Like so many in the Southern California tabletop gaming community, I’m deeply saddened to about the recent passing of the mighty Chuck Robbins, the owner and operator of Game Empire in Pasadena, California – one of the finest tabletop gaming stores we are honored to have in Southern California. We were friends and I always enjoyed visiting the store for the games but even more to chat with my buddy Chuck. I’ve known him since before he opened the store and I’m happy to have had a small part in him achieving his dream, which he sought to pay back recently. Let me tell that story in his honor.
Chuck and I first met years ago when I happened to wander into his brother’s store (also called Game Empire) in San Diego while I was on holiday with my family. When I travel, I love to patronize local game stores and Game Empire was place of choice that trip. After browsing through the store, I wandered into the play area (a hallmark of Game Empire is that there is always great space to play games) and Chuck actually chatted me up when he saw I had a copy of a two-player Kosmos game in my hands. We got to talking and he found out I was from Los Angeles. Before long, he told me of his desire to open a local game store in Pasadena.
Now, if you are reading this blog, you may know that I used to have a podcast called Boardgame Babylon from 2005 to about 2015 (with occasional revivals here and there). That’s still the name of the blog, of course, and I might just revive the other one day. I digress; one of the key things to know about my podcast is that I had a journalistic bent to some of my shows because I have been a journalist in one form or another for some of my professional life. One of the features of my podcast was to do occasional series like one I did about the Demise and Rise of the Friendly Local Game Store, which had me talking turkey with many a game store owner in SoCal.
Now, I have lived near Pasadena for most of my life so when Chuck talked about that area, I had a perfect frame of reference. We connected about the area and discussed the gaming and shopping options we have had in the San Gabriel Valley over the years, from the long-gone Game Keeper in the nearby mall, to the Last Grenadier’s Pasadena haven (and the short-lived Arcadia version), to Lionheart and Gameology, and all the tiny shops that opened after Magic: The Gathering broke. If you had a game store in SoCal in the last 35 years, I’ve been your customer and Chuck appreciated my comprehensive knowledge of the stores in town and thereabouts.
Having just talked to one of the staffers at Pasadena’s only game store at that time (Game Zone), I told Chuck that the store was for sale. I said why not just buy it and develop it out as he clearly would do. Pasadena would love him for it.
He told me, no – the owner had told him it was NOT for sale and made it clear in no uncertain terms. He’s spoken to him fairly recently and it had led Chuck to scout out other areas in town, knowing he’d have the established player to take on. He knew he could outwork Game Zone, which was a pretty oldschool FLGS, with all trappings you might expect.
For those who don’t know, The Game Zone started as “THE ZONE”, a game retailer who used to have a regular table at Strategicon. He got attention and sold games the old fashioned way: Discounts and shouting. Bill was outspoken, calling people over to his booth as they tried to walk by and not make eye contact. He had discounts, he had ding and dent games, and he might have bought closeout games. I don’t recall completely, although I do remember buying the Warhammer Mighty Fortress foam castle from him years ago, which was never really used. Eventually, Bill opened The Zone and, while it was fine for a while, he eventually sold it and had to get a day job. In those days, he had more competition from the Last Grenadier in Pasadena and another game store in Eagle Rock (Something Unusual), so it was probably harder. But he sold it and I’m not sure how many owners there were before the last fellow bought it.
Now, I knew the current owner a bit and he was a quiet, unassuming fellow. Chuck – well, he was not. Chuck was an attorney for many years so he said what he meant and did so powerfully, with confidence you don’t always find among the geeks and nerds in tabletop gaming. He wasn’t rude, but he also didn’t mess around. I always admired that about him. Yet, I thought it might not work well when he spoke to the Game Zone’s owner.
When I insisted that Game Zone was for sale and that I knew the owner was looking to exit the business to pursue other concerns (quite positive ones, actually), Chuck went back and got the deal done. Some time, not too much time later, I actually interviewed the Game Zone owner before he officially sold the place and it came out that I was the one who had told Chuck the store was absolutely for sale. To his credit, the guy wasn’t mad at me but he was surprised and perhaps he just eventually realized it was what he wanted anyway. His staffer who told me may have gotten some heck thereafter, I suppose but what was I to do? I was a podcasting journalist. No one told me it was off the record – something I have always respected (believe me, there are a few stories I’d LOVE to tell that I never will because they were told in confidence and off the record).
Game Empire Pasadena Arises
Chuck took the space at the Game Zone, and the space next door and built out an almost exact duplicate of his brother’s Game Empire in San Diego. Both stores were intelligently designed to entice casual visitors at the front with more traditional items, and as you walked in, you got more exposure to the more hobby-oriented games. Although both stores would move locations and abandon some of that concept, I appreciated how Chuck and Cliff built their businesses. Both offered friendly service not always seen in game stores in the past, a wide selection of titles and they made sure they provided a clean, well-lit game space to play. They built community with events and by building friendships with their patrons.
