RPG history: The Little Tin Soldier

Photo of 901 and 909 West Lake Street, Minneapolis, in 2013

901 and 909 West Lake Street, Minneapolis, as they appear today

When I got into gaming (somewhere around 1980, plus or minus a year), at first it was just with friends. My gaming really kicked into high gear, though, when I visited the Little Tin Soldier.

It was located at 909 West Lake Street, near the corner of Lake and Bryant. Its next-door neighbor, right on the corner at 901 West Lake, was Woodcraft Hobbies, who sold model railroad equipment, model airplanes, kites, balsa wood and plastic models of all sorts. The two stores sold a lot of similar things — paints and some kinds of models, for example — so you might think they’d be in competition, but in fact they always seemed to have a collegial relationship. I remember that a lot of people were customers of both stores.

The windows facing the street were big and (if I remember right) single-glazed, making the store somewhat cold in winter. And I always remember the somewhat science fictional sound of city buses passing by the windows. Much of the store had a patina of age to it, with a lot of dust; I remember games that had been on display as long as I’d been going there, never sold or discounted. The owner, Don, occasionally smoked cigars in the store, so I remember a faint smell of tobacco.

Floorplan of the Little Tin Soldier, as I remember it

Floorplan of the Little Tin Soldier, as I remember it (not to scale)

The first floor of the Little Tin Soldier (or as I soon learned to call it, the Tin) was separated more or less into four quarters, two nearer the front door and the street, two nearer the rear door and the parking lot.

The quadrant to your right, as you came in the front door, was where most of the games were displayed. The games were all on big tiered racks, not terribly well-suited to finding things (everything was face out, so it meant flipping through the stock if you wanted to find a particular thing; the flipping can’t have been good for the structural integrity of the thin books and pamphlets; and some games were too big to even fit in the slots). RPGs, wargames, boardgames, etc. were loosely separated into sections; there was, for example, a big D&D section, beginning closest to the front door, next to the window. Tekumel and Chainmail were nearby. But I think it was also separated more by publisher, so (if I’m remembering this right) SPI’s wargames and RPGs were near each other.

Photo of Little Tin Soldier marquee as it appears today

Little Tin Soldier marquee as it appears today

Across from the game displays was the glass service counter, with lots of dice and minis on display. As you came in the back door, the quadrant to your right (and thus next to the counter) was all lead minis hanging in racks.

The quadrant to your left as you came in the back door was the gaming space, separated from the rest of the store by big pieces of particleboard (but with a big gap, forming the entryway). The space contained a pop machine (which is how I still have a vivid memory of when pop cost $0.50/can), tables and chairs. The tables were of the folding variety, presumably because they were cheaper, but also because they folded up the tables every week for Thursday night naval gaming on the carpet — huge engagements that used the entire gaming space. And there were a few dozen folding chairs, many with broken seats. Gamers eventually started bringing their own chairs, usually labeled to make it clear whose it was; you knew someone was a member of the gaming elite if they left a padded folding chair with their name on it in the store. These personal chairs still got broken; there was a minor conflict between the ‘elite’ and people who used the chairs regardless of whose name was on it.

Permanently affixed to the wall, in one corner of the gaming space, was a big chart that looked like a CRT. I remember it mentioning elves, cavalry and other fantasy army-sounding troop types. I’m pretty sure it was for someone’s Tolkienesque miniatures game, but the chart remains a mystery to me: what game was it for? Who created it? Why did it, above other games, get to be a permanent fixture in the store? I have a couple exceedingly dim memories, but I don’t know for sure.

Behind the minis, again separated by a piece of particleboard, and immediately to the right as you came in the back door, were the stairs into the basement. The basement was a rather forbidding place, dank and not particularly clean. But it was also where the bathroom was, so at least passing through was a necessity. And when the gaming space got too crowded, the basement was overflow space. Going down there was something I only did when necessary.

The bathroom had scads and scads of graffiti written on it. It was graffiti that you might expect grognards and gamers to write: geeky, often military in nature, sometimes very literate, sometimes horribly crude. I remember a “Killroy was here” or two, and lots of other things. A few that I remember:

Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin

I always thought that one was a Tekumel reference, until I realized it’s sort of meta-graffiti. I could also swear I remember graffiti that said “Mene, mene, tekel, upmooi”, but I have no idea what that would mean or if it even existed.

