by CHRIS ROGERS
Traditionally, a storefront is just that: the front of a store where books, wedding dresses, or skeins of yarn are showcased in big windows. However, a number of businesses have popped up in Winona in recent years whose displays look a little different: children stacking foam blocks, Magic the Gathering players dueling it out, and co-workers exclaiming, “We were so close!”
Laura Slavey’s office is right next to a tire swing. She and her husband own The Playground and The Batter’s Box, a pair of businesses at the Winona Mall the main offering of which is not retail goods or professional services, but a place for people to play. In the case of The Playground, those people are children; their parents pay for a membership and an access code that gets them into the indoor playground. “It’s a nice option to get the kids moving,” Andrea Erickson said while her four children went around and around on said tire swing. “There’s so many options in the summer, but not so many this time of year.”
Downtown, nearly half of Pipe Dream Toys owner Brent Nelson’s store is now lined with folding tables — dedicated space for customers to play the fantasy card game Magic and the sci-fi, make-your-own-miniatures game, Warhammer. Nelson is getting out of kids' toys. “Amazon pretty much killed that market,” he said. Instead, the other half of his storefront, the side that still has retail shelves, is full of Warhammer kits, Warhammer paint, and Magic expansion packs. “This last year was probably the worst year we’ve ever had, by far,” Nelson said of toy sales. Normally, the holiday shopping season is when toy shops make their best money. Not so this year, Nelson said. “I knew we had to change,” he stated.
Nelson just purchased RiverQuest Games, the Lafayette Street store that — up until its closure last month — dedicated its large space as a place for people to gather to play and buy sci-fi/fantasy games. Now, Nelson is hosting a similar schedule of game nights for the community of local gamers. It’s free to come play, and the gaming room is open into the evenings. “So far it’s a pretty good response,” Nelson said. Giving people a place to play gets people more into the games, brings people into the store, and sometimes turns Warhammer fans into Magic players and vice versa, Nelson said. “Before there were around 50-60 guys in the area, tops … but now with the Magic — there seems to be a lot more interested in that,” he stated. “They all seem to at least buy something even if it’s just a snack or a drink,” Nelson said.
Further west on Third Street, one office inside Craig King’s storefront looks ransacked and vaguely post-apocalyptic. There are papers and office equipment strewn everywhere. King conceals clues all around the room, puts one key inside a locked container, then hides the key to that container. One group of customers just solved the puzzle, another group is coming, and King is “resetting” the room.
King is the co-owner of C&C Xscape Room, were people pay to get “trapped” in rooms and see how long it takes them to find clues and figure out how to escape. The best times for “The Office” and “The Hideout” are written on a whiteboard in the foyer. Some rooms, like the “Butcher Shop” seem to be set in a horror movie. Local companies have been using the escape room challenges as team-building exercises. They literally get locked in a room and have to work together to get out.
King and his partner build out new rooms every few months with whatever they can find or fabricate, and staff give customers hints. “We’re a disposable income place, so when [our customers’] disposable income goes down, our business does, too,” King said.
Like Slavey’s playground, King’s business is based on others in larger cities. “I’ve done a few escape rooms, and we were hanging out at the campfire one night — we had just done one in La Crosse — and we said, ‘Why don’t we start one?’”
Asked how she got the idea, Slavey, a mother of three, explained, “There was nowhere for our kids to go. We would go around Mernards and look at the Christmas decorations when it was really cold, just for something to do.” She visited other pay-to-play indoor playgrounds in the Twin Cities and thought she would try it out in Winona.
The Playground’s business model has an advantage some of the others do not: it is unstaffed. Customers buy memberships and access codes online or from a computer kiosk in the mall, sign a waiver, and are responsible for supervising their own children while they are there.
Running The Batter’s Box has been more challenging. “That’s a really specific market for people,” Slavey said. People do not tend to just walk in off the street for some batting practice, but the manager of the cages has done a good job of hosting special events, workshops, and clinics that bring people in, she explained.
Slavey said she expects there will be more businesses like hers in the future, but also said that towns much smaller than Winona might have a hard time supporting similar operations. “I get emails from people all the time: ‘Can you give us pointers on how to open up a business? We’re in a town of 5,000,’” Slavey said. Good luck with that, she tells them.
“I think it’s a great idea,” customer Dave Kesler said of The Playground’s business model as his grandchildren scooted around on toy cars. “I would think it’s hard to make a dollar. It’s a nice little addition. I would imagine they’re not getting rich.” On the other hand, he added, “If your kids are that age anyway, it’s a nice way to hang out and make a buck.”
Designing rooms, watching people try to figure them out, and joking around with customers is the fun part for King. “I buy what I can, engineer the rest,” he says of the rooms and puzzles. “But that’s what I’ve been doing most of my life, is figuring out how to build stuff.”
King works at a local tool and die shop, too. “That’s my normal job,” he said. “This is what I’m doing to hopefully not have a job.”