September 23, 2020

JackParkinsonBY JACK PARKINSON

The storefront for J&J Cards and Collectibles is a bit stereotypical for a store devoted to traditional gaming: the grey brick of the building is covered by a solid blue facade that has crenellations and a mock castle tower on the top. The outside of the store speaks volumes about what rests inside it: a wide selection of merchandise and staff who know how to have fun.

J&J Cards was founded about 24 years ago by Jason Schill (vice-president of business), and his brother Jim (president of business). Walk inside and you’ll find a whimsical gumball machine that sometimes speaks. Walk a little farther and you’ll find four aisles of floor-to-ceiling gaming essentials. Board games, fantasy miniatures, trading card games, plushies, and more cram the shop. Some of them are quite commonplace even for the average person, like Settlers of Catan or Dungeons and Dragons. Others are less mundane, like the My Little Pony trading card game or 15-year-old Magic: The Gathering cards.

I spoke to Jason a couple of months ago about how the store got started. Jason tells me that he and his brother started collecting sports cards in the ’90s, which led to a greater interest in traditional games. Jim started the J&J business while his brother was finishing high school, with the initial location on King and Columbia – a brisk walk from the current storefront at University and Weber. The first location only lasted two years before the business moved, and the current building has had two expansions.

“Diversity was the key to continuing our success,” Jason tells me over the countertop during our interview. The traditional gaming market had a lot of choice in the ’90s, and the Schills had a lot of it on offer in their store. They sold sports cards, Magic: The Gathering cards, board games and even flash-in-the-pan products like Pogs.

And while the ’90s had a lot of choice, the sports card market was an inflating bubble.

“If we had stayed with sports cards, we wouldn’t have survived the downtown,” Jason said.

The popularity of sports cards led to their plummet in the ’90s, specifically around 1995 and 1996. Companies overproduced the cards, which led to a sharp downturn in card value as the supply of rare cards increased. There are some sports card stores that exist in Waterloo Region today, but they are a minority compared to the other gaming stores.

The trend of overproduction and mismanagement of a business sector was not unique to sports card companies, Jason said. Games Workshop, the company responsible for the wildly popular Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer: 40,000 brands has been steadily increasing the price of their models and rule books over the past decade, which has allowed other companies and their less expensive products to get their feet into a market that would have otherwise remained closed.

The Schills have seen all of it and more, and it has instilled a healthy business sense into them – diversity is king.

“We have more than 3,000 different board games alone in stock,” Jason said.

“I don’t know the exact number, it’s been quite a while since I counted.”

The strategy has been working well for them.

When the Schills started out, they never considered moving to another city, as they are Waterloo natives. Now, customers regularly drive in from London, Ont. and Toronto to see what new stock J&J Cards has in – and there is a lot of stock to be seen.

“We have new product coming in virtually every day,” Jason said.

It would be easy to think that traditional games are dying out, given the prevalence of other forms of entertainment like video games, but the Schills say that is not the case. While video games did have an industry spike in the ’90s, traditional games have been making a comeback since the early aughts.

I asked Jason about this, and he told me that he thinks “society realized the importance of the social aspect of games.”

“(Traditional games) became this drive to get kids off of consoles.”

According to Jason, traditional games encourage socializing as part of the play experience, which helps kids to develop their speaking and storytelling skills. Schill is also optimistic about the future of traditional gaming – he thinks the industry will continue to maintain its current growth due to an influx of new customers and new, good games.

A similar, smaller story takes place at Just By Chance Games on Phillip Street in Waterloo.

While J&Js has been operating for over two decades, JBC Games started in 2011. The storefront layout is much smaller, but features more open space as well as tables for players to use. JBC also has a lower ceiling and less shelf space, which means they rely more on Magic: The Gathering sales for their business.

This might sound like a bad idea according to the Schills’ line of thinking, but it has worked out well for JBC so far.

“Basically, we just ignored the naysayers,” said Alicia Loomes, co-owner of JBC Games along with her husband Justin Loomes and sister Larissa Loomes.

“We’re huge nerds – stick with what you know.”

The three Loomes started looking for store space in Trenton, Ont. before they settled on Waterloo. Since Waterloo was a large city with several universities and colleges and no large competitors (Magic is a minority at J&J’s compared to general tabletop games), it was a great candidate. The store was funded initially using money Justin had saved up while working three jobs in the territories. The unit they currently rent was a laundromat previously, which allowed JBC Games to have open space to grow into.

While the trio faced skepticism from their friends about the potential success of a card and game store, Justin’s money allowed them to stay in the black for the first eight months. After that, JBC Games started making enough money to cover itself, and revenue has only gone up since.

“You can’t be paying your own rent in the first six months,” Alicia said.

In terms of community engagement, JBC Games hosts many events each week – five for Magic, plus Warhammer and Yu-Gi-Oh, another trading card game. Any game can have a store-supported tournament or event, as long as there are enough people willing to attend.

The Loomes are also very positive about the future of traditional gaming. According to them, the lack of social stigma is the main contributor to the health of the traditional games market.

“It used to be a shame 20 years ago, but now it’s not and that’s great,” Alicia said.

All in all, traditional gaming is alive and well in Waterloo.

 

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