Tonight I wanted to get out of the apartment for a little while, both to clear my head and to give Marilyn some alone-time (since I'm always home when she is, so I get alone-time but she doesn't - alone-time being very important for introverts like the two of us). I decided to drive over to The Last Grenadier, which is one of L.A.'s oldest roleplaying game stores, as well as being personally endorsed by famous geek Wil Wheaton. I have two addresses for The Last Grenadier, so I went to the one I haven't seen. Whether this means there are two branches, or that one is an old address (which I visited often the first time I lived in L.A. back in 2000-2001), I don't know. This commentary is regarding the branch at 820 Hollywood Way.
I think I've been spoiled by The Source Comics and Games in Minnesota. For those who have never been there, The Source is what every game and comics shop should be - friendly, knowledgeable clerks (who aren't snotty in that Simpsons Comic Book Guy way); well-organized shelves offering the latest books and drawers filled with old standbys, classics, and obscure small-runs; a large gaming area with a week full of scheduled events; sales and special events; and - I cannot emphasize this enough - cleanliness.
The Last Grenadier has a lot of stock. There are boxes and boxes of gamebooks, some of which I've heard of but never seen in print (such as Tunnels & Trolls). Their collection of Osprey Military books is impressive, and if I wanted miniatures (what we used to refer to as "lead figures"), I now know where I could get just about anything I wanted.
Having said these things, I can't help but make comparisons to The Source, and The Last Grenadier loses pretty much every point.
TLG is seriously in need of two things: organization and a thorough dusting. There's no carpet; the floor is bare concrete, marked with numerous mysterious stains, skidmarks, and other markings. The staff kept the front door open the entire time I was there, and while it isn't frigid down here, it is cold enough outside that the store had the feeling of a drafty, unheated warehouse. This feeling was added to by the stacks of boxes lining the walls, the unexplained blankets covering some of the stock on the RPG tables (is it not for sale? Is it water-damaged?), and the copious dust filling the bottom of every shelf and box. Many of the gamebooks I looked at I would expect to get some kind of discount on were I to purchase them because they were dirty, warped, and obviously not in new condition. I'm all for supporting local businesses - especially when they're comics or games stores - but I do expect the product I'm purchasing to be treated like product that's meant to be sold.
The store was roughly divided into Osprey Books and assorted military/reference books took up the front of the store, RPGs were in the middle (mostly in cardboard boxes on folding tables, with some on a couple of bookshelves), and boxed games and miniatures lining the walls. The RPG books on the shelves were mostly organized by system, but while the books in the boxes (2/3 of which were d20 System books) looked as though they had been organized at one point in the distant past, but after many generations of gamers had picked through them, were mixed haphazardly. If I was looking for a specific gamebook, I'd have a rough idea where to look, but I'd almost certainly have to ask for help in finding it. I'll give the clerks the benefit of the doubt here, but while I was greeted as I came in, I was never asked if I needed help. The clerks never gave me a second glance after I came in, as far as I could tell. Again, after the helpful-yet-not-overbearing presence of friendly clerks at The Source, I know that this is not too much to ask, and it does make a difference in atmosphere.
Another point lost is the fact that The Last Grenadier doesn't seem to have a website. Now, in all fairness, I didn't ask the clerks about this; I'm basing this conclusion on a simple Google check. The Source's website isn't anything to write home about, but it is easily found, and they maintain an e-mail list that regularly appraises customers of sales, new products, and events.
I'm probably making this sound pretty awful. Again, let me reiterate that it wasn't the worst gaming store I've ever been to. TLG has a lot of stock, even if it takes a little time to find it, and much of the time all I want to do is walk the aisles and browse. I don't know how much profit TLG actually makes and whether they make enough to improve the look of the store. But I will say that, for the casual shopping gamer, it appears to be run more like someone's hobby basement rather than a place of business. While they don't sell comics (not that I saw - though I was pleasantly surprised to see a copy of Zander Cannon's The Replacement God trade paperback for sale), Scott McCloud's argument in Reinventing Comics still holds true: if your store looks like a poorly-lit clubhouse backroom rather than a warm, well-lit, friendly and open store, your potential clientele - women, children, those other than hardcore hobbyists - is much likelier to simply go online for what they want.