This one is for the comic book readers, the D&D players, the gatherers-of-Magic. Recently, I visited a shop you know very well, even though you’ve never stepped inside. Not part of a chain; better. Shops of this kind are all different — each is weird in its own way — and yet perfectly consistent. They are scattered across the world, and recently, I found my new favorite.
My parents live in northern Michigan, and every year, in the summer, we visit them for a few weeks. The county seat is Gaylord, a town of a few thousand people boasting the standard allocation of big boxes: Walmart, Lowe’s, T. J. Maxx. Farther down the road, there’s a quiet strip sporting a questionable alpine theme. Walking there, I came across a narrow shop with a neon Superman logo in the window.
If a shop has a neon Superman logo in the window, I will enter. If it has a neon Superman logo in the window, a Bat-symbol next to it, and a dragon under the eaves, I am already inside.
The shop was pleasantly cluttered, and a large fraction of the merchandise was used, giving it the feeling of an excellent garage sale. There was a coat of arms hanging on the wall just inside the front door. Voices carried down from a loft space above — shouting, laughing, making bold claims. I heard the clatter of dice.
You, comic book reader, card player, dungeon master: You know this place.
There were, of course, comics.
But this was not, strictly speaking, a comic book shop, because the comics were outnumbered by Magic cards…
…and bolstered by RPG sourcebooks…
…and offset by Warhammer 40,000: DARK VENGEANCE.
You know this place.
Like a church or a guildhall: If you are a nerd, you can walk into one of these shops, anywhere in the world, and find succor.
(Sometimes, you can also find a shelf in the back, near the fire exit, loaded with old fantasy and sci-fi novels selling for $2 each.)
I believe that all nerds possess, in their history, a home nerdhaven. My own origins are split between two shops that faced each other across a wide road in Troy, Michigan, far south of Gaylord, closer to Detroit.
My first and truest home was Troy Stamp & Coin, located in the shadowed crook of a winding mini-mall’s elbow. As the name implies, it was a nerdhaven of a different vintage. Philately and numismatics held no attraction for my nerd-cabal, but this was the place with the comic books. We rode our bikes there after school, side-stepped the glass cases, ran for the rack of new releases. The lighting was terrible and the staff was surly, but the X-Men were engrossing.
When I was thirteen, a rival outfit opened across the street. Its fortunes were buoyed by Magic: The Gathering, newly released, already wildly popular. This was a newer kind of nerdhaven, more sharply focused on the fantastic. Besides Magic cards, there were D&D sourcebooks, Warhammer sets, and dragon-shaped paperweights. This is where I had my first encounter with the archetypal Comic Book Guy, and where I learned that nerdhavens could be hostile places. This new shop was palpably cooler (which is to say… nerdier?) than Stamp & Coin, but it also had a darker tint, as if the martial spirit of all those war games was leaking out into the air. There were fedoras.
Well. If you go to church every week — and even if, in the end, you decide you don’t like church very much — you learn the words by heart.
Sure enough, walking into the shop in Gaylord, I felt the way I imagine a lapsed Catholic might feel upon stumbling into a rural church in a far-off country. Everything was familiar. Hello, board games. Greetings, graphic novels. Been a while, pale unpainted wargaming miniatures. I knew what to do and where to go. I moved from section to section, first browsing, then digging deep: Ah, maybe they have some old Booster Gold comics. Oh, here’s that new version of Risk. Whoa! These D&D books are ancient!
Of course, there was new stuff, too — games I didn’t recognize from the mid-90s. A nerdhaven is, by necessity, a confederation of powers; some wax while others wane. Have you heard of Dice Masters? I had not heard of Dice Masters. Apparently Dice Masters is huge!
As I explored the shop, the voices clamored louder in the loft space above. I couldn’t figure out what game they were playing up there, but the sonic field was rich and familiar: rustle of paper, pop-fizz of soda, howl of misfortune.
The roster of Essential Social Spaces includes, among others: the library, the union hall, the community garden, the coffee shop. To that list, we must add the nerdhaven. The question, though: Is it on its way out — winding down as nerds go digital? Or is it here to stay, a humble fixture wherever there exist enough nerds to muster a Magic tournament? (These shops support a $700 million market, according to an industry website, but I can’t decide whether that’s big or small. I think it be might be small.)
I hope they’re here to stay. At the shop in Gaylord I made my circuit of the nerdly Stations of the Cross and walked out with ten antique D&D books, three comics, two vintage sci-fi novels, and a board game.
‘Tis nerdhaven. I shall come again.