk a social tightrope. On the one hand, the lifeblood of a game store is the community it attracts, and you have to foster and nurture that community through personal relationships with your customers. But those relationships are inherently imbalanced. Neither party is truly a friend to the other, in the typical sense of the word. The LGS owners have the power to make a space unfriendly, if not outright banning a person, while the customer has the power to spend their hard-earned cash at an alternate establishment, particularly in the era of the Internet.


Not being cognizant of this differential means you’re more likely to overstep it.


Now, maybe I’m a little salty on that front. I am not a person who naturally feels a sense of belonging when I join a space. I’m constitutionally an outsider, and it takes me time to feel at home, particularly when some people seem to get that feeling of ownership upon first stepping into a room. I’ve had that feeling for two game stores in my lifetime, and I no longer feel comfortable going back to either of them.


For one of them, my discomfort primarily stems from our separation. I haven’t lived in Philadelphia for years, and while I had some great times at Redcap’s Corner when I did live there, my sense of belonging waned quickly after I left town. Again, that’s part of my constitutional aversion, but the fact of the matter is that I was comfortable in that space and I no longer am. The store owners were great dudes, but the relationship was always awkward, and absence made that all the more clear.


My discomfort in the other space, though, is entirely due to the actions of one of the LGS owners. I had written a column about some sexism that went unchallenged at one of their events, and the following week I went to my normal Friday night draft. After I finished my first round (nailing it), one of the owners asked to talk to me outside, and then spent the next hour talking in circles because I had gravely offended the store by daring to air their dirty laundry. As part of that discussion I made a point to highlight the inherent power imbalance, but my complaints went unheeded.


Eventually my partner showed up, and we both listened to that shit for another half an hour, before I was finally like, “what’s happening with my draft?” I had missed the second round of it because I didn’t feel comfortable breaking from the browbeating I was receiving, and no one thought to check for me right outside the store. Despite the conversation being initiated by one of the owners.  


That was the last night I felt comfortable there.


Ironically, my article did cause a concrete change in LGS policy, and had clearly been both the right call to write, and a piece of activism that made the space friendlier for other people. The price of making the store a better place was any sense of ownership I had in the community. It was probably worth paying, but it certainly correlated in a sharp decrease in Magic participation on my part.


Other people had similar experiences, which brings me back to the woman on Reddit with the creepster owner at the only store for miles. If the pool of women going to the store is small, the chances are minimal that she’ll be able to hide that she was the one whose complaints prompted a talk from the product producer who supplies the lifeblood of the store. If Wizards does the only thing it’s empowered to do, i.e. wield its influence as a club to enforce beneficial policies, that creepster owner is going to take that woman aside and be like, “what the fuck!?”


“Why didn’t you talk to me first?” It’s a common refrain, though the answer should be self-evident. It’s the blurred boundaries of that relationship between LGS owner and customer that makes the owner feel as though the customer has an obligation to run their concerns past them prior to escalating the issue, and it’s the same blurred boundaries which makes the customer feel uncomfortable bringing it up directly.


Customers, particularly ones in remote locations where a LGS can have a monopoly on Magic, have an inherent desire for the LGS to survive as a place to play the game we all so love. At the same time, the customer is significantly less invested in the survival of the store’s management team. If Jimbo’s LGS store is the only game in town, you’re going to want his store to survive, even if Jimbo’s a total dick you wish weren’t running the damn thing.


Wizards is not well positioned, at the moment, to modify the behavior of store owners. Their power is the cudgel, not the carrot, since their dictates are undergirded by the implied threat of ending event support and product distribution. Wizards tried running their own retail stores, over which they would have that level of control, but the way in which they did so managed to do lasting damage to the community by driving out the independents who proved their value when Wizards pivoted away from store ownership.


But just because something was done wrong once doesn’t mean it’s inherently a bad idea. I think Wizards should be open to dipping their toe back into the physical retail business, especially given their relationship with Hasbro (allowing them to sell toys cheaply as well). But instead of entering the market as a competitor, Wizards should offer to buy-out mismanaged stores. In doing so, they give the money that they’d spend on a location hunt to the store owner, who bows out without the financial burden of failure, and then they use their own supply chain and margins to sell product and run events at a relative discount, allowing them to be competitive in ways that an independent store could not. In doing so, they’d get more control over events, and could more easily institute cultural shifts, like making Magic more welcoming to women.


Of course, that issue has its own pitfalls. Wizards has wanted to keep its hands clean of the secondary market for some time, so singles would have to be handled by a subcontracted dealer. And in some places the stores they buy out will not end up profitable, even with the benefits of central ownership. That would require Wizards to make a decision as to whether or not it’s worth operating a store at a net loss in order to sustain a community where the landscape is otherwise too barren for a business to flourish.


But if that’s a bridge too far, they could instead take some lessons from franchise operations. Such a relationship would allow them to exert more control over a store’s culture and business decisions, steering owners away from common pitfalls while reinforcing their structure and finances. This path would give them a carrot: in return for giving up control over certain aspects of their store, and independent entrepreneur would get the benefit of knowledge gleaned from Wizards’ whole network of stores.


Either way, the biggest pitfall that the LGS system creates is the individual cultural variation. A shitty experience with a store can completely change a player’s commitment to the game, and that’s the opposite of what Wizards should want from their base unit of player engagement. It’s time we stop expecting independent business owners to be able to navigate this thorny market unaided, and instead focus on giving them all the tools they need to succeed.


Jess Stirba is not of the owner class, because Millennial.

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