Labyrinth Games and Puzzles is mom-owned awesomeness on Capitol Hill

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Normally in this space there’ll be a review of a game, and as a potential player you can decide whether or not it’s something you might want to play in the future. Instead of reviewing and recommending an actual game here, I’d like to do something a bit different and recommend a board game store.

One of the inherent disadvantages of tabletop gaming in comparison to videogames is the lack of instant gratification. Thanks to digital delivery, I can buy and play a new videogame in a matter of hours, perhaps even minutes. I don’t even have to put on pants and leave my home. I can also join other players without any face-to-face interaction with them or their possible nasty habits.

But to play a boardgame, unless I’m willing to wait for a delivery, I have to hoof it to a local game store. Local game stores frequently and sometimes literally stink. They’re typically utilitarian, dingy, and clumsily thrown together. The extent of customer service too often tops out at a nod from an uninterested person behind a counter. Furthermore, random gamers playing at tables can seem standoffish, if not downright unfriendly. It’s tough for a new player to find a group that he actually likes.

So I was absolutely delighted to discover a the small miracle of a store that bucks all those stereotypes. Labyrinth Games & Puzzles in Washington DC is a glorious, astonishing exception.

After the jump, heaven can be other people

One of the first things that surprised me about Labyrinth is that it’s owned and operated by Kathleen Donahue. Not to sound sexist, but I feel that being owned by a woman makes a big difference. For instance, if I — a dude — owned a game store, I would probably set it up like a warehouse. But the setup at Labyrinth games is nothing like that. The store isn’t particularly spacious, but it’s laid out in a bright stylish way that feels open and roomy instead of cramped. The minute you walk in the door, you get a sense that these folks care passionately about games. They want to make them accessible and fun. When I was there one afternoon, there was almost a classroom feel in the gaming space, where someone was teaching a half dozen kids how to play a boardgame. From the laughter and shouts of the kids, you could tell everyone, including the grownups, were having a blast. The store smells nice, too. It has hardwood, polished floors. The ambiance is that of a nice restaurant, minus the food smell. It’s sparkling and dusted and cared for. It’s a placed obviously loved by the people who work there.

I’ve recently gotten back into boardgaming for the first time in over ten years. And I realized after playing one game of my latest new games — the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game — that I was going to need more dice, card sleeves, and the first expansion, The Skinsaw Murders. While out looking for these things, I came across game stores just like I remembered them from back in the day. I mean, it’s great that I found three gaming stores within just a few miles of where I live, but I came up empty looking for game expansions related to a fairly popular, well-reviewed game. One store in particular that I checked had a nice selection, but lots of games that appeared to be gathering dust, too. (I did notice they had a boxed copy of Sentinels of the Multiverse, so kudos to them for that!)

About six blocks away from that shop was another store whose name I recognized from ads in old Dragon and Strategy & Tactics magazines. I went in there and it was like sticking my head into someone’s attic. The store was dirty and it smelled like a subway platform in the Bronx in July. And while there were some newer games, there were also a lot of games with nearly a layer of dust on them. A group of dudes who appeared to have last showered during the Clinton administration were playing Warhammer miniatures. The place was dark and dingy and awful, a stereotype come to life. I couldn’t wait to get out.

My quest for gaming supplies and Pathfinder expansion unresolved, it was back to the city and Labyrinth Games. Walking back in was night and day compared to the last store. Whereas one store hit me with waves of antisocial behavior, when you walk into Labyrinth, waves of happy hit you. The stock is all very much centered around newish games. It’s inviting and welcoming. Despite everything I’ve said about it being laid out stylishly, it also feels comfortable. I watched as two guys in their 20s picked up a copy of the game Rampage, based strictly on having seen a group of teens having a blast playing it in the gaming space at the back of the store. Another guy in a suit comes in and asks about a glass chess set for his son, and the staff quickly steers him to a less-expensive but sturdier kid-proof set with wooden pieces and a laminated board. Game stores or otherwise, this was small-unit retail sales done right.

You can see on the store’s facebook page photos from an event at a local elementary school. It’s clear from the pictures that both the kids and the staff are having an absolute blast with the puzzles the store brought to the event, and my heart is warmed seeing it. The capitalist, customer-service geek in my mind notes, however, that those kids didn’t drive themselves to the event. In all the pictures, glowing, happy, participating parents can be seen. Labyrinth Games and Puzzles can’t compete with national big box stores or megalithic online retailers on aspects of price, but they do things their competition cannot touch.

