Shrink-Wrapped Recall – An occasional series about memories of old game shops. The rest of the series can be found here.
Have you ever had one of those weird coincidences happen when you’re talking about something and it suddenly materialises in front of you? The kind of thing that bad sitcoms immediately follow with “…and I also want a million dollars!” Well… that once happened to me with an RPG shop.
This was in the very late 1990s when I was spending quite a lot of time near the Swiss city of Lausanne. I would take the train into town, walk up this ridiculously steep street to the main shopping area where there was a chain book store that carried French-language roleplaying games, then I would walk up a cute paved street to a comics shop that occasionally carried English language RPGs, and then I would walk all the way across the centre of town to the original location of Mix-Image, a small anime and RPG shop that has since become the nerd-tat megastore for the entirety of French-speaking Switzerland.
Lausanne is and remains a deeply beautiful town that is equal parts post-industrial gothic, North-European paved streets, and French provincial cuteness. It’s a town built on an assortment of steep hills and the lines between neighbourhoods are really stark so you can literally walk past a row of swanky boutiques full of designer clobber and find yourself outside a seedy cabaret only to turn a corner and wind up outside an abandoned factory overshadowed by bridges, tower blocks and massive gothic cathedrals. It’s the kind of town you cannot help but explore as every corner throws up new sights and hints at new weirdness.
One day, I was moving between the town’s two levels via a set of elegant steps up to the huge bridge that sits in the middle of town. Looking around me, I saw loads of really cute boutiques and concluded that it would be an absolutely great place for an RPG shop and suddenly I was in front of L’Ellcrys.
L’Ellcrys was a small, long shop with a set of windows down one wall that let in a dull, reflected light. Like a lot of Swiss shops, it had white peddle-dashed walls and uncoated pine shelving. The first time I visited the shop, they had only just opened and had virtually no stock… I remember buying something small purely as a gesture. I also remember that the guy who ran the shop wore a kilt and had a tattoo of Cthulhu with a chainsaw. Based, as the kids say these days.
I didn’t return to L’Ellcrys for a while as it opened around the same time as another shop further down the lake and that was a lot closer to where I was living. It was also a lot better run. In its early days, L’Ellcrys was all idea and no follow-through… back then, Magic cards were still selling like hotcakes and while the shop could handle the Magic cards, it seemed to struggle with stock control as though they went and bought a load of RPGs every few months and then just waited for them to sell through. My enduring memory of L’Ellcrys in the early days was of half-empty shelves and empty floor-space. Back then, the guy running the shop was clearly passionate and a nice guy (which is really unusual in the world of RPG retail) but it was also clear that he had no idea what it was he was doing.
After a while, the two local RPG shopkeepers realised that they were effectively in competition and so went into business together. This was a great move for all concerned as L’Ellcrys had the location and the other shopkeeper had the ambition and business savvy. Soon, those empty shelves were filled with books and that empty floor-space was monetised.
The first attempt to monetise the middle of the shop involved opening a LAN den. LAN dens are an all-but-forgotten part of early internet infrastructure. Everyone over 40 remembers a time before smartphones, before home broadband, and before widespread adoption of home computers. Back then, most people could only get online by going to a shop and literally paying by the hour to surf the internet. What tends to be forgotten is that cybercafés came in a range of shapes and sizes: Some of them were clean, minimalist ersatz office spaces for people working remotely. Some of them sold books and coffee alongside access to the internet. Some were to cybercafés as CEX are to bookshops, those were the LAN dens. The term ‘LAN den’ comes from the acronym for Local Area Network and the fact that a lot of cybercafés networked their computers in a way that allowed them to talk to each other online. Usually, this networking was about access to peripherals and monitoring usage but the process also allowed people to play PC games against each other and so gamers would often descend on these places in large groups and play Quake death-matches against each other for hours at a time. Other groups would use LAN dens to play early MMORPGs such as Ultima Online.
In my piece about the old Virgin Games shop, I wrote about how scummy and awful RPG retail outlets tended to be back in the 1990s and while that piece lays the blame for scumminess equally across shop and customers, it’s important to note that scumminess has a feedback loop all of its own: Open a nice, bright, clean shop and nice, bright, clean people will be willing to enter it. Open a dark, smelly, and rude shop and only dark, smelly and rude will wind up going there. The difference between a traditional cybercafé and a LAN den is principally a function of what proportion of their customer base comprises smelly gamers. The more smelly gamers you get, the more you drive out normal people, the more you drive out normal people, the more you become reliant upon smelly gamers. LAN dens were dark, horrible, smelly places because they had been colonised by dark, horrible, smelly people.
L’Ellcrys may have started out as a bright, pleasant and welcoming place but the introduction of computers turned it into a LAN den almost overnight. Suddenly, the shop felt cramped, claustrophobic, and it tended to be full of people who smoked like chimneys and hurled obscenities at each other while playing video games. The fact that the shop got terraformed was also evident from the precipitous decline of in-store cleanliness. My enduring memory of the shop’s LAN was of overflowing ashtrays and monitors so covered in greasy finger-prints that it was like playing a video game through a set of cataracts.
As time marched on and internet use became more and more prevalent, the LAN was replaced by a set of tables where people could play in-store. This was getting towards the end of my time visiting the shop but I remember that area being very popular with Magic players and I remember trying to visit the shop on a summer’s day and being met by a wall of unwashed boy-stank. Even at the time, a friend of mine pointed out that women gamers must have fled the shop screaming and I must admit that I nearly did too. I’m not sure what gaming retail spaces are like nowadays but I hope that people do at least bother to wash before leaving the house as nobody should have to work in a shop that smells like an abattoir worker’s unwashed balls.
My last visit to the shop was probably not that long before it closed. I visited on a weekday, things were comparatively quiet and I remember a full stock of really interesting games. I even seem to remember that the board-game section might have started growing. I remember L’Ellcrys as a lovely and well-run shop compelled to deal with a physically repugnant customer-base. I had a google and I note that the guy who was once the business mind behind the shop has taken over a bar and I imagine he makes an excellent living in the process because even drunk people are better than unwashed gamers.