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Getting their game on

Mike Genet
Players have come back to the open game nights at Game Cafe on the Independence Square since the business reopened with limited capacity for customers and players.

Pre-pandemic, one could drive by Game Cafe on the Independence Square on many evenings and see dozens of people inside playing various board, card and other tabletop games.

For weeks now, customers have trickled back for live games and retail sales, even if they can’t have large organized events yet, co-owner Tom Bumgardner said, and Game Cafe was fortunate to keep some retail sales going even when the doors were closed.

“We have a lot of people that enjoy the social part of playing and are slowly coming back,” Bumgardner said. “Everybody’s respectful and cautious.”

Some people have shared stories, he said, of someone they knew contracting COVID-19, or even recovering from their own bout. Hand sanitizer is available, and players try to maintain some precautions.

“Most of our players are in their 20s and 30s, and it’s a hobby for them,” he said. “It’s a good place to meet and chat. People are coming back and just getting that interaction again.”

Game Cafe and similar gaming businesses cater to crowds of board games and card and picture games. Fully operational, it has three event halls, which is not usual for game stores, he said.

“Everything that’s not video games,” Bumgardner said. “We do have some video game groups that come in, but it’s for the social aspect.”

Bumgardner is fortunate in that Game Cafe is one of two businesses he owns, so he hasn’t been completely reliant on it during the pandemic. Also, he and his co-workers had already been making more sales available online when mid-March came around. The pandemic has simply hastened that effort, and they offered some delivery service for orders, an indication that people still continued to play at home during stay-at-home weeks. Store personnel also kept up social media engagement with regular players/customers.

“At one point we were planning on having everything in the store available online,” Bumgardner said. “We were moving in that direction anyway, so when we had to close the store we had to make sure that was fully functioning. Sales were still down quite a bit, but it was still a way to communicate to people, with sales.”

“Talking with one of major retailers, and stores that are hobby retailers, they have to be on top of it, be on the cutting edge,” he said. “If (a game) gets to big-box stores, it’s already past for us.”

Now, he said, retail sales are close to where they were at this point last year. With many businesses like Game Cafe, there’s an entertainment component and a retail component, and one often feeds the other. Large live-play events sponsored by game companies will be slow in coming back because companies don’t want the liability associated with the coronavirus.

“A big part of people buying is they get to be involved in tournaments and the community,” Bumgardner said. “We had a steady history of sales (information), so we knew what to anticipate for this time of year.”

But with the blanket restrictions affecting game businesses, it was difficult “because nobody knew anything (about the virus and what restrictions were practical).” Among privately owned game stores, he said, about 30 percent nationwide have closed or could close soon, and if the pandemic continues for a year with some restrictions, as few as 10 percent might survive.

“I feel bad for business that got destroyed and closed,” Bumgardner said.

Locally, the game business outlook has started to brighten. The goal, he said, is to get back to the full-house evenings.

“I’m encouraged that we’re able to start again and things are looking good as far as retail increasing,” Bumgardner said. “I think it will recover; we just don’t know the speed at which organized play will recover. The real test will be seeing how schools act when they start again.”