I saw this in the paper today, and my heart just sank.
After 25 years, it's game over for Napoleon's
By DAVE TIANEN
Posted: Feb. 9, 2005
Napoleon's has begun its last march.
Early next month, Napoleon's, the Shorewood game store that has been a haven for would-be wizards and closet field marshals since 1979, will close its doors. Owner Fritz Buchholtz says a combination of personal health problems, waning passion and competition from the Internet have blended to bring Napoleon's to its Waterloo.
The end for the hobby store at 3948 N. Maryland Ave. has come relatively quickly. Napoleon's had its best year ever in 2000; at one time, the store, with its diverse blend of fantasy and military miniatures, historical board games, puzzles, poker supplies, collectible chess sets, role-playing games, military history books, collectible swords and daggers, bingo supplies and military memorabilia, was one of the largest game stores in the Midwest.
With its game rooms in the basement and first floor, Napoleon's also has been a longtime meeting place for players from all over Milwaukee and even Chicago.
Ben Checota, 36, has been coming to Napoleon's to play games since he was 13.
"I think it's an irreplaceable void," he said. "There's always the Internet to buy things, there's always the hole-in-the-wall hobby shop that might sell a couple of miniatures here and there, but the overall sense of community you get with Napoleon's is something none of those can match and you're never going to replace.
"You've got everything.. . . You've got construction workers, office types like myself, college professors, police. Our group had any kind of profession you could think of. I did meet a lot of people through Napoleon's that I did things outside of gaming with. I lift weights at the Y with one of my good friends who is actually my neighbor now; I met him through Napoleon's. The guys I regularly play poker with I met through Napoleon's. One guy I regularly go hunting with up north I met through Napoleon's."
A place to throw fits, dice
Though the game rooms at Napoleon's may have forged lasting friendships, that doesn't mean the competition wasn't intense. Buchholtz remembers a Chicago attorney who, after a bad run of dice rolls, picked up his dice, walked out of the building and threw the offending ivories underneath a steamroller that was grading Capitol Drive.
"That wasn't the first time," Buchholtz recalled. "You go up on top of this building, there's all kinds of dice. There are. People run outside . . . throw the dice on top of the building.. . . I know there's a broken pair of glasses up there. My best friend and I are known for screaming at each other down there during a game and then going out for lunch."
Napoleon's also was a breeding ground for practical jokes and unauthorized weapons research.
"We snuck out a cannon," Buchholtz recalled, "a Grasshopper, a real cannon, when we were over on Downer Ave. We snuck it outside and we were going to set it off. We filled it full of gunpowder and newspaper wadding so it wouldn't hurt anything. What we didn't realize was that the concussion when we set it off between these two apartment buildings would break about a half-dozen windows.
"We ran it downstairs and hid it in the basement. The police came.
" 'Fritz, I got a report that you're firing a cannon outside.'
" 'Officer . . . what cannon?'
"The policeman just looked at us. 'I know you've done it. Don't do it again.' "
Then there was the time that a game regular and Milwaukee homicide detective named Dave showed up at the store with a quarter-stick of dynamite and decided to entertain his friends with an impromptu munitions demonstration.
"Of course, it wasn't real, but we didn't know that," Buchholtz said. "We're in my office, three of us, and Dave takes it, lights the fuse and tosses it into the office. There was a guy in there - Greg Hundt, who's one of my best friends, still is one of my best friends - within seconds he jumped behind me, and held me in front of him as a shield. I realized then how much I meant to him.
"The other fellow climbed right up the filing cabinets. Of course, there was nothing. Dave laughed so hard I thought he was going to die."
Al McGuire's tin soldiers
You never quite knew who you would meet at Napoleon's. One time, a guy in a complete suit of armor walked into the store. If there was a Civil War re-enactment going on in the area, it would not be unthinkable to run into Johnny Reb or Billy Yank.
The late Al McGuire was a frequent visitor to Napoleon's, coming in to consult with Buchholtz about his collection of toy soldiers.
"Al was always terrific to me and my family," Buchholtz said. "Al would come in here and he'd tell me, 'Fritz, if you can tell me who makes these toy soldiers, I'll buy you lunch.' He'd bring the soldiers down, I'd tell him the company and then he'd reach in his pocket and bring out two McDonald's cheeseburgers. That's the truth."
Rising prices, aging market
As game fads came and went, Napoleon's adapted and thrived. Napoleon's rode the crest of the Dungeons & Dragons boom, the Magic the Gathering collectible card game mania and the Texas Hold 'Em poker revival of recent years.
But the forces that would undo Napoleon's also gained momentum.
Metal miniature soldiers went from 35 cents a figure to $2. The price of the biggest historical board games crept up to $100. When Avalon Hill Game Co. was bought by Hasbro, historical board-gaming never quite recovered. And the audience for historical gaming grew steadily older without younger players moving into the hobby.
Video and computer games cut into the market further.
"I opened this store because I liked to play Napoleonic war-gaming," Buchholtz said. "So I needed a place to play. The interest in lead miniatures just isn't what it was 20 years ago. Even guys my own age will say, 'Fritz, have you been out to play that new Rome computer game?' They can play it instantaneously without having to paint an army.
"2000 was our very best year. Five years ago . . . and then it just started to drop off. I had guys come in here my age and say to me, 'Fritz, you're really going to have a tough time with this new computer age-stuff.' I didn't want to believe it, but they were right."
At 58, Buchholtz is hoping to raise enough money to start over in some other enterprise. Starting Tuesday, everything in the store will go on sale at half-price.
"The cost of business keeps going up, but the business keeps going down," Buchholtz said. "Most of the game stores in the Milwaukee area that I know of, their owners have secondary incomes. They have full-time jobs doing other things, and I don't have that. This is how I spent my life."
It's not the loss of business that seems to sadden Buchholtz as much as the friends he'll miss - that, and working with his sons.
"I've been contacting all of the guys who have their armies stored here," he said. "Guys I've been gaming with for 25 years, telling them they have to come and get their armies. Most of them are absolutely in shock. 'Where am I going to play? Where am I going to keep my army?'
"I don't know what's going to happen to these guys when we're gone. I'm just going to miss my customers terrible. That's going to be the hardest part for me."