Diary of a Mad Businessman 9: To be or to Close-eep
By Ben Calica
People thought the big danger point for small shops like mine was that first couple of months closed. But the real cliff is coming now. Many of us have been clawing to keep alive long enough to be able to survive to the other side of this, but after X-mas there will be a lot of signs in windows of beloved favorite shops that none of us wanna see. What we need isn’t the flurry of go fund me kindness or even a burst of business now. What we need is to know that every month for the next year, we will get enough business to make it. So how to do that?
(Note…this was first written over 4 months ago and put into a drawer to hopefully never pull out again. I really hoped I was wrong, that the initial burst of kindness and charity would see us through to the other side. But to many mistakes were made and the other side is probably a year away. So I’m facing a choice in the next month or so to try and keep fighting to get us across the abyss or make the heartbreaking choice to close the shop . )
About 3 years ago,my little local game shop, D20 Games, came to big old fork in the road. An painful dispute with a new landlord forced us to scramble for new digs, and for a while, it wasn’t looking too good. I had negotiated a lease buyout to help pay for the increase in rent we were about to take on, and I realized that one option would be to not open and just take that money to help while I went on to do something else. Basically the move would be same as making the decision to start the business again. And that gave me pause. The truth is that a (non-electronic) game store ain’t the way to the big bucks. Its a somewhat insane act of love.
In my case, I didn’t end up with the shop because owning a game store was the plan, or even on the list, if I’m honest. I do like games, but the real reason I bought it was to create a safe/supportive place for my own kids. What I didn’t see coming was how much the store became that for a whole community. What I discovered that I truly loved about games was their use as connective tissue to bring people together. It became a safe and welcoming place for people to get face to face, not face to screen. You know that adult you met as a kid who took you seriously, who treated you like a person and not a child. I was able to be that for an entire community of kids. And it turned out that creating a place where the smack talk/shaming wasn’t ok, where the fun came from playing with respect and kindness. And as an added bonus, I discovered that there was an opportunity, among all that trading of Pokemon and Magic cards, to find that moment when kids had to face being taken advantage of and deciding if they wanted to do that to someone else or never make anyone else feel that way. It was this hidden building block of honestly, a moment that most of us as parents missed in the flame of tears and anger. It kept me sane when the political world seemed to fill with bullies, to focus on the kids under my umbrella and do everything I could to make sure that they didn’t end up that way. I started to see the difference it meant in the families that managed to make a game night part of their regular pattern of life, and started doing everything I could to encourage and enable that, in a world where parents felt like they were losing their kids into the screens they carried in their pockets. The shop had transformed into something that became much more important to me then I thought.
When I told our community about our crossroads 3 years ago, about making the move or calling it quits, I was completely unprepared for the response. The way I felt about the community turned out to to both ways. I felt how important and valuable the place had become to a big range of people. And it was more then just words. When we did find a place, and had two weeks to do a move and build out that should have taken two months, we were filled with volunteers who hauled boxed, picked up paint brushes and anything else that needed getting done. When I think back on , it brings annoyingly cliche tears to my eyes. I’ve never felt as appreciated as I did in that moment. I understood how much impact we had, and what that meant to the community, and that there were things more important than $$. It took us a couple of years to both pay off the move and get the business back to decent footing. In fact in the beginning of 2020, we started what would become the first truly profitable year we’d had since the move. (I found that out when I applied for grants that made me do the year to year comparisons early. I oscillate between being glad to know we had gotten it dialed in, and not wanting to know just how hard the pandemic whacked us.)
When we had to close because of the pandemic, it was a surreal blow, but I was ok with it. I knew that if someone came to me and said “if you close for the next couple of months, it will save your mother or father’s life” that I would have done so in a heartbeat. How could I do any less for someone else, particularly if that someone was the loved one of someone in our community. The day that we heard was a Monday, a day we were usually closed, and I quickly came up with the idea of selling game loot bags, to give people something to do when they were locked down and to try and get some sales before the cash registers stopped ringing. And then something that felt very much like the end scene in It’s a Wonderful Life happened. People showed up and bought those bags in droves, and I figured out pretty quickly that it was their way of trying to keep us alive. It felt wonderful.
And I wasn’t the only one. Small business all around me and the country started finding their loyal customers were just that. Willing to do whatever they could to help. There was a huge trend in selling gift certificates to keep them alive, and suddenly, in the midst of all that kindness, a terrible reality came to me. See the gift certificates were a perfect window into what was going to happen. The problem with them is that they gave income now, but meant that later, when they were back and able to function, their most loyal customers would be coming back to do business with slips of paper for money that had been spent in rent to make up for the months without. At the time when the shop would need as much business as they can to just get back to where they were, it would be like they were having to pay back a loan in full. It was like all those rent deferrals, that would come back later to people who might be working again, but sure as hell weren’t earning enough to pay a rent and a half or really any big increase to pay back for time where they didn’t have the income. And this wasn’t gonna be a couple of months we’d have to tread water to make it though, it was going to be at least a year and a half, probably two. Basically, we were one of those business that had been about lots of people close enough to be across the table from each other.
