Lory Aitken began playing Dungeons & Dragons with a few friends in a Chicago apartment.
It was 1975 and the game designed in Lake Geneva by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson was just beginning to attract followers after its release the year before.
Aitken, who enjoyed medieval history, swords and fantasy literature, had no idea at the time that the table-top role-playing game would lead her into a long career in gaming and put her behind the counter of what is now the oldest store in the state that specializes not in video games, but board and card games.
Pegasus Games has inspired players, developers, other retailers and even a comic strip. It also has helped make Madison a gaming hub that now includes eight area gaming stores, a game lab at UW-Madison and, in October, a convention at Monona Terrace scheduled to draw game developers from around the country.
And now, after a nearly 40-year run, Aitken, her brother-in law, Terry Aitken, and a longtime friend, Mark Anderson, want to sell their store to a new generation. They hope the new owners can pump more energy into the business and better use social media to promote and market Pegasus to current and new clientele who don’t need a computer or phone to enjoy a friendly but competitive game.
“I kept up with several generations, but I think the store would benefit from someone who knows how to do that kind of marketing and can take it into the next several decades,” said Lory Aitken, 62, who handles the store’s day-to-day operations.
“The industry has changed a lot and I have kind of just reached my limit of change. I have a personal war with electrons. We don’t get along. I can do marketing on Facebook but that’s about it. I think I’ve made three Instagram posts out of six tries.”
‘Hub of gaming’
Pegasus Games was founded in 1980 in Madison’s Downtown and is now a West Side staple for gamers of all ages who don’t need a screen, controller or even power to do battle with their game of choice. More than two dozen parties have already expressed interest in buying the business, located at Market Square Shopping Center along Odana Road, while a consultant has begun the process of evaluating the business in order to come up with a price.
That should help Aitken and her partners get a better read on who is serious about taking on the store, its inventory and longtime employees, like Steve Lemberg, who has worked at the 3,200-square-foot shop for 14 years.
Despite the shop being on the market, Lemberg said “it’s business as usual” and that the staff was still planning out events through the end of the year and even into 2020.
“It’s something we’ve talked a lot about for the last couple of years,” Lemberg, 44, said of putting the business up for sale. “It did not surprise me that there’s been a lot of people interested in buying it. The game community in the Madison area is huge. It’s really huge.”
Madison is flush with game stores. Some specialize in certain games while others can offer a wide range that can include board games, chess, mahjong, role-playing games and those that use miniature figurines.
Shops include Misty Mountain Games, which was founded in 2001 by Steve Port in Monona and is now at 4672 Cottage Grove Road, where it has a 5,000-square-foot space that includes 3,000 square feet filled with tables for gaming events.
Netherworld Games has been around for about 15 years and is located at 341 State St.
Warhammer, at 2990 Cahill Main Ste. 110 in Fitchburg, specializes in fantasy miniatures for gaming.
On top of a hill off of McKee Road just east of Verona Road in Fitchburg, a $3 million, 45,000-square-foot building that was completed last fall is home to Noble Knight Games, an online game retailer since 1997. The company has play space and a retail store, but most of the building is a warehouse filled with more than 300,000 board and card games.
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I’m Board! Games & Family Fun opened in Middleton in 2011 and, in late 2018, owner Bryan Winter opened a store at Prairie Lakes, a shopping center on Sun Prairie’s southwest side. Both stores, each about 3,000 square feet, offer a wide range of games but focus more on family board games.
“We all have our niches,” Winter said. “Madison is a real hub of gaming. The whole area is really, really dialed into the gaming scene and culture.”
For Pegasus Games, the journey began in a 400-square-foot retail space at 222 W. Gorham St. when students would play D&D at the UW-Madison student unions and in their homes. At the time, there were few stores that specialized in gaming.
In 1984, the shop moved to a slightly larger space at 444 State St. The Market Square location opened in 1989 and the Downtown store moved to a different State Street location but ultimately closed in 2002, primarily due to changes in gaming habits among college students, who made up the largest portion of its customer base.
“Every business operates kind of on a sine wave that goes up and down, up and down. And each time it goes down you have to decide what needs to be done to make it go back up again and I’ve worn myself out on that sine wave,” Aitken said. “So whoever takes over we’ll see what their energy level is and what they want to do and where they think they can make a push. I think there’s great potential here that I know I don’t have the energy to follow through with.”
Mike Holderman, 48, grew up on Madison’s East Side and began going to Pegasus Games when he was 8.
In 2012, he opened Mox Mania, a 1,200-square-foot store that focused solely on Magic: The Gathering, now a highly popular card game with a wizard theme first published in 1993. He quickly outgrew the space and, in 2014, moved to his current 4,000-square-foot location at 6649 Odana Road, across the street from Pegasus. About 30 percent of his customers work at Epic Systems Corp. in Verona.
“It grew quickly,” Holderman said. “Going into this market, we knew there were a lot of full-fledged games stores that did everything, so when I first opened I did a thing and tried to do that one thing really well.”
Holderman has diversified his shop to include more games in recent years, but Magic: The Gathering still accounts for most of his business and keeps his tables busy with regulars throughout the week and during tournaments and special events that can draw more than 100 players.
Even though his shop is near Pegasus, he hopes whoever buys Pegasus will maintain its business model and keep the store a destination for those who shun the video screen.
“They certainly helped plant the seed in Madison, in general, for gaming,” Holderman said. “There was a reason I went there when I was young because there were no other stores that carried the things they did. It’s a crazy history there.”
Salute to pioneers
The 1,000 square feet dedicated to retail at Pegasus is jammed with games and gaming accessories. An eight-drawer file cabinet is filled with thousands of Magic: The Gathering cards, shelves are dedicated to dice and card sleeves while the aisles include hundreds of board games with themes that include economics, war, horror, fantasy, development and those where the goal is to take over the world. There’s a section dedicated to games with a train theme while old-school games like Scrabble, cribbage, chess and mahjong also have their place on the shelves.
One section near the front of the store features Wisconsin board game developers, many of them from the Madison area and some of them customers at Pegasus. They include Willow Palecek, who created Escape from Tentacle City; Keith Matejka, owner and founder of Thunderworks Games; Ed Marriott who created Scoville, a board game with a hot pepper theme; Brett Myers, creator of Nanuk and Dual Powers; and Kane Klenko, who created Flatline, Fuse and Proving Grounds.
John Kovalic began going to Pegasus when he moved to Madison in 1984 to go to school. Kovalic, who wrote about gaming while working at the State Journal, went on to create his own games, has illustrated thousands of cards for the Munchkin game series and created his own comic strips including “Wildlife” and “Dork Tower.” Over the years, his “Dork Tower” comic strip has often made reference to Pegasus Games, its employees and customers. Only in Kovalic’s strips, the store is dubbed Pegasaurus.
“It occupies a very special place in Madison gaming history,” Kovalic said of Pegasus Games.
“There was a time when I could keep up with all of the new games coming out and now I can’t keep up with the number of new game companies coming out every month. It’s just a crazy time. It would be nice to see somebody come in (to Pegasus) who has the business acumen and the love of gaming to keep on top of things.”