I walked into Pair-A-Dice Games, Collectibles and Hobbies about 1 p.m. on a random Thursday.
“Welcome to Pair-A-Dice,” comes the voice from behind the counter across the room. I look that way and see a waving hand and smiling face poking out over the piles of nondescript, factory-sealed cardboard boxes on the table between the door and the counter.
There are a few other people in the store, all peering longingly at those sealed-up cardboard boxes. One person jokingly asks if he can touch one.
You see, there’s a new expansion set of the card game Magic: The Gathering being released the next day. That’s what’s in the boxes. They can’t be opened – not even by store owners who will be selling the product – until midnight.
And so, obviously, there’s a tournament scheduled that night starting at 12:01 a.m. and people are there to sign up to be in it.
Magic: The Gathering is one of the world’s most popular card games. Introduced to the world back in 1993, players battle each other using the cards – drawn randomly from their own decks – casting spells, artifacts and summoning creatures to do battle against their fellow “wizards.”
There are over 20 million Magic players across the globe and Pair-A-Dice part-owner Andy Swanson had been hosting games of it in his garage every Tuesday night for the last five years.
“I was getting 12 to 15 people coming out every Tuesday in my uninsulated garage that I was spending a lot of money to heat for one night a week,” he says with a laugh. His wife – another of the business’s partners – pointed out recently that they were paying more to heat the garage than they pay for their new storefront, which has now been open about three months.
Which brings us back to the story of the creation of Pair-A-Dice.
“Well,” Swanson continues, “my wife and I were foster parents for about 10 years. But then all of the kids we had went on to great places and have moved on to great things, and I was looking at what I was going to do with my life when that chapter closed, and I just thought, ‘I should open a game store. I love game stores!’”
So he talked to his friend Jason Anderson, who many will recognize as one of the two faces of Blackfin Games, and used to be found at any given market being held around town on any given weekend. “He’s the board game guru,” Swanson says. “But I’m learning and I’m loving it.”
So they decided to pull the trigger and make a go of it, found a realtor who had an open space they thought they could work with, and opened their doors.
Swanson says all they knew was that they didn’t want it to be the stereotypical gaming shop – the exclusive domain of the social outcast, with blackout curtains and a dreary, nocturnal-feeling environment. Other than that, they had no expectations on how this would go.
“We didn’t want a dark, dingy place, like game stores have been for decades – and many still are,” Swanson says. “We wanted it to be bright and inviting and a place for anyone to be able to come in and just be themselves. We want this to be a safe community for anyone of any faith, religion, sexuality, whatever. It doesn’t matter. You’re accepted and you’re cared about here.”
It’s something he thinks has been missing from “geek culture.”
“It’s becoming more mainstream, for sure,” he says, “but it’s still kind of … people still look sideways at you, I guess, when you tell them you’re really into stuff – whatever that stuff is. You can be a geek about anything, though: cars, games, knitting, whatever. It just means you like it a lot. And most people, I’d say, are geeks about something. You can be geeky about whatever you want here. No judgment at all.”
And it seems to be working for them.
“It’s way busier than I thought it would be,” he says with another laugh. “On an average night, we’ve got 15-20 people in here, no matter what game we’re playing. It’s amazing.”
Whether it’s Magic: The Gathering on Tuesdays and Fridays, Warhammer on Wednesdays, X-Wing on Thursdays, the players stream in to take part. And folks who want to see what it’s all about come along, too.
“All of these communities come in with more than enough stuff to share it with new people who have never played before and are willing to help anyone learn,” he says. “That’s one of the things I’m enjoying most about this: just seeing people come together and share their love of this stuff and get other people into it.”
It’s a tough business model: letting people take over your store to play games…for free.
“We don’t charge them,” Swanson says. “We just ask them to maybe buy some chips and pop while they’re here.”
But he also knows where they’re going to come when they need supplies for their gaming habit, after all.
If this sounds like fun, or you’d just like to find out more, pop into the shop Tuesday through Saturday from noon to 8 p.m. and have a look around. They’re across Dogwood Street from the movie theatre in the little plaza with The Lite Shop and Second to None Hospice Thrift Store. Watch for them to start opening for limited hours on Mondays soon, too.
And don’t worry about bringing anything with you.
They’ve got more than enough to loan you whatever you need to get started.