Sometime during the 1996 primary season, I decided to pay a visit to Excalibur Hobbies in Malden Center. The shop had been my go-to place for all things role-playing during high school and my early college years, but fell by the wayside after my undergrad wanderings settled into the Allston-Cambridge-Somerville axis (a.k.a. the Used Vinyl Triangle). Backtracking from Wellington to Malden and the longish walk from the station to the store had become more of a hassle than it was worth, especially once a new crop of more conveniently located gaming stores began popping up in the wake of the Magic: The Gathering craze.
I’m not sure what compelled me to return to Excalibur on that occasion, apart from the hope of finding the either the Dark Future or Adeptus Titanicus box sets still taking up space in the store’s discount bin. Both were long gone when I got there, but everything else about the place was the same as it had been during my last visit in 1992. Any material acknowledgement of the changes that had taken place in the hobby since then were well concealed by the same ultra-dense array of unsold inventory dating back to the Carter Era. Stray sourcebooks from discontinued lines, supplements from multiple editions past, and materials from long defunct publishers still collected dust and accumulated further sun damage on the shelves.
Whether the store’s overwhelming sense of stasis was accidental or deliberate, it was extremely unsettling. I had covered a lot of developmental ground since the first time I’d set foot in the place, a couple weeks after my mom’s death. Excalibur, however, had remained fixed in a moment, right down to the magazines racked by the window. It seems silly for a twenty-four year old to think of themselves as some sort of wizened font of wisdom, but in those eight years I’d gone through grief and anger and punk and metal and more personal transitions than I could’ve ever imagined at the moment the cop showed up at my aunt’s door around midnight on November 30, 1988 and said “I’m sorry to notify you…”
Yet here I was, back at one of the early steps of that journey, with little indication anything had changed.
I ended up picking up a hard plastic blistercase (remember those?) of offbeat Talisman fantasy figures and a discounted copy of the boxed Death on the Reik module for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay before making an exit.
There was nothing left on my schedule except waiting for Maura to get off work at UMB, so I sat down to review my finds in the (now repurposed) McCormack Hall cafeteria. Actually, it was the little annex off to the side of the caf, where they’d tried to squeeze half a dozen tables, a bank of vending machines, and a repeatedly vandalized widescreen TV into what had originally been a place to store extra chairs.
Flipping through the convoluted adventure materials and examining the various lead figures (soothsayer, faerie, illusionist) began to induce a fit of extreme queasiness. The reek of frying medium and the TV’s non-stop, overload election coverage didn’t help, but mostly it came from a subtle but growing sense of post-traumatic stress. Everything felt wrong, and the more I tried to concentrate on the stuff in front of me, the stronger that feeling became.
So I threw it all back into the bag and went to the library to flip through some old collections of movie reviews instead.
The next (and last) time I visited Malden Center was around my thirtieth birthday. I’d acquired a car and a real job by then, and long since given up the mysteries of the city (and hassles of public transportation) for the familiar rhythms of suburban life. I had to meet Maura in town for some reason and decided it would be “easier” to do the 134/Orange Line combo rather than deal with parking and navigating Boston’s surface roads. The bus schedule left me with ample time to kill, so I decided to kill it by checking out some of my old haunts.
I had to walk past the storefront twice before realizing that Excalibur had been replaced by a tanning salon. It wasn’t a shock, though I had harbored dim hopes of scoring some out-of-print 40k vehicles and figures. Even temporal stasis has a shelf life, it seems.
The New England Comics store around the corner was still in business, though sporting a radically different floorplan than the one I remembered. They were also having a seasonal sale, so I picked up a deeply discounted copy of the Black Canary Archives while I was there. I started to read it while waiting for a northbound Red Line train to arrive, at which point a scuffy dude who had apparently been doing Listerine shots (neat, no chaser) parked himself distressingly close to me on the bench before leaning in for a better view of the book.
“She ain’t half bad lookin! Is she a supah hookah?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I responded, because I honestly couldn’t think of anything better to say.