Friday, 24 April 2015

The Dying Dragon: Ode To A Game Shop

Icon of St George, that most English of Syrians.

Yesterday was St George’s Day, which as well as being the patron saint of our neighboring nation is also the name day for myself.  I am a George, and I have George pride!

Unfortunately, I have sad George related news.  Another George in Glasgow is not doing so well.  This George is not a person but a place; it is the gamer shop The Dragon & George, which after decades of business is shutting up for good.  Scuttlebutt is that the rent on King Street has risen substantially and as a consequence the shop is no longer economical to run, so the proprietor is calling it a day.

I couldn’t let this shop vanish without writing something about it – its pluses and its drawbacks.

The Dragon & George, just next to A1 Comics and one minutes walk from Static Games.

The Dragon & George was a very old fashioned game shop.  A small building with poor lighting and not particularly appealing interiors, it was nothing like the brighter environs of Static, Geek Retreat and Geek-Aboo.  The shelves were crammed with books, boxes, miniatures and magazines of varying vintages - the newest games appeared but there were items here that seemed untouched for years.  Although it didn't have as big a selection as Static, it did cater more to an older audience with more old-fashioned war-games and magazines aimed at grognards.  Certainly, while it was never as busy as Static, the same people seemed to come in frequently including some who had been regulars for decades.

The proprietor, Tom, did not look like your usual nerd shop owner - not for him the geeky T-Shirt, gamer's paunch and regulation neck-beard.  No, with his grey hair, flat cap and sideburns Tom looked more like he should be an extra on Emmerdale than a Dungeon Master.  Tom knew his stuff, however, having been playing role-playing and war-games when most of my nerdy circle were still blank character sheets waiting for mummy and daddy to roll the dice.

Old School Renaissance-Tastic

I attended Dragon and George a lot back when I ran Dungeons and Dragons.  Static may have been closer - especially when it was located in the Argyle Market just opposite Argyle Street Station - but there was something to the experience of visiting Tom's shop.  I never introduced myself to him but he remembered me, noting what product I was buying and setting aside similar books in case I was interested.  I de facto had a Dragon and Dungeon Magazine subscription with him, since he always kept me an issue, and many D&D 3.5 books were purchased from him.  I also got a few other books here – Changeling, Promethean and Traveller to name just a few.  One always ended up having a gab with him about all manner of things – no book could be purchased without having his opinion on nerdity, politics, history or whatever burbling out.

Unfortunately, I haven’t visited much in the last couple of years.  This is partly that I haven’t actually bought much new, physical RPG product in that time.  Obviously I haven’t stopped being an RPG nerd – even if wargaming and painting is taking up a chunk of my time than – but I have such an excess of books, such easy access to PDFs online and increasingly weirder which mean that print-on-demand or internet-only is increasingly the only way I get a hold of the games that catch my interest.  Dragon and Dungeon magazine’s print editions dying were the killer – two monthly magazines meant I had a reason to go into the shop at least once a fortnight, seeing what else was in the shop and sometimes picking up a new book or game on a whim.  As online only they not only had (IMHO) inferior content, they also gave me less incentive to visit my FLGSes.  
If this was still in print I'd still be going every week or two, even though I haven't ran much D&D in the past few years.
Similarly, the sort of support available for the games I play is less frequently available in print – D&D 3.5 had a hardback a month, whereas the time between new hardbacks for Mutants & Masterminds is much longer.

 The Dragon and George dying therefore made me sad for historic reasons…. But if I’m going to be honest, it isn’t really a huge surprise.  The shop’s unprofitability has been something many nerds have commented on, wondering how it possibly continued to exist.  A sea change in nerd shops has happened in Glasgow in the past few years and places like Geek-Aboo, Plan B Books and Geek Retreat were opened with a much more open, inclusive feel than more old-fashioned geek haunts like Future Shock or The Dragon & George.  For all its charms, there were a few things the shop did which kinda shot itself in the foot.

