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.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.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.