James North has always struck me as one of the most social streets I’ve ever walked in Canada. Over the last decade or so, the neighbourhood has seen a startling degree of transformation. The changing nature of the stores and venues along this street are a testament to how the demographic of Hamilton is changing. Nowhere is this change so readily seen than in one of James North's newest venues, the Bard & Bear Games Café.
Nestled between upscale bars and restaurants, Bard & Bear Games Café has quickly made a name for itself as a destination for Hamilton’s geeky crowd. Recently, I had a chance to speak with Megan Edmonds, to find out more about why she and her husband Steven decided to open this kind of a venue on James and what niche it seems to fill in Hamilton’s changing landscape.
As I sat down with Megan, she was organizing packs of role-playing cards in prep for the evening crowd. As an unabashed geek, I was curious about the impetus to opening a gaming cafe on James. “We both have a long background in games,” says Megan. “I've been playing them since Settlers of Catan came out. Stephen comes not necessarily from a long tradition of board games, but a long tradition of loving fantasy and sci-fi. It was actually when he met me that he got into them in a more serious way.”
“We're all about bringing people together at the table, especially post pandemic, and bringing people physically back together, while giving them an opportunity to share an experience that's here and tactile and putting the technology away for a while.”
Longtime fans of the model set by Toronto’s Snakes and Lattes, the pair started exploring what it would take to open their own games cafe. Even after Hamilton’s Gameopolis closed their doors due to pandemic shut-downs, the both of them stayed with their plans. “We went about it in a more deliberate and slow paced way,” says Megan. “We got some funding lined up and started collecting board games. We just worked slowly away. We were very thankful to not have bought or opened pre-pandemic. Instead, we really got all of our groundwork ready. We got the space in the summer, renovations were finished by late fall. And we opened up in December 2021.”
Indeed, the loss of Gameopolis created a vacuum that the pair felt needed to be filled in the city. “We didn't set out to do something different,” Megan says. "It's more that we knew there was a lack in the community now. But there was this space, there was an opening, and there were a lot of people who had lost their board game or D&D home.”
Ultimately, she tells me, this need to provide for the community is what drives their business model. “The community part has always been a really big focus for us,” she says. “We're all about bringing people together at the table, especially post pandemic, and bringing people physically back together, while giving them an opportunity to share an experience that's here and tactile and putting the technology away for a while.”
As we talked, the James North Art Crawl was just starting up outside. It’s something that Megan and Stephen are both conscious of as local business owner. “We wanted to be good members of James Street North because there's already a wonderful community here. And so we wanted to dive right into it, be part of it, take from it, but also give back to it.”
Since opening, Bard and Bear’s reception and success have gone beyond what the pair imagined. “Our welcome has been unbelievable,” says Megan. “Our first full month open, we had to be closed for in-store play and dining. So it was tough. But there were a bunch of people that made a point of coming out and supporting us and buying games, buying food. And they said to us, ‘we want to make sure you're here next month and the month after that and the year after that’.” The subsequent growth, she says, was much faster than anticipated. “We became a staff of six people, including the two owners, before we hit our one year mark. It was absolutely an explosion for us.”
“We wanted to be good members of James Street North because there's already a wonderful community here. And so we wanted to dive right into it, be part of it, take from it, but also give back to it.”
The shelves at Bard & Bear are one big bag of holding for every conceivable board game you could imagine, along with more than a few tabletop role-playing games. However, much to my surprise, Megan is quick to point out that the most popular choices for games by her customers are a pair of old standbys, Jenga and Uno. “People absolutely love the classics. Love their nostalgia. It's a safe place to start. When you look at a wall of nine hundred and fifty games, you recognize those titles and you go, 'let's just start here’."
As both a board game hub, and a café with a full menu, Bard & Bear occupies a unique and challenging place as a storefront venue, having to balance a retail sales mindset with restaurant customer service. Megan remarked that this was one of the steeper learning curves confronting herself and her husband after opening. “We were prepared for the board game side of it,” she says. “It was the cafe side that took a little bit more learning, a little bit more trial and error to get right. But things seem to be running along smoothly and nicely.”
So, what’s the key to their success? Megan thinks that, perhaps, the pandemic actually helped fuel their success. "People were absolutely ravenous for social interaction again. Ready to be out of their houses and ready to be meeting their friends and family in person. They were ready to be playing games that weren't over a screen that weren't on their phones.”
Judging from the crowd that filled the place over the course of our conversation, that need for in-person game play isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.