I was so blown away by the store, I reached out to Kathleen Donahue to ask her a few questions.


Chris Hornbostel: How long Labyrinth has been open?

Kathleen Donahue: I opened the store in its current location in November 2010 on Black Friday. I came up with the idea for the store in July 2010.

CH: Was this just a bolt from the blue kind of thing? What motivated you to want to start a tabletop and puzzles store?

KD: I was working part-time as an operational efficiency consultant, and I wanted to go back to work full-time. My son was getting older, and there was really no way to justify my staying at home, while he was in school. But, I didn’t want to go back to the type of position I’d had before having my child (in an office, not kid friendly, very demanding). I really wanted to start my own business, because I also didn’t want to have a boss. For several years, I would come up with an idea, and then my husband and I would think about it and figure out how it could never work.

Then one day I was stuck in traffic on the 14th Street Bridge after having spent several hours looking for a nice Mancala board in northern Virginia (which was to be a present for one of my son’s friends). I never could find one, but during that traffic jam, I called my husband, and he said, “That’s what you should do. You should open a toy store on Capitol Hill.” My answer was, “I don’t like toys. I like games and puzzles.” Something about the idea resonated with me, and I started doing a bunch of research on toy stores that were still able to survive in this internet age. My research showed that brick and mortar stores that are still successful in today’s world make the store a “destination”. This concept once again brought me back to the idea of a hobby shop, not a toy store. I remembered a hobby store I had loved growing up. It had iron tavern puzzles and wooden mechanical puzzles (both of which Labyrinth carries), and you could go and hang out there and play with them as long as you wanted. That was what I originally based my idea on. What the store has become is different in many ways from my original idea, but it has simply grown from me listening to our customers.

CH: So would you say that the store rose somewhat from the passion of a hobbyist? I ask because I’ve been in stores owned by hobbyists and they tend to not work so well.

KD: I wouldn’t say that I was a gaming or puzzle hobbyist (although I’ve always loved both) when I came up with the idea for the store. I had never (and really still haven’t) visited any other game store. I remember when word first got out that I was opening the store, a bunch of local gamers and game designers actually called me at home to ask who in the world I was. I had never been to a gaming convention, and I had never even heard of I hadn’t even heard of Magic at that point. I had retail experience growing up. My father owned a large, successful liquor store, and I grew up working there. That was the type of experience I wanted for my own child. I wanted a job that would allow me to bring him to work, or adjust my schedule such that I could spend time with him when I need to. I probably work longer hours now than I ever have in any job, but at least my kid can come with me when I need him to.

CH: One of the things that’s really striking about Labyrinth — from a tabletop gamer’s perspective — is the selection. Too many game stores I’ve browsed through have games, but not games anyone wants to buy or play. How do you folks decide what to carry? Is it decisions in talking to staff? Internet chatter? I have to think that knowing what to stock and how many copies to stock has to be really difficult, almost like an art form where inventory and sales alone may not tell you the whole story about what’s hot and not.

KD: When we first opened, I had several local gamers/game designers call as I mentioned, and they all helped me decide on some of the initial inventory. They told me about Magic, RPGs, and Fantasy Flight games. They kindly put me in touch with a couple other stores in other parts of the country who were super nice in helping me out with some initial inventory recommendations.

I also did a ton of research. I found boardgamegeek, and at that point it wasn’t weird/skewed with Kickstarter games yet, so I made sure I had all the highest ranking games. I found tons of lists of game awards and best games, then I’d read all about the games. I had an enormous list to begin with so I knew I needed to cut it down. I set up some criteria for games: the game must be non-electronic (there is nothing in the store with a battery except the chess clocks); the game must be “brainy” in some way/there must be some kind of redeeming learning component; if it makes any reference to a licensed brand, it must have been proven to be an excellent game (I don’t buy things just because they are a fad); preferably the game has been recognized with some kind of award. I also tried to focus on local game designers, environmentally friendly companies, and small U.S. manufacturers as much as I could. As the store and inventory has grown, I continue to do a lot of research. I listen to podcasts; I listen to customers; I listen to my staff. My staff generally goes to several game conventions each year, and they report back what their favorites are. I went to Toy Fair last year, and will go again this year. I try out a lot of the kids’ stuff there. I have tried to hire my staff where everyone has their own particular specialty. I think between all of us we’ve played about 95% of the items in the store.

