Shrink-Wrapped Recall – An occasional series about memories of old game shops. The rest of the series can be found here.
One of the nicer things about living with the internet is that it is now a lot easier to work out how to get to someplace new. For example, I recently learned of the existence of a game shop about thirty five minutes from my home and the first thing I did was to get on Google Maps and have a look at the address on street view. Does it still exist? Is there nearby parking? Is it accessible by road? Would it take me the best part of a day to get there? Yes, Yes, Yes, and No.
Before the arrival of the internet, it was almost impossible to answer any of these questions before setting out. If you were well-organised and careful, you might track down a map of the local area or look into the public transport routes , but more often than not you would just get yourself to someplace close to your destination and then wander around until you encountered either a map or someone who knew the location of the shop. I remember once learning of the existence of a game shop in Hammersmith and spending about three hours looking for the place only to discover that, while it had once been ‘around the corner’ from the original Games Workshop offices, its relationship to the gaming hobby had become somewhat attenuated over the passage of time.
This is why, despite becoming a regular visitor to the Virgin Game Centre within months of getting into RPGs, it took me literally years to find my way around the corner to Orcs Nest on Cambridge Circus.
I can remember visiting online RPG forums in the early 2000s when American gamers would talk about how central the ‘Friendly Local Game Shop’ was to their experience of the hobby. It’s not just that these were the only places you could buy games outside of major cities, they also seemed to be places that actively made new gamers as the owners of these stores often ran games for beginners and generally set space aside for people to play games in the shop. At the time, I found this vision of RPG retail utterly baffling as my experience of game shops at the time is that they were anything but “friendly”.
Visits to Orcs Nest always put me in mind of those times when you arrive at someone’s house only to discover that you have interrupted some massive family row. It’s not that anyone directly tells you to go home… it’s more that everyone passive-aggressively radiates displeasure at your presence until you can think of an excuse and leave.
Back then, the shop was a small square space with a very low ceiling and a till-area that seemed to take up about a third of the floor-space. The blokes running the shop would not greet you when you entered and nor would they make eye-contact or engage you in any kind of conversation. However, they would glower at you in a manner suggesting that they expected you to either steal from them or shit on the floor.
I realise that shoplifting is a problem (especially for independent retailers) but there are ways of keeping an eye on people without making them feel unwelcome. For starters, you can install CCTV cameras and glare at the screen rather than directly at the customers. Alternatively, you can engage people in polite conversation thereby keeping them under observation whilst also encouraging them to feel both welcome and generally well-disposed towards you. I suspect that when Americans would talk about gaming shops being ‘friendly’ they were talking about shopkeepers who actively interacted with their customers, not shopkeepers who based their professional personas around the kind of world-weary cynicism and contemptuous distrust usually found only in prison guards.
After a few years, Orcs Nest unexpectedly shut down for remodelling. I suspect what happened is that an office/store room that once accounted for the shop’s oppressively low ceiling was removed allowing for the construction of a mezzanine floor that nearly doubled the shop’s available retail space. On one level, the remodelling was hugely successful as it not only made the shop larger and less oppressive, it also made its interior feel more thematically appropriate as the walls and floors were decked out in metallic materials giving the interior of the shop an Alien/WH40K post-industrial vibe. However, while the design was quite spectacular for an age in which most LGSs looked and felt like abandoned toy shops, it also appeared to have been designed by a pervert.
One of my favourite photobooks is Joan Sinclair’s Pink Box. The book is made up of images captured across a number of different Japanese sex clubs. While most sex-related spaces in the west tend to be dark and seedy, the clubs in Pink Box are bright, colourful and imaginatively designed. One club in particular has a room mocked up to look like a subway carriage so that people can pay to live out the fantasy of groping people on public transport. Now… imagine if, rather than being turned on by the idea of groping commuters, you were turned on by the idea of looking up the skirts of women who happened to be browsing overpriced Ral Partha miniatures. Imagine what a space enabling that fetish might look like and you basically have the post-redesign interior of Orcs Nest.
The problem was that, by leaning into the post-industrial aesthetic and trying to keep the interior of the shop from feeling dark and claustrophobic, the designers hit upon the idea of building the mezzanine floor out of iron grating. This meant that, if you happened to go upstairs wearing anything other than trousers, everyone in the entire shop could see straight up your skirt. In all fairness, the owners of the shop were quick to realise their mistake and a metallic covering was added to the floor of the mezzanine but I still struggle to think of a more tangible physical manifestation of gaming’s historic hostility to women. Show us your pants or GTFO.
Perhaps the greatest mystery in RPG economics is how Orcs Nest has managed to survive for this long. Expensive, unpleasant, and unapologetically rude to their customers, they not only survived the rise and fall of the Virgin Game Centre, they also outlived the presence of RPG sections in much larger and more pleasant stores such as Forbidden Planet, Waterstones, and a couple of nearby Virgin Megastores. They even outlived a pretty little shop on Museum street and may yet outlive North London’s Leisure Games. I admit that I haven’t been back to Orcs Nest in well over a decade and googling suggests that they may have followed a lot of local gaming shops by ditching RPGs in favour of board games, but the same bit of googling reveals a string of complaints about rude staff and inflated prices so I guess they’re sticking with a winning formula.