SWR: Au Vieux Paris

Shrink-Wrapped Recall – An occasional series about memories of old game shops. The rest of the series can be found here.

Feel like pure shit… just want to go back to a place where a compulsive hoarder yells at me whilst eating spagghetti.

I recently read a post about how the current edition of Dungeons and Dragons is by far and away the most successful. While I could talk about the growing centrality of video games to online socialising or the role of the board game boom of the early ‘10s in creating space for structured play as a part of real-world socialising, I think one of the more interesting reasons for D&D5’s popularity is that it is now incredibly easy to get hold of the books and see what a gaming session actually looks like.

Nowadays, the gaming community often wrings its hands and worries about whether poor behaviour or bad representation might constitute barriers to entry into the hobby but one of the biggest barriers to entry back in the early-to-mid 90s was finding somewhere that would sell you the fucking books.

Back then, table-top RPGs were about as mainstream and visible as inter-species pornography. Getting hold of it was always a question of knowing the right people, having an older brother, or travelling to some weird shop on the basis of an advert placed in the back of a magazine. If you were lucky, you lived in a large town and wound up having to travel to an unfamiliar neighbourhood. More often, you’d be travelling across country by train or dragging your parents away from their summer holidays so that you could spend all of your pocket money on a book that appeared to be equal parts spreadsheet and poorly-drawn art book.

I first became aware of the hobby while living in a large city containing a number of (admittedly shit) gaming shops but the bulk of my gaming was done in Switzerland where game shops were not a thing. Our only connection to the broader Franco-phonic hobby was through the pages of a magazine called Casus Belli and Casus Belli would always feature double page adverts for a (still extant) company called Jeux Descartes.

Descartes were the big wallowing beast of French gaming back in the early 1990s. They not only translated games, they also acted as a distributor and so their magazine adverts would often feature the addresses of places where you could buy their games. The closest Descartes to where I happened to be living at the time was Geneva, which was about an hour and a half away by train.

While Geneva is undoubtedly one of the most elegant and expensive cities in Western Europe, it is similar to American cities in so far as there’s a physical boundary between rich and poor. On one side of the river, it’s all private banks with marble interiors, elegant boulevards, and pedestrianised shopping streets set against lake and mountain. Step across the river and the area surrounding the station was all boarded-up shops, cafes filled with wheezing alcoholics, crepuscular nightclubs, and Switzerland’s premier gaming shop Au Vieux Paris.

Looking back at the other pieces I’ve written as part of this series, I realise that the tone (thus far) has been one of violently uncoiling disgust. Re-reading those pieces, I would consider both of them to be fair as both Orcs Nest and the Virgin Game Centre were crap in their own ways. Au Vieux Paris is odd in that, while the shopping experience it offered was immeasurably worse than anything offered by either of those cursed venues, the memories and emotions it evokes are considerably less negative. One does not rant or complain about Au Vieux Paris. One luxuriates in the trauma.

Au Vieux Paris was a Genevan institution for over fifty years. It may have started life as a conventional toy shop but it soon gravitated towards the collectibles market, in particular collectible toy cars and trains. The crudely hand-painted sign above its door once spoke of the owners being a couple but, by the mid-1990s, the wife’s presence was no longer felt. I don’t know whether she died, disappeared, or simply stepped back from running the shop but her departure from the scene clearly brought about an end to anything resembling cleanliness, stock control or basic human decency.

Travelling to Au Vieux Paris not only took a while, it also took us some way out of our comfort zones. Visiting the shop meant not only navigating a strange city but also wandering round a neighbourhood that felt quite sleazy. We undertook this journey in the hope of having a normal shopping experience: Browsing things we were considering buying, looking at stuff before buying it, and maybe discovering something unexpected. Because of the relative professionalism of the Descartes adverts and the idea that Au Vieux Paris might be not just a shop but a supplier, we had high hopes for our trip to Geneva but reality was not on our side.

My first encounter with the owner of Au Vieux Paris was his deciding to yell at me for going into an area of the shop I apparently had no business going into. He had seen me browsing the RPGs and decided that I had no business leaving that area of the shop because there were no other RPGs in the shop. My response was to blink at him and point at the small display of RPG books in an alcove in a different corner. This encounter goes some way towards encapsulating the madness of Au Vieux Paris as the owner was both astonishingly, violently rude, and largely oblivious to the contents of his own shop.

Looking back on my visits to the shop, I now realise that Zwicky was not so much a shop-keeper as a compulsive hoarder who supported his compulsion by agreeing to sell off a few things from time to time. As one might expect from someone with this mind-set, customers were barely tolerated as their presence threatened the precious mounds of undifferentiated clutter stacked floor to ceiling or dumped unceremoniously into a variety of display cases all stacked in front of each other.

When searching for pictures of Au Vieux Paris, I came across a news report dating from the time of the owner’s death and the announcement that his heirs had wiped their hands of the entire mess and left it to the Swiss tax authorities to liquidate the business. As bad as this news report makes the interior of the shop appear, I would say that it looks considerably better than it did during any of my visits. For example, you don’t need to move a stack of plywood tiles out of the way in order to get into the shop. The myriad empty boxes are stacked on top of the shelves rather than thrown on top of them from whence they would occasionally collapse onto customers (invariably provoking angry outbursts from the owner). I also found and then lost an interview with a man identified as a volunteer shopkeeper implying that this man might have been helping to keep the shop running during the final years of the owner’s life.

The reason I don’t have bad memories of Au Vieux Paris is that, even at the time, Zwicky struck me as something of a tragic figure, a man who had totally succumbed to his compulsive tendencies resulting in a shopping experience that transcended ineptitude and emerged as something much closer to an encounter with a piece of outsider art. For example, the interview mentions Zwicky’s tendency to do things like hoard empty boxes on the off-chance that a collector might want to buy one and I can remember him threatening someone with a fork for trying to return something with creased packaging. I can also remember him yelling at children for speaking too loudly and ordering someone to leave the shop for being too tall. One did not go to Au Vieux Paris expecting normal service, it was more like attending an art installation where literal garbage and pop cultural ephemera had been carefully placed around an actor who would sit at a counter eating a large plate of spaghetti only to yell at you for standing too close to some grime-encrusted toy trains.

One reason why I remember Au Vieux Paris with a degree of fondness is that the neglect and chaos were so intense that they would often seem to bend time and space. For example, we have all been in a position of having to track down an older game only to wind up crawling through eBay. The last time I visited Au Vieux Paris, I stepped in the door and came face to face with absolutely pristine box sets of games like Reve de Dragon, Hurlements, and TSR’s Gangbusters. These were not reprints or second-hand products but copies of games that had enjoyed vanishingly-small print runs upwards of two or three decades prior to my visiting the shop. Presumably Zwicky had ordered these games, stuck them on a dusty shelf and immediately forgotten about them only for them to be churned up several decades later.

One of the things that took me far too long to work out is that our lives are enriched by weird experiences, even when those experiences are bad. Orcs Nest and the Virgin Games Centre were poorly run shops whose unpleasantness speaks to the somewhat marginal status of the hobby at the time when I was regularly visiting them. Au Vieux Paris was something different, it was not just a poorly run shop but a vehicle for experiences that will stay with me until the day I die. Every shop I enter invites unconscious comparison with Au Vieux Paris so while I might get annoyed at little old ladies following me around gift shops because they think I might steal something, at least the little old ladies aren’t eating huge plates of spaghetti surrounded by dusty cardboard boxes that might once have contained a bench for a Hornby model railroad. 

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