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In the era of Wii, Nintendo DS and the iPad, a cribbage set seems positively archaic. A museum might be the only fitting setting for a wooden board used for playing Nine-Man Morris, a game dating back to the Roman Empire.
But those relics, along with all manner of puzzles, mazes, blocks and board games, line the shelves of Labyrinth Games and Puzzles, a new shop on the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast near Eastern Market.
Owner Kathleen Donahue is attempting a difficult feat: opening a retail store in an area notoriously difficult for businesses that don’t serve food and drink. And her choice of wares is hardly intuitive.
“It’s all batteries not included,” the mom and entrepreneur says. “I call it ‘entertainment unplugged.’”
It’s not that Donahue is some kind of strident techno prohibitionist. But she has filled her store with the kind of brain-teasing, critical-thinking games that her own 6-year-old son loves — and that she feels good about him playing.
“I’m not anti-video-game,” she insists. “We own a Wii, and my son plays it. But then I’ll see him doing a puzzle, and he’s just as happy and excited and into it.”
Donahue is betting there are enough parents like her on Capitol Hill, those who have read research about the benefits of unplugged pastimes for children, appreciate the craftsmanship of a wooden game set made by an artisan and have the means to buy it. These are the parents who enroll their offspring in Chinese language classes, hire tutors for kindergartners and buy cellos for 5-year-olds.
For them, a place where their kids can learn chess (Donahue plans to offer lessons and workshops) or pick out a 1,000-piece puzzle is a welcome addition to the neighborhood’s park-library-playground circuit.
And kids, or their high-achieving parents, aren’t her only target audience. She also sells games popular with an older set. Her store will feature popular European board games, such as the culty Settlers of Catan and Puerto Rico, and role-playing games (or RPGs, in gaming parlance), such as Magic and Dungeons and Dragons.
For the more casual customer, there are trivia and party games.
Some of what she stocks is local, including games from Evil Hat Productions and College Park, Md.-based Looney Labs.
And while games are her stock in trade, Donahue certainly wasn’t playing around when it came to launching her business. She grew up with a strong retail background — her father owned a large liquor store, and working there as a high school and college student, she learned the basics of management. Her career included a stint overseeing operations for a large law firm, and for the past five years, she has run a consulting business out of her home in which she helped other businesses with human resources and operational efficiency.
She had long wanted to own and run her own store, but she hadn’t hit on the right concept. One day, she says, she was sitting in traffic on the 14th Street bridge after a run to a suburban Toys R Us to buy a gift for one of her son’s friends. Frustrated by the errand and with cars at a standstill, the proverbial light bulb lit up.
A game store. On Capitol Hill. Where she could re-create a bit of the wonder that she felt when stepping into her favorite childhood store, a hobby shop in Pensacola, Fla.
She did lots of homework to turn the idea into reality: researching the gaming market, polling potential customers to find out what kinds of products they would buy, drawing up a business plan, securing financing and locating space.
The fruits of her labor are evident. She has gotten supportive e-mails and advice from other independent game store owners around the country, and local gaming enthusiasts have cheered the shop’s arrival. Before she had even opened the doors, she says, customers were calling, excited to have a local source for the games that they love — and usually just ordered over the Internet.
That’s kind of the point, Donahue says. She hopes Labyrinth will help foster not just a return to old-fashioned entertainment, but a revival of face-to-face connections, whether over checkers or a cash register.
“I want to help bring community back,” she says. “People want real connections instead of these cyber-world connections. I think that’s missing.”