Also, and this is a huge thing, unlike a lot of stores, I only carry items that will actually sell. Not being a game hobbyist has probably helped me in being realistic. Being a business person first allows me to cut out games, even some that I like, when I see that there is not a market for them. We do not carry any miniature games. This is because every time I’ve tried to carry miniature games, or do any kind of event, or have an alliance with any gaming group, it never works. No one shows up; the items don’t sell; and, the gaming groups flake out. I’m trying to do a puzzle class this weekend. It may not work. Even though I love puzzles, if it doesn’t work we probably won’t try it again.

CH: Please bear with me on this question, because I’ve struggled with asking it in a way that doesn’t make me sound like a sexist jerk. You’re obviously going against the grain, as a female owner and operator of a gaming store. I mean, thankfully the demographics of the tabletop gaming audience are shifting with time, but this is sadly still somewhat of a male-dominated retail space, both from an owner and customer demographic standpoint. Has that posed any particular challenges to you or for the store in general?

KD: I’m old, and I’m used to living in a world with sexist jerks. I don’t let them bother me. I’ve always worked in male dominated jobs/industries. I find if you are smart and work hard, the jerks usually just go away or become less of a problem eventually. I just don’t put up with them, and I expect people to treat me, my staff, and my customers (no matter who they are) with respect. If you are a customer and don’t do this, you will be kicked out. I firmly believe that all people should be treated fairly and kindly, no matter their race, sex, sexual orientation, etc. If you don’t behave this way in the store, you will be asked to leave. No exceptions. This goes both ways. I once had a Christian group playing in a D&D game with a drag queen. They all had to respect each other, and they all seemed to have a good time.

Considering my background, (I was the State of Florida’s trade representative to Mexico in the early 90s, which is a way more sexist place than here), I have been shocked at the extent to which sexism is prevalent among gamers. But for the most part, if I just ignore the jerks, they go away.

CH: Finally, one other striking thing to me is the age range of the customers your store goes above and beyond to appeal to. The outreach with community schools and the games and puzzles classes for kids of all ages makes such obvious sense when I read about it on the store website, but I think you folks are fairly unique in that regard. Tell me a little about how that came about. Is it part of the Mom-owned aspect of the store? I mean, a cynic would say “Yeah, make ’em game fans while they’re young,” but I’ve also overheard the sheer joy on an afternoon when there’s a group of kids learning and playing games that really puts that cynicism to rest. I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on the challenges and rewards of catering to both grade-schoolers and serious, hardcore tabletop board and RPG players in the same space.

KD: I love our community outreach programs, and they are what take up most of my time. When I started the store, one of my huge goals was to be able to give back to local schools. I love the concept of learning through games. The main reason I started the store was because I felt like we were all losing touch with each other. We may have 100s of friends on Facebook, but we rarely have dinner parties any more. Kids are handed iPhones to keep them quiet. I wanted to bring friends and families back face-to-face to share time together.

Games are a fantastic way to do that. A cynic might be right in saying that I’m trying to hook them while they are young, but more than that I was trying to remind the parents that it is fun to play with your kids, and that the kids don’t need or want electronic devices all the time. Our board game aftercare classes are among the most in-demand afterschool activity at all the schools. The kids love them. Plus, they are learning tons of important social and strategic skills and not even realizing it.

I do believe we serve a much wider audience in terms of age range than most stores, and yes, I think most of that is because I’m a mom on Capitol Hill. I think the main thing is though that we are accepting of everyone (as long as they “play nice”). I try to make the store welcoming for the complete novice, the puzzler, the Euro gamer, the RPGers, the Magic players, and the families, etc. I chose my staff especially with this in mind, choosing only people who I think can deal with all these types of people. Stores like mine are important to the gaming hobby because we are the people who introduce the hobby to newbies, whether they are 8 or 28. More than anything, I think we are successful because we truly love our customers, all of them.

(Labyrinth Games and Puzzle’s website is here. Visit their Facebook page here.)