The Business of Board GamesCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | How a beloved Greenwich Village cafe is staying in play. Published: September 01, 2020
Programming note: This article is part of a weekly column on small businesses in New York during COVID-19. To get #SmallBizSpotlight articles straight to your inbox, sign up here. You'll receive one email every Tuesday afternoon. Thanks for reading!
Happy first day of September! At this point in the pandemic, many of us have worked out the kinks of our largely at-home existence: home office ergonomics, the best lighting for a Zoom meeting, how to cultivate sourdough starter. “Quarantine life” is no longer a novelty — it’s just, well, life. But as acclimatized as I’ve become on paper, I’m wracked with a near-constant longing for the intimacy of our pre-COVID world: close conversations, nonchalant hugs, touching surfaces like it was nothing (because it was nothing).
As much as we innovate new ways of existing in space with each other, there are certain things that just don’t translate. Among the small business owners I’ve spoken with, the ones who are thriving seem to have recognized what can, and more importantly, what can’t, transfer online. This week, I spoke with one of those owners: Greg May, founder of The Uncommons, a beloved board game cafe in the heart of Greenwich Village that’s paused social programming for the foreseeable future. Keep reading to learn how he’s keeping the doors open — and the best board game for curbing quarantine fatigue.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the inspiration behind The Uncommons?
When I first moved to New York, one of the things I found really enjoyable was a board game meet-up group that met near NYU. We would regularly have 30-plus people, but we were forced to meet in dark bars. And they [the bars] would be reluctant about our attendance, of course, and it was awkward hauling all these games around. I had visited a couple of board game cafes around the world and had been surprised that there weren't any locally. I had never worked at a bar or a coffee shop, but I took a shot and formed a business plan.
Pre-COVID, what was the atmosphere in the cafe?
The Uncommons is pretty unique because of its density, even in New York City. We fit 64 people into about 800 square feet. And once you take out the counter, kitchen, and bathroom, what you're left with is a density that is unequal anywhere in the world that I'm familiar with, outside of parts of the Tokyo subway system where you're sitting shoulder to shoulder. We would fill up just about every night, and on weekends we would get a two- to three-hour wait to come in and sit down.
So the density was a big part of your charm.
Absolutely. We fit a giant store's worth of games into a tiny store, and it's not shoppable or browsable at all. All the retail is above shoulder height to allow us to seat more people. We are essentially running four businesses in one, but any one of the businesses wouldn’t be enough to handle the rent. You have your game rental business, your game retail business, the food and beverage side, and then there's the events. We would have an event or two or three or four just about every night of the week.
How many games do you have in the space?
We started with around 500, and after year one we had 1,000 in our collection. We've long since stopped counting. We don't calculate because across our stores, we cycle games in and out all the time. Between our locations, we have a couple thousand games.
Inside The Uncommons / Photography via Greg May/The Uncommons
What other locations do you have?
A few years ago I teamed up with the founder of The Brooklyn Strategist, a similar concept [to The Uncommons] over in Carroll Gardens. And whereas our store has this college bar feel, his is very family-oriented with a great after-school and summer camp program. I was really inspired by what he was doing. We'd each been trying to expand, and instead of competing, we decided to cooperate. I worked with him and another business partner to open up Hex and Company on the Upper West Side about three years ago, and then about a year ago, we opened another location in the Upper East Side. It's the first board game cafe in the city to have full liquor and a full kitchen.
So let's talk about the pandemic. How did the lockdown impact The Uncommons?
I happened to be out of town when the lockdown came and everything got real in March. I was at the most important convention for game store owners in Reno, Nevada. So I was trying to handle all this panic from staff and customers, all the cancellations, questions, everything from afar. And I was still out of town when I had to give the order [to staff] to shut down, which was really upsetting.
What’s happened with your staff?
We've lost a lot of staff who have gone home or just moved on. We credit ourselves on very low turnover among staff — I've had staff who've worked for me for four years. So that was the immediate impact, shutting down and watching staff go from March 15th on. For the next two months, we had no revenue. And then in May, I decided to reopen and make a go of it as a beer takeout and game retail place with limited hours. Our revenue has dropped by about 85 percent. Thankfully, our landlord has given us a pretty substantial rent decrease, and then we were able to get some PPP loans. We are in a relatively privileged position in a variety of ways. We have enough money in the bank to make it a while longer, but without tourism and with New York not allowing us to open for indoor seating yet, it's definitely going to be touch and go for the remainder of this year.
How has the community responded to your reopening?
Sadly, it's been pretty spotty. A lot of our regulars were NYU students, and they left for the semester. Another entire set was New Yorkers, actors and young professionals, who left town and moved home or retreated upstate. And without tourism, which was a huge part of our business, our regulars aren't there. We draw regulars from a few sets of the population, but none of them are around anymore. The small amount of neighborhood regulars are nice, but they don’t a business make.
Have you considered doing any sort of virtual programming?
Of course. And there is some good news here, actually. The Uncommons has its own issues because of its reliance on tourism and college students. But the Upper West Side Hex location was blessed with an enormous community of role-playing gamers and kids programming, and we immediately converted all of that online. Especially thanks to our staff, that store [Hex West] didn't close a single day.
What was the online conversion process like?
It presented a ton of challenges, [choosing] what systems [to use], getting computers and microphones and headsets at a time when deliveries were tough. But we were able to make that swap, and our customers came with us, and our communities have stuck together. It's worked out quite well, to the point where we're working on investing a bunch of resources into scaling that program up.
