The impending closure of Borders booksellers around the country has hit many analysts like a thunderbolt. Is this a loss for gamers? Yes, but not necessarily for the reasons you're thinking.
The Big Box Bookstore Experience
This Borders experience ...isn't exactly unique to Borders, really. (That may have been part of the problem.)
As you come in, you'll see a row of registers for paying for your selections. There will be shelves and shelves and shelves and shelves full of books stretching out in front of you, with some chairs scattered among them for those people who want to sit down and read.
In one corner or off to the side (also typically close to the entrance or having its own little door) is the coffee shop. There you can get any number of beverages or small snacky-cakey food options. Espresso is very likely available.
Tucked away in another corner is a children's and young adults section. If you pity its seclusion, bear in mind that it's the most brightly, riotously colored section of the store, typically visible through other shelves of books.
And then there's a media section where you can browse for music and DVDs. It's non-literate, but there are stories recorded on them, so they're viable for a "bookstore" environment.
And along one wall or on several double-sided racks, there are magazines. Hundreds of them, stacked in close so you have to be able to pick out the magazine you want just by the first letter or two of the title. Fortunately, if there's a magazine you follow frequently, you'll be able to do just that.
It's become increasingly common for the bookstore also to carry some lines of toys, puzzles, and casual board games. We have game stores for those, though, and these may be a bit outside the bookstore's core competency.
And as I said, this isn't just the typical layout of Borders. It's also fairly common for Barnes & Noble, for Books-A-Million, for Crown Books, and any other that qualifies: If they can afford that much space, they're going to fill it in that way.
Tell him about the rabbits, George!
Where do the gamers fit in? A little bit of everywhere, really. They buy books, magazines, music, and movies. Gamers tend to be good consumers of culture, especially science-fiction, fantasy, and reference works.
Gamers and snacks: Now there's a match. Who doesn't love to have a beverage and a treat when playing some board game like chess, go, or Spawn of Fashan? Gamers also tend to be good consumers of small crispy and cakey things and coffee drinks.
Of games specifically, well, they would be, but there's a catch. Most bookstores will have one bookcase reserved for RPGs, if not a single shelf. These will be the "most popular" ones because they move fastest, which these days means mostly D&D and Pathfinder. All stores are dependent, in some fashion, on product turnover. It's how they make their money.
(This is also why I disapprove of turning a corner of the store into a toy showroom—the bookstore that can't be bothered to stock the book games probably shouldn't be dealing in non-book games either.)
Given all these differences, what's the similarity between a big box bookstore like Borders (or Barnes & Noble) and the FLGS? And why should we be concerned that either are closing?
The in-bookstore coffee shop and many quality game stores have this in common: Chairs set around a table. Both are public places where like-minded people can gather, typically over drinks and snacks, and do something social.
The "public place" part is especially important because the hobby gets a boost whenever someone who isn't in that group sees what the group is doing and gets curious. And while people who come in and watch might decide the hobby isn't for them, there's always the chance that the hobby will grow by one person that day.
The Irony of Scale
And here's the wrinkle: Between the Big Box Bookstore and the FLGS, which is more likely to bring in people who aren't already gaming-initiated? Which of the two isn't "preaching to the converted"?
That would be the store that brings in more people with a wider array of interests. Because it tries to cater to as wide a swath of the population as possible, the Big Box Bookstore brings in more people. While a smaller portion of that ecosystem might be gaming-curious, it's a smaller portion of a much larger ecosystem.
The advantage of the FLGS is that a greater proportion of the people you meet will already be interested in gaming. And while this avoids the awkwardness and social tension of explaining what D&D is to someone ill-prepared for concepts like "fantasy" and "imagination," sticking to the FLGS doesn't grow the hobby as much.
You're ...not serious, are you
Am I really and seriously lamenting the passing of the Borders retail chain for the loss of its coffee shops? That's at least part of it! Plus, the retail chain has access to a large number of distributors, and consequently access to a lot of different types of books...
...including game books if there is no Friendly Local Game Store. In that case, the big box store is the closest to an FLGS that the area will come. Its loss can hit just as hard as the loss of a traditional game store.
Has this been a problem? No, and that's a pity.
Are tabletop games run in public social spaces like the BBB coffee shop? Yes.
<csb> On a trip to West Virginia a few months back, I encountered (ahem) a group playing D&D. I didn't have long to stick around, but I learned from them that the local store where they did used to play had closed down. The local bookstore was the most convenient public place where they could play. </csb>
Are they run like that regularly? To the best of my knowledge, no, and that's a problem. For the hobby to expand, and this covers any sort of gaming (not just RPGs), people must be brought into it. And there's no better advertisement for a hobby than seeing a bunch of people out in public doing it.
The Self-Fulfilling Need
And getting back to the title of these pieces, it's not just about the growth of the hobby, it's about having the places outside of peoples' homes to play them. However nice and well-stocked the electronic bookstore may be, it has no coffee shop and no tables at which to play in your neighborhood.
Playing games in public spaces can not only attract players, but demonstrate the need for public spaces where people can play games. If more people played games in public spaces.
And they should, because they could meet more interesting people that way.