Hans Knapp has lived at the corner of 33rd and Halsted his entire life. Now, having graduated from DePaul with a math degree, he’s setting up shop just across the street. Joining him are two of his brothers, his friends, and hundreds of card-gaming enthusiasts from around the city.
Knapp’s new place is called Bridgeport Comics & Games, and it’s already drawing crowds. “I thought it would take a little more time to take off,” he said, “but we had 60 people in here last night.” The next day, glass was still being put in the front windows. And there’s even more work to be done inside: the makeshift arrangement of plain white walls, white plastic tables, and fluorescent lights currently makes for a sterile conference room feel. Although it’s driving Knapp “nuts”—he has murals planned for the walls—no one seems to be waiting. Gamers, apparently, don’t care much for appearances.
The walls are still an improvement. When Knapp first arrived, he found a hole in the ceiling and mold on the floors. Halsted may be the main commercial thoroughfare in Bridgeport, but it has more than its fair share of gaps—this particular space hadn’t been occupied for three years. “Halsted has a history of having shops come and go,” Knapp observed. “Most of them are either new or have been here as long as I can remember.”
He isn’t the only Bridgeport resident who thinks alone those lines. A recent post about the store’s opening on the popular community website Everyblock sparked a small dispute over development in the neighborhood. “Another useless store that will be closed in six months,” the first commenter wrote. Most users, however, seemed to agree with the view that “legit businesses are good for the neighborhood,” giving preference to tenants who aim to establish a permanent presence in the community. “It’s all about building the community, whether it works out or not,” another replied.
Knapp is quick to point out that his lease lasts for a year. And while he thinks Bridgeport is starting to acquire “more of a North Side feel,” he doesn’t see gentrification as an imminent threat. The neighborhood may have gotten somewhat safer over the years, but in his mind, it’s still down to earth.
In any case, Bridgeport Comics & Games isn’t the sort of place that displaces community members, anyway. In fact, it brings them in. Players can come in with their own cards and use the tables at no charge; some local middle-school kids have already made a habit of coming in after school. “I want this to be good for Bridgeport,” Knapp says. If this means attracting interest from within the neighborhood, he’s off to a good start. The store has already gotten the attention of passersby, even though most of them don’t come with a deck of Magic cards on hand.
The more competitive players come from all over Chicagoland, including the North Side and the suburbs. There aren’t many trading card venues in the area, and Bridgeport Comics & Games is already one of the largest. “Having a spacious area is huge—I can’t stress that enough,” Uzoukwu, a recent customer, said. Still, there’s room for players of all levels. While Magic tends to draw the most experienced competitors, other games such as Yu-Gi-Oh! invite a younger, more local crowd. The store structures these tournaments so as to let everyone play even after they’ve been eliminated, giving newer players a chance to enjoy themselves and build up their skills. This is what kids like twelve year-old Brandon, whose dad drove him and his friend Justin up from New City for a recent Yu-Gi-Oh! game, come out for. Yet they’re often no amateurs themselves—Justin has been playing since age three.
Amanda, one of the store’s employees, points out that playing card games is an inherently social activity; one needs a group of peers with whom to compete and trade. “It gives a lot of socially awkward people something to bond over,” she says. “That’s what this is all about. It makes you part of the community.”
Not that social awkwardness is the only way of defining the customer demographic. On Yu-Gi-Oh! night, Knapp’s mother dropped by and noted that of the thirty or so people in the store, she and Amanda were the only women there. “Total sausage fest,” she joked.
Whomever the clientele may be, though, the store doesn’t seem overly concerned with making an immediate profit. Rather, the goal is to foster a positive relationship with customers. If it builds that, they will come. The gaming community is a community in itself, with tournament participants often flocking from the one store to the next. When a store treats its players well, they come back with their friends. Lose enough players of a certain game, however, and they might leave with their friends, too. In the tournament business, customer service can be a double-edged sword.
On the night he was in, Uzoukwu could recognize most of the two-dozen participants. “Everyone in this room used to go there,” he said, referring to another South Side card shop. Now they go to Bridgeport Comics & Games.
As for the comics? Hans isn’t too worried about them, either. “Comics are as old as dirt,” he says. While the shop is still building up its stock, it expects to have a viable industry in time.
Knapp is just as optimistic about the rest of the store. There may be no murals on the walls yet, but when asked about his next goal, he doesn’t hesitate to respond: “Open a second store in Indianapolis.”