I talk a lot about "building community," the "third space," and other sterile retail fuzzy wuzzy terms, but being on vacation and getting some perspective has made me realize what gaming means to me and how the store plays a role in that.
Gaming is something I do with my friends. When I started the store, that meant the nearly exclusive play of Dungeons & Dragons, and in extreme circumstances, gasp, a board game. Most of my original D&D group were not gamers in the broader sense of the term. Most played D&D only, some only with us. One is a part-time RPG writer in the industry, with a broader repertoire, but he's the exception that brought new ideas to the game (the king of improvised fantasy weaponry, for example). We tried one-off games on occasion, like Mutants and Masterminds and Spirit of the Century, but often if it wasn't a D&D game, people wouldn't show up.
As a kid, I played lots of D&D, but also Traveller, Top Secret, Boot Hill, Star Frontiers, and Gamma World. It always came back to D&D, and as I've mentioned before my childhood gaming pre-dated miniature games. All of these games were played with the same group of friends, or various subsets of those friends as factions developed. As for the game, it always came back to D&D.
I had been to a couple of conventions as a kid (yeah OrcCon 83 and 84!), but running the store was my first real experience playing with broad spectrum gamers. That's where the community element came into play. Sure, I continued to play at home with the original group, but my horizons were opened at the store. The friendship and camaraderie were what made games enjoyable for me at the store, and when that was lacking, it just felt like work. Making new friends and connections is when a game is most enjoyable.
For me the "third place" and "community" are about building those friendships where I play, even if they're the shallower gamer friendships that we temporally maintain for the sake of mutual enjoyment. Of course it can often be a little like a soap opera around the store as well, as various cliques, factions and individuals express themselves, often to the annoyance of others. There aren't enough women to make it dorm-like interesting, thank the gods, but I'm often pressed into the bartender-like role of listening while customers tell me about how this guy fudges his dice rolls, or that guy likes to kill off characters when you've upset his plans. Still, there's a sense of community and the complaining is mostly because the game will go on, regardless. People complain because they feel compelled to continue the relationship.
What I have yet to fully grasp is the game convention model, the temporary connections created to allow a game to happen. I can see it as a venue to play games you wouldn't normally get to play elsewhere or see different perspectives, but I wouldn't pre-empt a regularly scheduled game to go to one, and I certainly wouldn't plan a vacation around one when a perfectly good real adventure could be had instead. Running the store has made me yearn for richer gaming experiences than what I get at home. I meet interesting people, great gamers that I want to play with, which grows my disenchantment for the at-home model of static gaming. Perhaps that's what people look for at the conventions, the glimmer of brilliance, breath taking role-playing, the unpredictability that comes from playing with someone new.
The next convention (and best in my opinion) is Dundracon from February 13th-15th.