Local game shops and arcades anxiously await a return to in-person tournaments and carefree fun

It’s been a roller coaster of a year for game shops and venues.

First, there was a complete shutdown in March, lasting about a month. Then came a return to in-person shopping, but no store-hosted tournaments or events. Early this fall, many of the area’s independent game shops were able to slowly phase back into in-person play for popular games like Pokemon or Magic: The Gathering after installing plexiglass barriers on tables, greatly limiting the number of participants, and spacing out play spaces.

Now, shops like the COMIC BOOK SHOP, with three Spokane-area locations, are back to just limited shopping capacity.

“We only had a few weeks of gaming. People had just started coming back out,” says Comic Book Shop owner Craig Barnett. “Everyone was really excited, and then we had to pull the plug again.”

Even so, Barnett has an optimistic outlook for his three stores, one inside NorthTown Mall, a second in Spokane Valley and a third on north Division Street. The Division store moved this summer from its former spot on the hill closer to downtown; now at 1402 N. Division.

“Overall, we are doing pretty well,” he says. “We’re right about or a little above where we were last year” in terms of sales.

That’s compared with about an 18 percent drop Comic Book Shop was experiencing in mid-June. Barnett partly cites a recent resurgence of interest in the Pokemon collectible card game as helping drive sales. Plus, steady support from loyal, local customers.

“People are staying at home and they remembered how much they enjoyed [Pokemon] as kids, and it started hitting the internet and boosted sales dramatically,” Barnett says. “We’ve always been really into it ourselves, and now we’re seeing a lot more customers.”

Holiday shopping has also been a welcome boon. With all retailers in Washington still capped at 25 percent capacity, however, there’s often a line stretching out the door, especially at the NorthTown store.

Besides Pokemon cards, Comic Book Shop has seen a steady, pandemic-spurred interest in board games. After launching an online storefront this spring to help supplement in-person sales, Barnett says Comic Book Shop staff have been shipping out orders “all over the place.” The bulk of the store’s vintage comic book sales have also moved mostly online via eBay.

Regular customers are just as eager as Barnett and his staff for the return of regularly scheduled in-store tournaments, although there are many unknown factors dictating that timeline.

“The first day we can run tournaments, we’ll run tournaments,” he says. “We get emails constantly about if we have things scheduled. Everybody really, really misses it.”

A return to in-person gaming is likely to take even longer for another Spokane entertainment venue, the retro arcade JEDI ALLIANCE. The pandemic’s shutdown has, however, offered at least one unexpected opportunity for the nonprofit arcade’s owner and avid pop culture collector, Tyler Arnold.

“We’ve been closed almost nine months,” says Arnold. “After about two months in just sitting around, I thought if we ever thought about moving, now would be the time.”

While he’s not ready to announce the address of the arcade and pop culture museum’s new location in Spokane Valley, he says it’s about three miles from Jedi Alliance’s current home in east central Spokane.

At more than 7,000 square feet, the arcade’s new location is also nearly double the size of the old, allowing for better social distancing, if that’s still a need when arcade venues are finally allowed to reopen (currently not until Phase 4 of Washington’s reopening plan), and for the housing of even more retro game cabinets.

On the positive side, Arnold says that since the Alliance’s entire collection is privately owned by him and his son, Ashton, there’s no risk of Jedi Alliance permanently closing because of the pandemic. The venue charges a flat cover for the public to play any of its games as many times as they want during each visit. Other income comes from private events and donations.

“I would have this stuff whether I shared it with the public or not, but I open to the public because it’s more fun to have people come in and play games and stuff,” he says. “So when we closed down there wasn’t a whole lot of overhead, so that has really been our secret to surviving.”

Arnold hopes to have the new location for Jedi Alliance ready to open in late January, depending on the virus and the state’s reopening protocols, and says those interested in updates on that progress should follow along on social media.

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