The soul of our business is using games as a connector to get people face to face, and to let kids get a chance to learn how to win with grace, lose with style and play for joy (our tagline..it’s on the back of our shirts/sweatshirts). Our way of competing against Amazon was by doing events that got people face to face, and hand picking good stuff and really listening and tuning suggestions of games to each person. And ironically enough, in the three months before the pandemic, we had recovered from the hit that all shops take when they make a move and were on the way to have an actually decently profitable year. But the truth is that it’s gonna be a long time till that is ok. And I’ve been goofy and paid attention to the original reopening guidance that says that you need a drop in cases for two weeks before you can start doing that. (I know that the death rates are dropping, even as more and more folks are being infected, but I’ve gotten to know some “long haulers” and there is whole uncovered set of people, something like 10% of those who get Covid that go through this combo of epstein-barr and migraines that leave them functionally debilitated for months if not permanently in some cases. And I’ll admit directly, that I’m scared. Having over a hundred people a week come into the store kind of paints a pretty big bullseye on my chest.)
So now I’m looking down the barrel of a shotgun. The truth is that I’ve been taking half the unemployment and using it as the government support that never really showed up to keep the place open, which I’m probably really regret when if I can’t make it through this and need to pay my own rent. (The landlords for the store have been good at giving us a rent reduction so everyone is suffering but we can all have a chance a making it through this.)
I don’t want charity, there are more important things for that then us. And honestly, although I would love as much business as we can get for the holidays, that is just gonna add a few more feet to the plank. What I need now is some way to know that enough business is coming in each month for the next year that we can make it through this. I love my community dearly, but if I have to go through another 12 months of living in anxiety and fear that we are gonna be able to pay rent/bills, I’ll be a torn apart wreck at the end of that time. And I’d like to do it in a way that lets us keep doing what the soul of the store is, having the games be something good in keeping us connected, not only through this, but as a joyful part of our lives.
What we are going to do, beyond asking for as much of the holiday business as we can get, is to make a small collection of regular (monthly) D20 Club memberships. These will include regular amounts for monthly purchases for magic/pokemon players that will get extra bonus thrown in when those purchases are made, to D&D memberships that will include Zoom style D&D until it is truly safe to do so in the store again. And my absolute favorite, a monthly family/friends game night kit that consists of carefully curated games that we all get to play together for that month, with nights where we do online sessions to help teach/be there to answer questions, special one page quick reference sheets to make the games easier to get into and other goodies. The most important part would be that in exchange for helping us out, we will help give an excuse to bring forward in to the new shape of live that we create for ourselves, a regular night to connect and have fun with each other, with the phone in the baskets. Maybe we get to create a whole community in Alameda that are all doing something joyful together.
I’ve talked a number of times in the past of how this is a time when the very blowing up of our lives has the hidden value. When our assumptions about what can and can’t be done get thrown up in the air, that when it falls, if we are careful, we might get to put it back together in ways we like better. Maybe learning how to work from home gives a chance to pollute less and spend that commute time with our families instead. Maybe we realise that distance isn’t as much of a barrier to staying in real connection to people we love. And maybe the impossible moments when we actually got to sit down with each other and play games instead of everyone surrounded by cones of silence powered by the glowing screens in their hands. Maybe we keep the best of what we had to make of this mess, including all the value of regular family/friend game nights.
And I’ve talked both about my deep concern about the hovering shade of digital nicotine (I know other parents nod their head in understanding about looking at the phone’s in our kids hands and seeing the distance and danger that lives in within that ecosystem), and the transformational value of setting up regular game nights at home, where the phones go in a bucket and people are just with each other in real time. For a lot of families, getting to do things like that with the kids and each other has been one of the great silver linings in all this, and trying to have that be one of the changes that we keep from this instead of a brief moment is of irreplaceable value.
So here is the deal, from my heart to my customers. I want to try and keep making this work. I’m gonna put these offerings out for the holidays before thanksgiving. They will range from $50-$150 (or more if people are able/want to help more)per month. For us to be able to make our monthly base costs and survive, we need about $10k in sales. So we will need between 50–100 people to sign up to make this work. If I get there, we’ll make it. If I get half that, I’ll take the scary chance and keep doing it anyway. If we can’t, then I think I’m gonna need to close the shop. I know it’s a bit of a buy this magazine or we shoot this dog proposition, but it is unfortunately the truth of it.
If you are interested in seeing what we are gonna offer, Email me with your name, email and cell number. If you include a picture of you, and your family if you live with one, in masks, I’ll send you a little thank you gift/bribe back in the form of a one time use code for a free Pokemon or Magic goodie to pick up at the store. (Good till January 2021 or longer if I decide to.)
Regardless of what happens here, I deeply love this community and I hope I’ve made it better. I know it has made me better.