Friday, February 4, 2011

Ma vie en plomb
(My life in lead)

Today I stopped by the American Eagles hobby store in Lake City, WA to confirm a rumor that they were closing. Indeed they are. Their last day of business will be April 9th, 2011, just over 42 years since they opened for business.

American Eagles had seen its better days pass some time ago. The store's founder, Mike Edwards, opened his store a few blocks from his home in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle in April, 1969. His son George, who's run the place for the last decade since Mike died, says that his dad started the store because he was a plastic modeler and he had had the wonderful epiphany that if he owned a store, he could get his plastic model kits at wholesale.

For military-minded hobbyists in the greater Seattle area, American Eagles was a mecca. In their hey-day they carried several lines of miniature figurines, as well as paints and other accessories for wargamers. They also had a basement/back room where there was regular miniature wargaming. During its career, American Eagles moved from Ballard to the Greenwood neighborhood, back to Ballard again, and finally to its Lake City location. A scrapbook at the front counter of the store contains several clippings of antique articles from local newspapers telling all about the store and its devotees. Even though I've only been a customer since I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1991, I felt very nostalgic looking at them—less because of the store itself than because its history and eventual demise resonated with my own experience growing up as a kid who liked models, wargames, toy soldiers, 'n' stuff. The hobby stores of my youth have almost all come and gone as well.

American Eagles' closing is another mark indicating the passing of an era that will never return. In the 1950s to 1970s, hobby shops were a going concern. Before video games and the overly-structured lives that kids live today, hobby shops were a wonderland of creative things to do. Kids these days don't go into hobbies like we did in our youth. Internet commerce, too, has extracted its toll and the brick and mortar hobby shop is a dying breed.

I grew up in San Jose, CA where the notable hobby shops of my youth were Huston's Hobbies, D&J Hobbies, and San Antonio Hobbies. Huston's was around in the 1960s when we first came to San Jose and I recall it as a place my father would take me to buy plastic model kits (of tanks and warplanes, of course). Huston's disappeared in the early 70s. Later, the shopping center they were in, Town and Country Village, was bull-dozed for a new, swank shopping center (Santana Row).

D&J hobbies started as a wee nook of a place next to a pet store in Campbell, CA. My friends and I used to ride our bikes there to buy Rocco Minitanks and plastic models. My first job was working at D&J from 1977-1978 (by which time they had moved to a larger location). They're still in business—it must be almost 40 years now—and their current location is even larger than when I worked there. I think that diversity, especially Jan Pozzi's (the "J" in D&J) emphasis on crafts, has kept the store viable for walk-in shoppers. D&J never had much in the way of miniature gaming, but I was able to order Hinchliffe figures for myself and get them cheap through the store. But Darryl ("D") and Jan are getting on in years. When they retire, I don't see the store remaining.

The big store for wargamers in my area was San Antonio Hobbies in Mountain View, CA. In our pre-driving days, my friend Ron and I used to take a long bus ride up from San Jose, through Cupertino, Santa Clara, and Sunnyvale to Mountain View. The event was always a day-long excursion, which usually netted us a handful of Minifigs, dearly bought at 25¢ a figure. San Antonio carried the full range of Minifigs in their little boxes. We would have Natalie, the attractive older woman who worked the wargaming section, pull out box after box for us to pick through and get the figures we wanted. San Antonio closed shop some years ago after the owner suffered a stroke. He couldn't find a buyer for the store, so he just shut it down and liquidated whatever stock he had. San Antonio Hobbies had a few career workers, one of whom I knew for years, who were well paid with competitive benefits. I'm sure they once thought their future was secure.

There were a few other places as well, like Mickey's Model & Hobby Shop in Sunnyvale, whose eponymous proprietor sat painting bootlegged Britains toy soldiers in his tiny store. Even with his limited stock, Mickey never knew what he had on hand. Any call to ask if he had something would just get the response that he had "many, many things" and that we should come in and look for ourselves. Mickey's is long gone, I don't know when. Even the shopping center, another Town and Country Village (there were three in the Bay Area in my day), has been bulldozed and a newer shopping center built on its ruins.

There was also The Gametable in Campbell, CA that opened in the mid-70s. It was the first dedicated gaming store in the area. It was co-owned by three brothers and for some years was a hot-spot for miniature gaming. It went out of business in the mid-80s after a brief change of ownership and a few location changes. One of the original owners, Larry Duffield, now runs his own board game company, LPD Games, in picturesque Fort Bragg, CA.

I get a little misty-eyed thinking back on those days and how I've lived my life in lead minis. However, there are still stores that remain. The Panzer Depot in Kirkland, WA has been hit by the economy, but it's still a great store with a lot of miniature figures, paints, etc. It's also a place where gaming occurs regularly throughout the week. The Game Matrix in Lakewood, WA has miniature gaming one Saturday a month (when it's not pre-empted by a Pokemon tournament).

Despite constant bewailings of the "graying" of the wargame hobby, I can't help but notice how many gamers are younger than me (leaving aside notice of how many are older). One store's passing, doesn't mean the end of the hobby. Still, I think Donne's lines are fraught with portent: "Send not for whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee." When I'm an old older fart, will there still be a wargaming hobby to participate in that doesn't involve only me and a lot of other toothless fossils? I hope so.

Postscript Jan 12, 2016

I noticed today that D&J Hobby is gone. When I was in San Jose in 2014, I saw that the store had been sold to new owners who moved it about a half mile down the road to a much smaller space. I poked around, but the new store was clearly not the old store. The people running it were young and enthusiastic, but I had the sinking feeling then that the store wouldn't last. Alas, their Facebook page shows them as permanently closed. Their last timeline post is November 3, 2015, so the end was recent—although they were posting liquidation sale notices for several months before that.

6 comments:

  1. Very thoughtful post. Thanks very much.

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  2. Very interesting David, the same thing is happening here in Britain, with the only high street table top gaming shops being Games Workshop. Although, very friendly and accessible, they tend to cater for the younger crowd. They must be doing something right though, as they appear to be thriving post-internet/video game era...:)
    I think you may be correct though, in that historical (real world)gaming will remain the preserve of us 'fossils'...hmmm
    Regards,
    Monty

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  3. Man, I'm sad to see that place closing. Every time I made it to Seattle, I made a point to get in there and buy something.

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  4. Nostalgia man!
    I was a regular hanger on at the Game Table. After Larry closed it David Partek bought the store and moved it to another two locations before finally closing shop.

    Nowadays the area is dominated by Game Kastle of Santa Clara. They have huge amount of gaming space, as well as tons of lead (Copplestone on the pegboard, what more could you ask for?)

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  5. Mandarin, when did you game at Game Table? I was an habitue from its opening until 1981. I mostly played WRG ancients and Renaissance and Larry's "Brigadier!" rules.

    The crowd I hung with there, that I can recall, was Phil Duffield, Neil Farkas, Merlin Woods, David Hinckley, Rex Sondeno...

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  6. I made it to the American Eagles hobby store a few times while I was assigned to Fort Lewis...a great loss and another sad sign
    of the change in times.

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