It’s a rare event when a few of my mutual interests collide these days. Happily, my WeLoveDC self collided with my gamer self earlier this month when I managed to make it out to the grand opening of Labyrinth Games in downtown DC. Specifically, right near Eastern Market in Southeast.
Typically today, if you mention “game store” to someone, you’ll most likely get a response directing you to the nearest Game Stop or Toys ‘R Us. That’s because most people tend to think of games in one of two ways – on a console system or other electronic device, or one of those popular box games you find stashed on a shelf in one of the superstore retailers. While that’s just fine and dandy for those looking for the latest release of Madden Eleventy-one or the newest “collector’s edition” of Monopoly, such stores lack the breadth and character of a dedicated game store retailer. And such a store is a rare gem, when one can find it. Especially if they’re independently owned and operated.
Fortunately, DC has finally received such a gem.
I found out about Labyrinth’s impending opening back in September through my small network of compatriots in the game industry. You have to understand that such a store dedicated to the classic art of gaming is about as hard to find these days as a Redskin victory; there’s hints of them here and there, but nothing to give you that feeling of comfort and satisfaction when you walk through their doors. Wandering a short eight foot shelf display in Target just doesn’t cut it, nor does meandering through racks and racks of comic books hoping for a glimpse of something new and exciting to stimulate the mind. And the few game stores still around in the outlying metro areas often have old inventory, sullen staff, or odd hours.
When I walked through Labyrinth’s doors, however, everything seemed right in the world.
This isn’t some major chain store selling only the top of the top sellers here. And good luck finding a game disc of any kind. Labyrinth caters to games and entertainment of the non-electronic stripe. From handmade wood puzzle games to chess, classic board games like Clue and Scrabble to exceedingly entertaining Rio Grande family games, brainteasers and jigsaw puzzles, to roleplaying and collectible card games, Labyrinth’s stock covers a wide variety of stimulating, engaging games; there literally is something here for everyone of any age. (And I was happy to see even some of the games I’ve worked on and published present on their shelves.)
But it’s not just the store’s contents that make this independent shop stand out. Owner Kathleen Donahue, of whom I had the pleasure of talking with briefly during the shop’s packed Grand Opening earlier this month, is not just knowledgeable about games, but passionate. “I think it’s important for a place like this around here,” she said. “Games bring people together. It’s a mini-community right there at the table. And these days, that’s getting lost in the noise.”
And in the shop. Labyrinth has a few tables in the back of the store set up specifically for people to try out and play games. That day, there were a few gaming groups already taking advantage of the space; one table was occupied by a local BattleTech wargaming group, and another group had just settled in to try out one of the hottest RPGs this year, Eclipse Phase. A smaller table, covered with a large coloring mat and low to the ground, had some kid-friendly games spread out with several young ones already enjoying themselves. And on the floor? A Twister mat – though no one was spinning the dial or contorting themselves on it at the moment. (The store has also been visited by some of the Looney Labs designers and Fred Hicks, who demoed his revamp of Gamma World this past weekend.)
“The space is set up not just for ‘testing’ new games, though that certainly is important,” said Donahue. “It’s also a central space for people in the community to come and enjoy their favorite game with friends. And possibly discover new friends who share the same interest.” Buying games can be a difficult decision at times; many of them are high-quality productions and carry a high cost. And if you don’t have the chance to look it over and even play a round or two, you may not even give it a chance. Games such as Settlers of Catan or many of the German-made Rio Grande games are spectacularly fun to play – but you may not get that just by looking at the shrink-wrapped box. Giving up valuable retail real estate for customers to try stuff out is a worthwhile investment for the shop.
But it’s not just about selling games for Donahue and her staff. Labyrinth also offers their space as a location for special events such as birthday parties; the friendly and knowledgeable store staff will even take care of the details. (There is a fee for such events, so contact the store for more info.)
Donahue has also begun establishing the shop in community outreach. The store already plans to donate a new educational game or puzzle to a local school through their “What’s your favorite school?” contest. Every purchaser has the opportunity to vote, with the school receiving the most votes winning that month’s contest. And Labyrinth also donates to non-profit organizations, after-school programs, and elementary and middle schools that support youth activities and education. “These games aren’t just entertainment,” said Donahue, gesturing at the shelves around her. “They’re avenues of education and relationship-building.”
As she turned to a family who entered the store, the kids in wide-eyed wonder, she paused with a smile. “Plus, they’re just simply a lot of fun.”
I’m pretty sure the kid in all of us agrees.
Labyrinth is located at 645 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, near Eastern Market Metro. The store is closed on Mondays and open until early evening most days. See their website or Facebook page for specific hours and special event information.
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I highly recommend Child’s Play in Chevy Chase Circle for knowledgeable game store owners. Steve and his team have played all the games they sell and know all the ins and outs, such as the answers to “Is this game for 8 and up, really good for 8 year olds, or do they need to be closer to 12?” or “Is this 2-4 player game really workable as a 2 player game, or really not that fun without a third player?” Donahue just doesn’t have those answers yet. I’m sure she will soon.