Were you surprised by how successful it was?
Yes and no. We've continued to be disappointed in how board games convert online. We tried, and continue to make small efforts, but it's pretty difficult and annoying to kids and even technologically capable adults. It's really hard to engage in the social aspects for most people who love board gaming. But role-playing games have always been okay online because they're so social — they are storytelling games, with a book and a small number of players rolling dice and going on an adventure. Video and voice are enough to play [them] pretty well.
You mentioned you got PPP loans — was that in the first or second round?
Second round on all businesses. We had applied through a few different banks in the first round and hadn't heard back or made the cut. It was a very frustrating and bewildering few weeks. Lots of calls to banks and accountants and all sorts of stuff.
Can you elaborate on some of those frustrations?
Oh, God [laughs]. It was Kafkaesque. The rules kept changing. And it wasn't just us [who were confused], it was the banks themselves. No one knew how much, how it got paid back, what the forms looked like, what information you needed. And the same was true with unemployment... We were trying to figure out how best to support our employees, what the rules were. It wasn’t just employees who had trouble reaching out to the unemployment office, businesses did as well. Unemployment comes indirectly from the employer: we enter a fund, and once it's drained, we're liable for it. So we have some unknown liabilities moving into the future for employees who left or were let go. We're still on the hook for some of that.
After those experiences, are you reluctant to apply for more government aid?
No, thankfully. We are much luckier than a lot of businesses that I talk to. I reach out to tons of businesses — coffee shops, bars, restaurants, retailers, you name it, in our neighborhood and far beyond — so I am familiar with a lot of the hustles that other businesses have gone through. Like I said, we have some luxuries in that we have deep relationships across a wide variety of banking institutions, between me and my business partners and our other businesses. So there were six different banks that we could call upon. We have a CPA, an accountant, and a bookkeeper. A lot of folks don't have those resources. I also have the luxury of being really tech savvy, so I was able to follow all these updates, whereas I know a lot of small businesses aren't able to. I've been reading and watching for the next round of PPP possibilities, and I would certainly apply. It doesn't seem all that helpful or useful to talk to the government about it directly.
Not being able to run our businesses in any realistic way is devastating. We can put up with that for a little while, but not much longer.
In a perfect world, what information would the government be giving you?
Some clarity would be very, very helpful. None of us [small business owners] expect it to happen this week, but we at least want to know when we can start hiring. I'd like a month's lead time. The city did do something cool, which was launching the outdoor seating program. However, after we spent around $700 to set up planters that met the criteria to allow us to use our [sidewalk and street] space, the city changed the rules and required you to have essentially a permanent installation, [which would be] a much larger construction. It would have required us to throw away all the work we had done, and it did not seem worth spending upward of $1,000 while the regulations keep changing. We threw in the towel. It was very frustrating to have the city come by and issue us a citation pulling our street seating away, after spending so much money. So it's been really hard on small businesses in New York City because we don't know. We reached the end of the phases, and the government seemed to give up. And there's nothing that a business can do, and there's no clear criteria. Now they're just throwing up their hands. That is almost inexcusable to businesses because we're still on the hook for rent, we're still on the hook for employees, and not being able to run our businesses in any realistic way is devastating. We can put up with that for a little while, but not much longer.
Thinking long term, how do you think this crisis will impact your community and your business?
I'm an optimist by nature. I like to think that there'll be a Roaring Twenties resurgence after this. I don't see it happening before the end of the year, of course. I don't know what early 2021 brings. New York City is so reliant on tourism and office workers and density. It's tricky. One day at a time.
What’s your take on the uptick in adult puzzles during the pandemic? Is there overlap with the board gaming community?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, it was frustrating, because we saw the demand for puzzles, and at the same time, all the manufacturers and distributors that we worked with were out of them, so it caught everyone off guard, and the factories were closed. We ordered a lot of puzzles in early March, and some of them didn't fill until last month. So that was unfortunate. But we love puzzles. Our Upper West Side location probably carries the largest selection in the city, maybe in the state. I haven't seen anyone with more selection.
What do you think it is about puzzles that captured the zeitgeist?
They're calming. You're bored, you're at home, you're looking for something to do for a long time that's not a screen. Board games are great, but they require a bunch of people. You're sick of your roommates after the first week [of quarantine], it doesn't matter whether you're married or your roommate's your cat or your kid. You're looking for something to do alone. So it didn't surprise me at all that jigsaw puzzles got big. I was more surprised that coloring books, which had been so big a few years ago, also didn't come back. I thought that people would have demand for that.
Last question: What’s the ultimate game for quarantine?
One game that I really like for quarantine is called “Welcome to Your Perfect Home” [editorial note: email [email protected] to buy it from The Uncommons]. It plays very well over Zoom, even with a large number of people, even with people who don't all have a copy of the game. And it's a game that most people haven't played before — it's only a couple of years old and from an indie designer. It's pretty cool.
How to help:
- Visit The Uncommons at 230 Thompson Street for takeout beer and retail (open 10AM - 6PM, Fri - Sun)
- To buy a particular game or puzzle, email Greg at [email protected] to arrange pick-up or delivery (and if he doesn’t have it on hand, he’ll happily special-order it for you)
- Check out the online events at Hex West
Until next time,