It's a weekday afternoon, and a group of local teens sit around a table playing
"Magic: The Gathering."
The door opens and in walks a woman in her 60s, looking for a Mahjong set. Later, a young mother comes in looking for a fun board game to play with her kids.
Next, a young professional enters. He's watched some of the popular poker shows on television and wants to pick up some supplies for Texas Hold'em.
Others come in looking for the perfect gift for the chess-lover in the family,
or paints and scenery to complete their miniature, tabletop armies.
From roleplaying games like "Dungeons and Dragons" and collectible card games like "Magic: The Gathering" to classics like backgammon and cribbage and shelves upon shelves on unique board games, Game Masters on Babcock Boulevard has all of these things and more.
For the last decade, owner Phil Glotfelty has prided himself on carrying hard-to-find games and gaming accessories.
"If you can find it at Wal Mart, chances are you won't find it at Game Masters," says Glotfelty.
A McCandless native and North Allegheny graduate, Glotfelty has always loved games. He grew up playing "Dungeons and Dragons" and other roleplaying games like "Twilight 2000," a military game set in the not too distant future.
After getting a degree in education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Glotfelty, who is legally blind, found his career options limited thanks to his gradually failing eyesight.
"I spent some time as a fecal engineer, cleaning out cages at Elmer's Aquarium," says Glotfelty with a laugh.
Then, during the mid-1990s, Glotfelty became manager of Swords and Sorcery, a short-lived hobby store once located on Babcock Boulevard, not
far from the site when Game Masters currently stands.
Swords and Sorcery carried many of the same products as Game Masters - books and accessories for "Dungeons and Dragons" and similar fantasy roleplaying and collectible card games -but without the narrow focus.
The store also carried incense, martial arts supplies, knick knacks and comic
books to name just a few items.
"No one knew what that store was about. It went belly up in less than a year,"
"I felt like if I could run the business the way I wanted, it would have been successful."
To Glotfelty, the formula for success involved keeping the store's purpose
tightly-defined to games, despite the fact that most stores that carry roleplaying and collectible card gaming supplies also carry - and usually emphasize - comic books.
Because Glotfelty wasn't particularly knowledgeable about comic books, he felt getting into selling and trading them would be too much of a financial risk.
"People forget a hobby store is not a hobby for the guy who owns it," says Glotfelty.
That's especially easy to forget when they guy who owns the hobby store spends almost as much time playing games with his customers as he does behind the counter.
Though Glotfelty is clear about his reasons for opening Game Masters - "
Like any other business owner, I'm in this to make money" - the store is
more than a place for buying and selling. It's a place for social interaction.
Though he could easily use the space to carry more products, Glotfelty has made a commitment to leave a large area of his store open for anyone who wants to play games there. He sees it as something of a pact he makes with his customers.
"I give them a place to play and they keep me in business," says Glotfelty.
"As I have grown here, this gaming space has remained inviolate to me."
Longtime customer Coleman Flaherty, who drives to Game Masters from his
home in Washington County at least once a week, praises that commitment.
"I appreciate that he has all of this space he could use for retail, but he doesn't. This is more than just a store. It's a relationship," says Flaherty.
Every day the store is open, at least one group of people is huddled around the tables at the back playing some game or other. Many parents drop their kids off at the store for an evening of gaming while they enjoy a nice evening out.
Glotfelty doesn't mind. Though he refuses to become a free babysitting service, many kids and teens over the years have made the store a second home.
Occasionally, a concerned parent will drop by Game Masters to find out what
goes on there. Once, the father of a regular customer stopped by the store
wanting to know "what sort of cult" Glotfelty was running.
Used to such suspicions - thanks to rumors in the 80s and early 90s that
roleplaying games were a gateway to Satanism - Glotfelty sat the man down,
made him some coffee and showed him exactly how the games his son was
into were played. After that, there was no problem.
"People think there's something mysterious about a game like 'Magic,'
but really its just glorified gin rummy," says Glotfelty.
Besides specialization and a friendly, social atmosphere, Glotfelty's
commitment to customer service keeps people coming back.
Not only will he order just about anything for anyone, but, if he can't get it,
he's willing to tell customers who can.
Once, Glotfelty sent a first-time customer to a competitor's store to find a rare book, Since then, the man has become a regular.
Not only has he played most of the games in the store himself, but he solicits his customers for advice on what games they've enjoyed and why.
Despite all of his research, Glotfelty admits he occasionally gets saddled with a bomb. Sometimes the reviews say a game is a lot of fun, while customers indicate otherwise.
Usually, those end up collecting dust until Glotfelty cleans out his inventory and donates them to a charity or gives them away, even if someone shows an interest in them.
"When somebody comes in and asks me 'Hey, is that a great game,' I can't lie to them," says Glotfelty.
"I'm kind of a bad salesman in that way. I'm just too honest."
Instead, he'll try to point a customer toward a game they might like better,
even if it means less of a profit.
Sometimes, the biggest sellers are the simplest, least expensive items. For instance, Glotfelty sells hordes of a little dice game called "LCR," short for "Left Center Right," every week.
The game, which is nothing more than a small tube containing three dice and a few chips for gambling, has become a runaway success.
The company that makes "LCR" doesn't advertise at all, but Game Masters still
sells them by the dozen thanks purely to word of mouth.
Sometimes, it's clear why classic games come back into vogue, like the
current poker craze springboarded from various celebrity poker shows on cable.
Mostly, though, Glotfelty has no idea when or why certain games experience
surges in popularity. A few years ago, he couldn't keep Mahjong sets on the shelves, then backgammon became big for a while.
These days, a Japanese strategy game called "Go," which is more than 2,000 years old, is all the rage.
Popular or not, Glotfelty keeps all of these classics in stock and,
when interest in them is piqued, people know where to go.