In an attempt to keep sales going during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Eli Klein, owner of Evanston Games & Cafe, began shipping board games internationally. However, this proved to be a disaster when customs confiscated a valuable package and another package was lost entirely.
“It’s been a strange two years,” Klein said. “The main thing was to remain flexible as new information comes out.”
However, Klein said a strong network of customers has supported the store through a phased reopening. In the first few months of the pandemic, Klein shut down the shop entirely and shipped board games from his basement. It has slowly reopened with shops, events, catering and seating.
Now, Klein said, customer participation has mostly returned to normal, although the overall operation of the store has changed. Game nights are no longer held, although Klein hopes to reintroduce them soon.
Prior to the pandemic, events at the Evanston Games & Cafe were hosted by local restaurants. However, with many restaurants struggling with staffing issues, the business now cooks all food in-house, according to Klein.
Evanston Games & Cafe online store, which previously only sold Magic: The Gathering card packs, currently offers the store’s entire collection of games, including board games, escape room games, and expansion packs. The store also ships games nationwide.
Despite difficulties, Klein said his business hasn’t been hit as badly as other companies. He attributed the store’s survival to its strong clientele.
When the store temporarily closed, Evanston Games & Cafe’s Patreon stayed active, a monthly online subscription service that helps companies and developers stay afloat through crowdsourcing donations. Additionally, Klein says that many customers have made every effort to order from the online store, even when other convenient options are available.
“They knew it was going to be a tough time for businesses,” Klein said. “They wanted to make sure we were still here.”
Tabletop games don’t adapt well to virtual environments, said recently retired Magic player Gavin Kramer. He said he couldn’t be invested in online gaming.
Similarly, colleague Clair Brown, who was a longtime patron of Evanston Games & Cafe, said gaming doesn’t lend itself to a virtual format. She said the store’s efforts to move gaming sessions online were short-lived.
“There’s just no game for most of them,” Brown said. “It’s hard to coordinate, and playing Magic over a webcam isn’t as fun as playing in person.”
Now that the store is fully reopened, Brown said she still gets nervous when there’s a full house and prefers smaller gatherings for fear of contracting COVID-19. But she said working with the gaming community at the store has helped her with personal struggles.
Brown said the store is a place for people to connect through games, and those interactions have helped her with her social anxiety.
“Meeting people through a common interest makes that a lot easier,” Brown said.
Kramer emphasized the importance of personal connections and the difficulty of replicating them online. Those friendships, he said, are one reason Evanston Games & Cafe means so much to the community.
“It has always been my safest place. It’s a really important space,” Kramer said. “I think a lot of people feel the same way.”
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