Why are the streets of Paris lined with trees? So the German soldiers can march in the shade.

Military? Check. Historically geeky? Check. Offensive? Check.

Onward Arrakis soldiers, going as to war

And I remember that there were little white blotches here and there; some people apparently even used whiteout. Perhaps some of the graffiti was too offensive, even by the lewd standards there.

I have many memories of hanging out at the Tin during summers, listening to the grognards arguing while I drew maps for my RPG campaigns. I remember playing FITS/Dawn Patrol during the occasional waves of popularity the game enjoyed. I remember going down the street to the SuperAmerica for snacks, or going the other way into Uptown for Zantigo. I remember RPG night on Fridays, and occasionally going to naval wargaming Thursday nights. I have a lot of personal memories regarding the Tin, but those are getting too… personal.

I’ve found references online that the Tin was originally La Belle Alliance, but I was never there for any prior incarnation. In fact, not too many years after I started going to the Tin, Don got out of the business (or at least out of the Tin — I have no idea where he landed after that). I remember there being a few tense weeks as all the Tin frequenters wondered where Twin Cities gaming would roost. In the end, a former employee of Don’s bought the place and a new gaming store rose from the ashes. More on that later.


Comments

RPG history: The Little Tin Soldier — 25 Comments

    • I hope I haven’t painted it either too rosy or too bleakly… I wouldn’t say it was better than today’s gaming scene, just different. But worth experiencing, yes.

  1. That was quite a time back then. To add to the nostalgia, I was playing Rail Baron last night (at the Source) – why oh why do I remember payouts and the distance from Milwaukee to St Paul (4 dots)? Unpacking last fall, I found my FITS pilots as well – and my folding chair is still here – with my name painted on the back AND under the seat, so it was always visible.

    I recall going to the Tin (the name changed pretty quickly) when it was across the street, next to Bryant-Lake Bowl, to get the newest D&D supplement and miniatures. I believe Don moved back to Colorado…

    • My FITS pilot book, with all two pilots worth saving, is probably somewhere in my parents’ attic… but I never had my own chair. :)

      When was the Tin across the street? I don’t remember that! And thanks for the info on Don. There’s so much history to be filled in.

      • Tin was across the street, in the hole in the wall with no gaming space, from 1975 (maybe earlier) through 1977 or so.

          • Tom moved the original store, ‘La Belle Alliance” to the Bryant – Lake intersection in 1975; the new store was named “The Little Tin Soldier Shoppe”, and was (I think) the third ‘bay’ in from the corner, as Alan says nest to the bowling alley. The shop went from Lake Street at the front (which was all retail) to the tiny parking lot out the back door; the ‘game room’ had a two by six array of 30″ by 60″ folding tables, which meant that there was pretty much only enough room for one game at a time. Since it had to be booked well in advance, most gamers back in those days had games in their homes as a result.

            After Tom dies in 1977, Don bought the store and the inventory, and eventually moved across the street after the Bryant – Lake Bowl wanted to expand their frontage. Don took the sign, as you have in the photos, and ran the store for a while until it ran down; Neal Cauley then bought the store and the inventory, and renamed it Phoenix Games to celebrate the rebirth from the ashes.

            A short potted history, but there we are…

            yours, Chirine

            • Wow! Thanks for filling in so much. The part about about La Belle Alliance is interesting, because if I’m thinking of the right storefront, it was a hobby store (comics and related) for a year or so, about two years ago.

              Do you remember Tom’s surname? (Or Don’s, for that matter? I’ve forgotten.) (And Neil’s personal name is “Neil”, not “Neal”, as I recall.)

              The sign for the Tin was moved across the street from La Belle Alliance? Again — wow, so much I didn’t know. Feels like you, Alan or someone(s) else should write more of that history somewhere…

              • Happy to be of help- sorry to be so late (work schedule) and for the typos (dyslexia). Yes, I’m pretty sure that the old ‘Tin’ was rented out as the shop you describe.

                I’ll have to look in my files for Tom and Don’s last names; I have them someplace in the morass… :)

                I’d be happy to help somebody write a local history-of-gaming; I’m probably not the one to do it, due to lack of skill and ability at the keyboard. :)

                yours, jeff

                • Perhaps just occasional blog posts? There are huge gaps in my knowledge of local gaming where I wouldn’t even know where to start, much less where the holes are.

