Minotaurs & Merchandise: Jennifer Bedell on RPG Retail

Minotaurs & Merchandise: Jennifer Bedell on RPG Retail

Welcome back to the ongoing series of conversations between Alex Roberts (our Production Coordinator, who you may have heard on her interview podcast Backstory) and some of the outstanding professionals we get to work with here at Bully Pulpit. So far we’ve heard Brennen Reece on book design, Karen Twelves on editing, and Claudia Cangini on illustration. Today, we’ll chat with, Jennifer Bedell, of Atomic Empire Comics & Games.  Atomic Empire is our friendly local game store here in Durham, North Carolina, and we’ve partnered with them to fulfill all of our Kickstarter campaigns, from Durance to Ghost Court. If you’re curious about how a game gets from the publishers’ hands to yours–and all the fun things that can happen in between–this is the interview for you. 

Alex: Let’s start with Atomic Empire. Besides being a purveyor of fine comics and games, what does Atomic do? And what is your role in all of that?

Jennifer: Calling Atomic a “store” always feels like an oversimplification, since we have a retail store, an e-commerce business, a tournament venue and something like a community center all under one roof. We also develop a lot of software in-house and dabble in Kickstarter fulfillment. My favorite part of our operation is providing a space for people to come together, form communities, and enjoy the things they have in common.

Since our staff is small, everyone wears a lot of hats: Trish handles comic-book subscription ops, graphic design, and HR; Shane coordinates wargames events and orders games inventory and writes some code. Like (I imagine) most small-business owners, my own role is a cobbled-together “kitchen sink” position that ranges from pay-per-click advertising to software development and from high-level analysis to replying to individual online reviews. On an ideal day, I’m facilitating cooperation between our various teams and making sure we challenge ourselves to try new approaches; but most days I’m happy if I feel like I’m winning the Hundred Years’ War with my inbox.

Alex: Hah! I think most small companies feel like that – the ones that are any fun to work for, anyway. It certainly keeps things interesting.

Before we get into game stores as agile companies, I want to pull on this thread of game stores as community spaces. What are the opportunities for gatherings and community building that you see at Atomic? How are you building on those opportunities?

A photo of the Atomic Empire storefront in a snow storm

Jennifer: I think game stores have inherent potential as community hubs. Most tabletop games are not single-player friendly, so you need other people to play with. Games are distinct in this way from chocolates or bikes or even comic books, which can be enjoyed in a vaccuum. Folks gravitate to their local game store in hopes of meeting players with similar interests. If your local store is friendly and inclusive, it quickly becomes a place not just to buy games, but to share and play them.

That’s where you’ll find a lone fan doggedly promoting his/her favorite game to everyone who will listen — those are the players who become the nucleus around whom a play group forms. It’s also where you can find a GM for your new D&D character or a Magic pod or just a few brave souls willing to throw down Twilight Imperium now that your family has refused to play it. We receive calls and emails from gamers just moving to town, asking, “How is the Warhammer 40K community at your store?” or “Do you guys have a board game night?” (I often think this is a gamer equivalent of finding the right church when moving to a new place.) When customers consider buying into a new game, they often start with, “What’s the play group like?” Enjoying games is as much about the people you play with as the game itself, and that’s where the communities that form around local game stores are critical to the hobby.

If we had a peanut gallery right now, some of them would say, “I get my games online, and I have plenty of friends to play with, so it doesn’t make any difference to me if there are game stores or not,” and that’s fine, too. Players may or may not ever find themselves looking for a community in a game store; but I know people who have formed lasting friendships there, and there are games that would not have gotten off the ground without the visibility provided by an enthusiastic player base at a game store.

When it comes to our role, we’re usually facilitators rather than direct community builders. We try to say “yes” when people come to us with things they’re enthusiastic about. You want to run a Dropzone league? We’re here for that. You want us to host a monthly meeting for game designers? We’re all about it. We provide an inclusive space, good beer, and visibility — you bring your passion. Of course, at heart we also have our pet games we’re trying to build groups around, and it’s gratifying when they come together.

Alex: That’s a great point – a place to game is more than just some tables and chairs. What does providing an inclusive space mean to you, and what are the practical steps you take to build and maintain the kind of atmosphere you want?