Not something you saw much in the shop

  • The big one was how poorly stock cycled.  Items on the shelf stayed there, at full price, for years and years without any sign of anyone picking them up.  Boxes yellowed in the sun behind his counter must have been there since Tony Blair or even John Major were prime minister!  A copy of the Men In Black RPG, which seemed dated even when I first visited in 2001, still sits unpurchased and will almost certianly stay that way when the shop finally shuts.  This is a common problem in nerd shops – gamers around the world complain at improbably priced books which never cycle, the shop owners never putting anything on sale because they hope someday someone will come in and get the item at full price.  Static has been a bit better at this lately, with older edition and damaged product seeing reductions.
  • The opening hours were very erratic.  Theoretically, it was Tuesday to Saturday, 12:00 to 17:30.  In reality, Tom ran the shop by himself so any time he was late, sick, stuck in travel, out for lunch, out for a coffee or otherwise engaged then the shop was shut.  It was a running joke when I was a student that any midweek trip to the Dragon and George would inevitably find the shop shut, regardless of the time or day you picked.  
  • The shop had absolutely no online presence.  Obviously, Tom was an older man not well at ease with the internet and one of his pet topics was to talk about how "the computers lie" when it came to release dates of product etc - but with online sales he could have sold some of his old stock to a far wider audience, or at least communicated better with his physical attendees.  Instead he stayed in the arse end of town, only able to found if someone else knew his shop was there and told you about it.
  • Tom could ramble.  This was part of the experience for me - account for the fifteen minutes you'll spend talking nonsense with him - but for people who just wanna by their book and go, the shop had a touch of the Games Workshop experience to it.
  •  Tom's personal biases bled into the shop's stock irrespective of the logic therein.  Tom did not like Magic: The Gathering - and hey, that's fine, no-one has to like anything.  However, he very loudly did not like Magic the Gathering players and did not stock Magic or indeed any customizable card game in his premises, sticking to pure war games and role playing games.  (With the occasional non-random card game like Munchkin or Fluxx)  This was, unfortunately, probably bad economics as any RPG shop owner will tell you that RPGs don't make them much money and it's the CCGs that keep them afloat.
More of these, less of Rifts would have probably helped the shop out
Despite all this, I'm sad to see The Dragon & George go.  Like a few others I've been making final visits to the shop, partly to say goodbye and partly to pick up some of the stock as the shop starts to go into clearance mode.  On Saturday I popped into the shop and picked up two books: Pandora's Book and The Primal Order.

One from 2001, one from 1992.
 The first is a supplement to Promethean, the new World of Darkness game themed around Golems and Frankenstein Monster-esque artificial beings.  After the updated versions of Vampire, Werewolf and Mage this was the first real "new" game they tried to do and is odd for not having a broad, open-ended premise but a much more narrow goal for all characters - they want to become humans, and the game allows them to try and do certain tasks to gain magical points that can eventually be used to obtain a soul.  

Also different from the other White Wolf games is that rather than setting a home city the game necessitates the monsters travel - thus it becomes an odd cross of Pinocchio and The Littlest Hobo, the group going from city to city trying to become real boys.  I've never ran Promethean but it's definitely one on the to-do list and appeals to me far more than the more mainstream White Wolf settings.

The other book, Primal Order, was a multi-system guide to deities published by a then minor company called Wizards of the Coast.  Long before Magic and D&D made them the cornerstone of every role playing shop was this - and judging by the orange price tag that doesn't match any other in the shop it's been here since then.  On the one hand, this book represents everything wrong with The Dragon & George - ancient stock that has never been discounted to get new stock in, a book so old even the store owner was surprised when I took it to the counter.  However, it's also going to remind me of The Dragon And George every time I look at it - I saw this book hiding in the back of the bookshelves at least a decade ago and it's been on my to-by list for ages.

If you are a Glasgow nerd and wanna visit the shop, it should still be open for a couple more weeks.  After that, you'll need to get your nerdy fix everywhere.  The Dragon will finally be slain.

But some dragons are hard to keep dead...


  1. I finally made it to the Dragon & George and found it open a couple of weeks ago (although it was only this time round that I found out that it didn't open until 12:00; my previous visits had tended to be in the morning as I was doing other things in town). I was in a bit of a hurry, so couldn't hang around, but I did pick up a copy of Dominion which was on sale (part of the closing down sale). I'm glad that I got something from there before it closed.