                  • Again, my apologies for being late to the party on this. I don’t know; may be asked me questions, and I can do some of my “Readers’ Requests” blog posts?

                    yours, chirine

              • Tom was my father (Tom Miller). Don was his high school best friend Don Valentine My Father passed in the late 80’s

  2. I’ve forgotten Tom’s last name; Don’s was Valentine.

    I was down at Lake & Bryant late last month; the renovations on the Tin and Woodcraft(nearer the corner; absorbed by Neil into Phoenix) are done. Woodcraft will be/is an Irish bar; the Tin is a tobacconists. Amusingly, despite full facelift on the building, the Tin sign is still up on top, cannon and all. Apparently, the mark is permanent. (It was amusing to see that up over the space when it was, for a while, an erotic lingerie shop.)

  3. On the history of gaming in the cities, a major early piece (mid 70s) was “The Old Guard,” a gathering of grognards every Sunday in the meeting room of the “Model City Police Precinct,” a storefront just below the Black Forest Inn on Nicollet. Gaming ran 1pm to 10pm (or later – but it was school night for me), and made the lack of FLGS gaming space tolerable. Fair number of college students and/or Vietnam war vets back then – played a lot of SPI games (we’d place club orders for a discount), Avalon Hill of course – even a AH Football Strategy campaign every fall, and that was where I learned Fight in the Skies and was introduced to D&D.

      • The group had originally met at the Fifth Precinct station at Lake and Bryant, just around the corner on Bryant from the Little Tin’s original location; they moved along with the police when the city moved the station to Nicollet. I used to live just out back of the station on First Avenue, and may of the Usual Suspects would come over to my house after the community room at the station closed to continue their games.

        yours, chirine

  4. I used to work at “The Tin” back around 84/85.
    Don Valentine had TWO stores. One in St. Paul on the Midway. It had a more-often-than-not completely unused game table.

    The Tin was a fascinating place. Don had placed an ad in Dragon Magazine in 79/80 and people driving west to GenCon would stop in because of it.

    Don was NOT an avid gamer. He did play Acquire (“It is the Queen of Games”, he’d say), and sometimes a Napoleonic Diplomacy style game. I never saw him play anything else.

    He had a public coffee pot – yikes. He liked coffee with chickory in it. He would drink a half cup, pour the rest back in the pot, give it a swirl, and pour himself a new fresh cup of hot steaming joe. Others, not knowing the horror of the “dump and refill” would then imbibe. Ugh.

    There were so many quirks to the place. It was a lot of fun working there. It was cool because he had a file box with index cards of all the customers in it, like: Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s home addresses and phone numbers. Awesome!

    • I had totally forgotten about the St. Paul Tin. I think I went there once or maybe twice. Not seeing the value, I stuck to the Minneapolis store. (And I think it biased me, for a while, against that new store in St. Paul that was attracting everyone. It was called the Sorts or the Sore or the Origin or something.)

      I never saw any ads for the Tin… Well, except for it being mentioned in some of the mega-ads in the Dragon. Like, the Armory would have ads that would mention every store in the US that sold D30s or whatever. I always assumed that Don didn’t see the need — and there probably wasn’t much of one, when I was going there, because the Tin was pretty much dominating the field.

      I could swear I saw Don play some other games… Didn’t he do Napoleonic miniatures once in a while? Or maybe I’m confusing him with other people who worked at the Tin.

      Never knew about the coffee pot! Good thing I don’t drink coffee. :)

      I’m really glad you and others are adding to the collective knowledge about the Tin. It’s an important locus of gaming history, I think, and it’s good that we’re preserving information about it (good, bad or quirky). Thank you!

    • Hey, before I forget: do you know what that big CRT-looking thing permanently affixed to the wall, near the pop machine, was? Was it a CRT? I recall it listing various kinds of fantasy armies in a cross-referenced grid, but I don’t think I ever got a solid answer as to what it was for.

  5. I remember LaBelle Alliance/Little Tin Solider Shoppe and even still have some of the little magazines they used to publish in the early/mid-1970s. I remember the owner’s name was Dick but I can’t recall his last name. Anyone else remember Dick?

    • Just re-read this post and the comments. Fascinating. Wargaming as a 14 year-old in a smoky La Belle Alliance (or maybe the Tin) late in Saturday nights in the mid-1970s amidst all the characters was an unforgettable experience.

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