After the Little Tin Soldier went out of business, people in the Twin Cities gaming community held our breaths: would someone else take over? Would one of Don Valentine’s former employees buy the business from him? Would we all need to shift permanently to some other FLGS? It was a nervous few months.
In the end, Neil Cauley, a former employee of Don’s, bought the store. Rising from the ashes of the Tin, Neil dubbed his new store Phoenix Games. If I remember right, it started at 909 West Lake Street and eventually moved into the 901 West Lake Street storefront when Woodcraft Hobbies went out of business.
Neil did a pretty good job of making the store friendlier and more customer-centric than the Tin had been. He actually got rid of games that had been accumulating dust for years. I remember him going out of his way to order things that customers wanted. I think he banned smoking in the store, or at least cut down on it, because I remember Phoenix being much less cough-worthy than the Tin. (Perhaps the Phoenix had grown tired of fire and smoke.) A big deal was that he cleaned up the basement and made it into pretty decent gaming space, so much so that I remember folks actually preferring to use the downstairs space over the upstairs.
I went away from the Twin Cities for many years. When I finally came back, a decade or so later, I naturally visited Phoenix again. I discovered that the gaming space had again changed configuration, with long gaming tables (almost entirely devoted to miniatures gaming) running parallel, on either side, of shelves containing many, many landscapes for wargaming. Lots of folks playing Warhammer — seemed like every time I got to 901 W. Lake, there was some kind of Warhammer tournament going on. Or maybe it was just lots of people painting together, and that all runs together in my mind.
My favorite thing about the Phoenix of this era — the later 2000s — is that the store had a great selection of used games. A huge grab-bag, to be sure, with long boxes (of the comics variety) crammed tight with a very random mix of different old games. But the prices were great, and there were some real treasures to be found. I could be nearly sure to find some wonderful old supplement, adventure or just weird geegaw for a few dollars, which was especially great because that’s often all I had to spend on games at that time.
Eventually, Neil closed the 901 West Lake Street location. But as I mentioned before, Phoenix did not go out of business. Neither are they purely online. As their website notes, they have open tables for gaming. I visited their location, in Minnetonka, a few years ago. It was fairly small, with probably about a third or a quarter as much space for gaming as the Lake Street location had. Nonetheless, a pretty pleasant place for gaming; they’re quite thoroughly in business, and from what I’ve seen, probably one of the best FLGSs in the western Cities.
Neil had a Phoenix Games store in Burnsville before taking over the Little Tin Soldier space in about 1996 or 1997. I remember gaming at the Burnsville location in the summer of 1993, and asking him questions about gaming with Arneson.