I just want to run a hobby game store in the suburbs. My store does not take political sides, make political statements or support political causes. In fact, pinning me down personally would be pretty hard, with my pseudo libertarian views. My investors range from very liberal to very conservative, and we've had the discussion early on about the role of politics and small business, with our decision being to let investors make their own stands with their own money.
This is a position I thought was reasonable, but one that has upset some of my friends, who believe change at this stage can only come from the private sector. Still, you won't find a political sign in our window and we don't donate to political causes. When we donate to charity in the name of the business, it's to help children via Toys for Tots, California fire victims, or the occasional donations to local schools. We are neutral in the culture wars.
Or at least that's what I thought. One thing to keep in mind is we are culture. Game stores are bastions of the gaming subculture, which is part of the general culture. As such, store owners are ambassadors to not only members of the subculture, but also the public. We've known this pretty much forever, with the biggest threat being the occasional Bible Belt picketing for promoting devil worship, laughable in California but a real concern elsewhere. Nowadays, we're less concerned with church groups and more concerned with maintaining credibility and a thread of leadership within our subculture.
However, as politics in general has infiltrated every level of society, small businesses of all sort are being called out for not toeing someone else's political line. Politics has gained a foot hold in geek culture, by those who want to stir up trouble and maintain their antiquated status quo. The main issue regards women playing a bigger role in the subculture and the men who support them. It's a welcome revolution, not only from my personal perspective, because what a wonderful breath of fresh air and introduction of new perspectives, but it's great for anyone who has something to sell.
As a store owner, I wouldn't be very successful if 90% of my customers were men, as it was when I started nearly 15 years ago. Much of our success is about creating a welcoming environment for all the public. This is apparently a divisive position. Our tolerance a form of intolerance to the alt right folks, who want to make every cultural arena their battleground, game stores included.
This is what happened at my store and others in the San Francisco Bay Area. In our case, our veil of neutrality was pierced when we asked a disruptive customer to leave, causing an online firestorm and real threats to life and property. The customer, a conservative white supremacist was bothering people playing games with his political rants and difficult attitude, a shit disturber in our little Switzerland. We showed him to the door and became his new cause. That this has publicly happened to other local stores, by other conservative shit disturbers, shows neutrality is hard to maintain. These people have a literal handbook for stirring up controversy, and it has moved from university campuses to main street.
The culture wars are not waged only by one side. The most recent example, the most infuriating really, was a Portland case where two employees were fired for not serving a customer after the store had closed. As will happen in an eating establishment, there's a cut off time when the kitchen is closed, but customers remain to finish their meals. The customer in question was a black woman, a firestorm ensued, and in a pretty profound act of cowardice, the owners fired the employees involved under political pressure:
In radically liberal Portland, the threat of boycott and review slamming for not towing the political line is enough for a store owner to not have their employees backs due to a misunderstanding. Backing employees is what you do as an owner. If you've got a procedural or training problem in your business, you own that problem, it is your fault. The buck stops with you, which is the big lesson in owning a business.
As cowardly as this act was, you have to remember that such a business problem is an existential threat to the livelihood of this owner, whose purpose in life is just to serve you their hand made granola. Really, they make hand made granola. That's not to excuse their cowardice but more to offer an explanation.
Imagine if you, as an individual, expressed your political views on Facebook, and a group of people came to your business, camped in your lobby and demanded you be fired. Take it a step further and imagine they went to your bank and demanded your branch manager close your accounts and cancel your mortgage, destroying your net worth. That's the threat to a small business. Your kids will go hungry and all you want to do is sell games or granola, and since we're not culture warriors, you won't always see acts of heroism. Being a Switzerland in the culture wars is a tricky proposition.