I am often accused of being (overly) sentimental. And I just as often admit that I am. So, fair warning, this is going to be a sentimental post.
I got into gaming in the late 70's, in the hey-day of the hobby—when it was (almost) a legitimate (socially accepted) thing. Though my first gaming books were most likely purchased at a Pamida or K-Mart or Waldenbooks or some such, it was not these stores that I most readily associate with the hobby. Rather, it is two very special hobby stores that helped to form the emotional and even aesthetic 'feel' that I will forever associate with gaming. As I've mentioned before, growing up in the middle of South Dakota wasn't especially conducive to gaming. So it was that my only real encounters with hobby shops happened only a few times a year, and quite far from home. I imagine this day-to-day separation is what made the experience of visiting these stores all the more enjoyable and memorable—almost like a holiday.
The first of these memorable stores was Who's Hobby House, located in downtown Rapid City South Dakota. This venerable storefront (one of those cool, old, brick 'row-house style buildings) had actually been around since 1950. It sold (and still sells) all manner of hobby materials—from modeling, to rockets to radio-controlled stuff to model railroads. And in the 70's and 80's, it also sold all manner of gaming books and miniatures. Compared to the (relatively) meagre selection of stuff at the stores I usually frequented, this was like a 'Mecca' of gaming to me. Considering my youth, I was actually surprised my mom agreed to take me to this store, after all, it was a special trip downtown instead of to the 'big' mall that we usually went to. But then, my mom was (and is) awesome like that. Beyond just the selection, though, the store itself was awesome, with tall ceilings, creaky wooden floors and all kinds of cool eclectic stuff either hung from the ceiling or situated on the tops of tall shelves.
The second, and even more memorable of these 'landmark' hobby shops (at least in my opinion) was Cobblestone Hobbies, located in Holland Michigan. My grandparents had a home in Holland and my older sister and I would often spend at least part of our summer there. When I was younger, I'd work chores around the house to earn a little money. When I was older, I had a summer job slinging fast-food. In both cases the majority of my hard-earned money was gleefully spent at Cobblestone Hobbies. Even when I didn't have any spare money, I'd walk down just to browse.
Like Who's, Cobblestone was an awesome little store—again a downtown rowhouse-type building—and again, it covered all kinds of hobbies (models, RC, rockets). But in comparison to Who's tall ceilings and big glass windows, Cobblestone was a lot more 'cavelike', with window displays blocking off the exterior light and rows of shelves dividing the somewhat cramped space into a maze of rows and sections, each one seeming to have a slightly different floor level. Again, all kinds of odd things adorned the walls and ceilings—including a lot of very intricate Star Wars models! And beyond just the 'major' games (like D&D) there were all the more obscure games and lots of older wargames as well. It is hard to describe the feeling I got when I went to this store—that is until I saw the first Harry Potter movie and they went to Diagon-Alley. THAT was the feeling I got, especially when I was younger (9-10). This magical little nook full of cool stuff, right smack dab in the middle of a seemingly normal downtown.
In reading the above, you can tell just how sentimental I am. But I feel even more so now, looking back on it. What makes it all the more poignant is the fact that you can 'never go back'. Though both stores still exist, the magic is largely gone now, except in my memory. Who's is still there, but it has gone back to being mainly just a model/rc store. Cobblestone moved into a different building—a modern (and undoubtedly cheaper) pole-barn type storefront that just feels so...generic. I'd be lying if I said it didn't make me sad, but that's the way things go. Nothing ever stays the same. It makes you wonder where the hobby of gaming is going in the long run. I'm not really 'worried' about it dying out or anything like that. If it does, it does—but it won't while I'm alive at least. I just feel that it really DOES have a lot to offer and I'd hate to think nobody else would ever get to experience the kind of wonder I did all those years ago.