Nostalgia ( Part I )

A D&D Classic – Dungeon Module Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits

I went to the art store the other day (playing a support role while art shopping was being done). They say that scent is the sense most closely tied to memory. When I walk into a modern art store of a sufficient shape and size (in this case a Blick, previously a something else) it takes me back to a very specific location in time and space — a store called Hobby Works, that used to be in the outdoor Laurel Mall.

The first time I experienced this, it took me a while to think of why they shared so much in the ambience, but let’s face it — Hobby Works had a huge inventory overlap with an art store (and I hadn’t been to a Pearl or anything like that when I was a kid and first went to Hobby Works, so it imprinted on me well before any of that). A good deal of the “hobbies” in question were arts and crafts that could be found in an art store, and so the materials (and the aromas they emitted) were very similar. Paper and poster boards, foam core, notebooks in and out of plastic shrink wrap, pens, paint of various varieties (from watercolors to spray paint to Testor for models) — the wood pulp scent of the myriad product derived from trees countered with the more chemical smells of plastics (packaging and models) and solvents (paints) — it was like a library with a chemistry lab buried somewhere inside it, but only barely peaking out into the scent spectrum, until you went to certain parts of the store. I smell a hint of this sometimes when I go into our office and the art supply drawers are all open . . .

Hobby Works (being for “hobbies” versus “art”) obviously had many hobby supporting products. These were were shortcuts for creation: partially done arts (or in miniature) and crafts that were there to speed up processes needed to get to the end results in the hobbies. The hardcore could have done it from scratch (and some dedicated few did), but for the just slightly less obsessed there were rows and rows of partially assembled worlds (landscape trays, tiny fake trees, rails, roads, ponds, clouds, you name it) waiting to be combined into scale landscapes populated by the small vehicles, miniature buildings, tiny figures, and imagination.

In hindsight, it was an homage to the shortcut, the time saver — for most of these hobbies that were already about intense consumption of time and effort to make things that were not real — and for what? But at the same time, so many people used to do these physical practices of creation, and derived tremendous joy even if they didn’t make every bit and piece from scratch. The telling part (years later) is that likely, if they had to make everything from scratch, most would never have even started down that road that brought them so much joy . . . But being given those tiny packages of pre-created building blocks, they then happily completed the picture, with probably a lot more imagination than the person initially gluing the tiny trees together somewhere else had imbued their creations with.

There’s an analogy in there, somewhere . . .

Amusingly, aside from a short foray into model rockets for a year or so, and the occasional pinewood derby (for a few years in cub scouts) kits and accessories, most of my many, many trips to Hobby Works were really for shortcuts for the mind, versus the physical world — because Hobby Works was also the first place that I knew of locally (other than a few volumes at some bookstores) that sold role-playing games, and more specifically, supplements and modules. Sure, I remember that later, Crown Books, at some point, had 2nd edition D&D books for a short while, but in those days, even though they were in “book” form, such obscure tomes were not the content of bookstores, but they were a HOBBY. Borders and Barnes & Noble came much later.

I would often petition for time to go look around the store when we made our semi-frequent family shopping excursions up to Laurel Mall — and though the intense, expensive gas-driven RC car models at the front of the store stole the show visually, and occasionally the higher end model rocket kits tempted me to go back to those few moments of triumph (but more often failure) in parks around the DC area, it was the world of imagination that was contained in the shrink-wrapped magazine-like volumes with a variety of different styles of sometimes embarrassing fantasy art on the covers. Many trips were spent hungrily reading the splash text on the back covers, long before you could go online and seek “reviews” or spoilers about the different sourcebooks and adventures.

Then every so often — a precious one out of many of those trips, far less often than I would have liked — the alignment of money, parental permission, and persuasion would align so that I could actually BUY one of those precious modules (or *gasp* – a full sourcebook or rulebook!). And then my shortcut would be made complete. I could (and often did as a younger child) make up entire worlds in my own play. But a few years later, here were myriad worlds and stories that were partially made for you — with the combination of ideas fleshed out and rules and statistics already written down so that you and your friends could simply take it the rest of the way in the magical experience we called gaming: Reaping a fully built, mutual fantasy world for only a fraction of the work.

And that’s the long version of why I apparently will always think of Dungeons and Dragons when I walk into an art store.

— Doug

PS — I am pleased to say that although the exact location that so impacted my memories is closed, apparently the business is still going at a different location nearby!! –