I frequently visited and enjoyed patronizing such an excellent store. I’d usually spend 20% of my time shopping and 80% of it talking to Chuck about the business, the industry and new games. Some time later, I had a conversation with Chuck where he mentioned to me that he was in the process of bidding to buy our thrice-yearly tabletop game conventions in Los Angeles, Strategicon. As a nearly life-long Southern Californian, I’ve began attending Strategicon back in 1986 (after my first con, Origins ’86 – which was hosted in L.A.) I had been a regular attendee into the early 90’s but stopped around 1995 or so. So, it had been about a decade since I had really attended a convention and the word was that they had gone steadily downhill. I figured new blood in leadership was probably a great idea.
At the time, Chuck told me that he was bidding against two other groups. One of them was led by a fellow who used to run conventions AGAINST Strategicon, the same weekends, often just down the street. I knew him just a little bit and that was more than enough. The current Strategicon ownership had little interest in selling to someone who was focused on hurting the cons in the past – a position I definitely respected.
Chuck didn’t know who the other people were. I wished him well in the process, as he had become a key retailer in the dealer room and I felt Chuck would do a lot of good for Strategicon since he’s transformed the tabletop store options in Pasadena. I was excited to see what he could do.
Big Mouth Strikes Again (with apologies to The Smiths)
Not long after that discussion, as part of the Demise and Rise of the Friendly Local Game Store series, I interviewed the primary owner of Strategicon, who also ran a game store in Southern California that has since closed down. In the course of the discussion about him running his game store for decades and the story of when he acquired Strategicon alongside many of the SoCal Game Retailers, I mentioned that I knew about the sale of the conventions. He was momentarily upset that I knew about it, paused the podcast, and then we continued talking – although I would say that he seemed a bit off for the rest of the show.
Later on, I heard from another person that the Strategicon owner was really upset that I was spreading information about the sale of the convention. A mutual friend of ours kindly reminded him that I was a journalist and it’s my job to know what’s going on in the industry for SoCal. I’m told he eventually accepted that and turned his ire on Chuck. He decided that this breach disqualified Chuck from bidding for the cons, so he went with the other group.
Chuck was upset at me, apparently. But his brother noted what my other friend did; when you talk to a journalist, you need to note if something is on the record or not. Nothing like that passed between us and, to be honest, I think Chuck probably told me a lot of other things that were sensitive that I had not revealed before. But this came up in my process of covering my stores so it came out. Chuck told me later that he’d forgiven me because, yes, he knew full well that I was a journalist and spoke to all the game store owners regularly.
We remained friends for years thereafter and the years that followed included I always enjoyed stopping to chat with him when I came in to get my board game fix. Even when I would fail to get to the store for months or even a year, we’d talk like no time had passed. I attended playtesting events at Game Empire sometimes, but always made time to talk to Chuck about business, what I was doing at my various software startups and such.
The Wisdom Lasts
Last year, I visited him after a long while and I was surprised to see him sported a bald head. He told me immediately about his healthy challenges but that he was prepared to beat the big ‘C’ in the same way he took down his enemies on the miniatures table. I had full confidence he would.
More importantly, he expressed his always-present interest in what was going on with me. As I said, Chuck cultivated relationships with customers – we were his friends, not just patrons. I told Chuck how I had left a startup after a really rough time. I had put my heart and soul into a business for three and a half years, only to have it not get there because of nonsense outside my control.
Chuck offered me words of wisdom: He made me take stock in the years of professional life I still have in front of me (let’s just say it’s fewer than I have behind me). He quizzed me, pressed me to come up with the person who has the job I wanted more than anything. Then, he told me to do everything in my power to get there; to get to that place where I loved every day of my work.
I knew this stuff, but Chuck’s fervent words reminded me and inspired me to take action. Like most people, I had gotten caught up in the challenges of life, including some recent losses and tough times with transitions in life. His powerful words helped me find clarity and focus back on what’s important. I really appreciated his concern and his effort to get me back on track.
Chuck was a wonderful guy and I’m so glad he was my friend. I could go on for a lot longer about all the conversations we had over the years as I held a game in my hand, ready to buy but not until we had gotten through all the subjects in front of us. Yet, this last conversation last year is the one that will continue to have a lasting effect on my life and I’m so thankful to him for that.
Thanks to Chuck for the great community he built right here in the SGV, for the amazing store he built for local gamers to enjoy, but mostly for being my trusted friend who knew when I needed a poke to get my life back on track. RIP, good sir – our community is so much richer for your efforts, your humor, and your humanity.