A crowded game room during an event at Atomic Empire

Jennifer: I think most of us are aware of the stigma of game-store-as-man-cave: those stores that are cramped, poorly stocked clubhouses where newcomers feel unwelcome. (I once walked into a store and the owner said, “Well, you’ve never been in here before.” I wasn’t sure whether his customer base was so small he knew everyone on sight, or if I was literally the first woman to come in; either way, it was a creepy first impression.) As much as I think those stores are in the minority today, they have nevertheless put a lot of people off of the whole idea of the local game store. So the baseline level of inclusiveness for us is avoiding that exclusive-private-club feeling. We want the store to be clean, well-lit and organized, and inviting to someone who stops in casually (almost like a real store!).

The second level is what people normally think of when you talk about inclusivity: making sure everyone feels comfortable and welcome (and if possible, represented) regardless of skin color, gender, orientation, and other factors that have traditionally been used to divide and exclude people. To that end, we don’t tolerate bullies or hate speech or harassment. We try to make sure that our staff and volunteers are folks we are proud to have representing the store, and we diversify our hiring as much as we can.  And I think there’s another means of exclusion that’s been exposed in gaming and fandom in the past few years, and that’s the sort of gatekeeping behavior that insists that “cosplayers are fake geeks” or “party-game players aren’t real gamers” or “you can’t be a comics fan if you never heard of Captain America before the movies.” I personally have no patience for that sort of thing; we’re all fans of something, and I think the best way to celebrate what you love is to share it with others. I’m excited when new customers come in and say, “What’s a ‘Euro’ game?” or “Do you have anything about Wonder Woman?” To re-use the church analogy, I think welcoming new converts into the fold is a local store’s greatest responsibility.

Alex: Ah, yes. I’ve been stared at in stony silence by game store workers. What a reception! It sounds like you’re trying to give a much warmer welcome—are there any events coming up soon that you’re really excited about?

Jennifer: On January 27th we’ll have our annual Duck-Rabbit tap takeover, where some folks from the brewery come out for board games and beer with our customers. We’re also planning a game design workshop (no prior experience required!) in the new year.

Alex: Both of those things sound super fun! Especially the game design workshop; what a great way of bringing people together to connect and be creative. I know this time of year can be hard on people in retail, and owning a business is a heck ton of work any time of year; what keeps you going? How do you stay passionate and motivated, about the business and about games in general?

Jennifer: It’s true that small-business ownership can feel like a constant grind, especially in the early years. In talking to other store owners, it seems it’s easier to avoid burnout if you have a hobby outside the industry. My poison is autocross (an amateur motorsport no one’s ever heard of), so I spend a lot of weekends away from the store, talking to people who are so removed from our industry, they think gaming is something you do in casinos. I think it’s critical to have that separate space where you can hit the reset button. I’m also lucky to have a phenomenal staff that runs the place just fine without me, which has allowed me up to live the dream of forty-ish-hour work weeks. I’m always on-call, of course (I’ve had co-drivers answer staff texts while I tow a car trailer down the interstate, and I’ve deployed code patches from a race paddock), but I never worry that the shop will go to pieces while I’m gone. And while autocross and parenting limit the amount of time I spend playing games, the flip side is that games are always fresh to me. I don’t get enough exposure to feel jaded, so I can still get excited when something new comes out.

The Atomic Empire checkout stand

Alex: Yes! You can’t put all your eggs in one basket. Speaking of which, let’s quickly circle back to what we talked about at the top before we wrap up—you mentioned that you’ve been developing software, and working on Kickstarter fulfillment as well? What does that look like and how do you see it changing or expanding in the future?

Jennifer: Atomic is always in some stage of software development. We try to integrate new solutions to technical problems as they become available (right now, we’re working on an overhaul of our website search), and there’s a constant race to keep up with changing web aesthetics and user expectations. We spend the rest of the time trying to improve efficiency and data accuracy, solve problems we created ourselves ten years ago, etc. We’re always on the lookout for opportunities where we can bring our existing strengths to bear (like order fulfillment and code flexibility), and that’s why we’ve started doing some Kickstarter fulfillment. In talking to designers and publishers, we hear that the hassle of packing and shipping is a substantial downside to crowd-funding campaigns. When Steve approached us with the idea of doing some fulfillment for Bully Pulpit, we thought that would be a fantastic use of facilities and shipping processes we already have in place. I think small publishers are a critical part of the gaming ecosystem, and we’re always glad to help with the midwifery of getting a new game to market. In the new year, we’re hoping to develop more tools to help fulfillment clients manage their orders and inventory on our website.

Alex: Well, I certainly appreciated having your help with Ghost Court. Thank you so much for chatting with me; this was fun!

Jennifer: Thanks for the opportunity.

You can visit Atomic Empire here in Durham, North Carolina, or find out more at their website.

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