Friday, October 4, 2019

Holmes' FLGS is closing

Gary Switzer, owner of Aero Hobbies, '70s to '00s. Source: A.H. FB page

Aero Hobbies, the game store in Santa Monica where J. Eric Holmes bought his first D&D rulebooks and many of his miniatures, will be closing at the end of October according to this recent news article:

Development Displaces 80-year-old Hobby Shop

A few years back Chris Holmes told to me that "It was very soon after [playing D&D for the first time] that Dad bought the rules at Aero Hobbies, including Warlock, Chainmail and the board game Dungeon". Eric Frasier, who played Murray the Mage, recently recalled that "I loved going to Aero Hobbies back when we were playing in that first D&D group of Eric's/ours. It was some of those visits that inspired my dad's comment to Eric [about the selling of minis] that they'd solved the age-old puzzle of turning lead into gold. :)"


Aero's name comes from from its original location in the same building as the Aero Theatre on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, which is still located there. By the early '70s, Aero Hobbies had moved a few streets away to 1319 Santa Monica Blvd, an address I found in a 1976 issue of Lee Gold's Alarums & Excursions zine.

A gamer named Gary Switzer bought Aero in the early '70s - I'm not sure if this was before or after the move - and it quickly turned into one of the early centers of D&D activity in the L.A. area, along with Alarums & Excursions and Caltech's group that developed Warlock. One of the DMs in the Aero group, D. Daniel Wagner, created the first thief character class, which Switzer famously related to Gary Gygax in a phone call, leading Gygax to create the version that appeared in the Greyhawk supplement in 1975 (Wagner's version used ability lists rather than level-based percentile scores). The thief, or rogue as it is called these days, remains one of the four core classes of D&D, as evidenced by the current D&D Basic Rules.

In 1976 the same group published the Manual of Aurania, one of the earliest non-TSR D&D supplements with new classes and monsters. With Wagner's permission I posted several of these classes and monsters on this blog in 2013 (click on Aurania in the labels below to bring these up). A Kickstarter is now in the works to republish this together with the Libram of Aurania, a unpublished sequel, see the announcement on FB.

Wagner has a Q&A thread over on ODD74 (you will need to be logged in to read this), where he wrote that "[Holmes] had a character named Eric the Cleric. He liked one of my weird classes from the Manual of Aurania. But he usually ran a [demo] game for the kids, he only played with us a little."

Holmes & company used some of the classes of the Manual of Aurania in their games. The copy owned by Eric Frasier - along with his other game books - can be seen in Tales of Peril, and also appears on my Gaming Artifacts Page. On the late Holmes Basic G+ group, Chris wrote that "the Manual of Aurania inspired my Samurai character. We treated his armor like chain mail that weighed less". Holmes' game write-ups in Alarums & Excursion (reprinted in Tales of Peril) mention this Samurai character and also a Beorning, another new class from the Manual. 
This likely led to the memorable mentions of a "lawful werebear" and a "Samurai" in the "Additional Character Classes" section of the original Basic rulebook:
"Thus, an expedition might include, in addition to the four basic classes and races (human, elven, dwarven, hobbitish), a centaur, a lawful werebear, and a Japanese Samurai fighting man" (pg 7).
The article linked above quotes a long-time customer saying that Switzer "had a career painting miniature figurines so I could ask him for tips on painting my armies", and on the ODD74 thread, Wagner wrote: "at the time, Switzer was likely the best figure painter around." Some miniatures painted by Switzer appear in photos Chapter 11 ("Little Metal People") of Holmes' 1981 book, Fantasy Role-Playing Games. The Aero Hobbies website once had a gallery of minis painted by Switzer called "Gary's Townsfolk", and although they took it down at some point, I had saved one image; I've heard from a local that these minis are still on display in the store:
One of "Gary's Townsfolk". Source: A.H. website. 

The sculpt is C1019h Gipsy from the C1019 Villagers and Townspeople set (1988) from the Metal Magic line from Hobby Magic, and still for sale (Thanks to DM Carl of Save or Die, a true "Metal Guru", for this info). The magic 8-ball appears to be Gary's touch. 😎

Holmes was still frequenting Aero in the early '80s; his recently republished 1983 review of the Call of Cthulhu game mentions a tip for running the game given to him by Switzer.

Holmes left L.A. in the mid-'80s and the other early D&D innovators like Wagner also moved on, but Switzer kept the store running for decades in the same friendly manner. The photo at the top of the column, which shows Switzer behind the register, is likely from the early '90s due to the preponderance of the TORG RPG (West End Games) for sale. 
He moved Aero once in the mid-'90s, but only a little over a mile down the street to 2918 Santa Monica Blvd, still its current location. As described in the article linked above, after his untimely death from cancer in 2006, the store was bought by one of his former employees, who has kept it running in the same tradition until the forced closure due to redevelopment. In 2016 it had a brush with fame when it hosted an HBO Game of Thrones promo:

Maisie Williams (aka Arya Stark) Pranks Game of Thrones Fans

If you live in the area, you have a few more weeks to visit the shop; per their post on FB everything is on sale with increasing discounts each week.

Update: An old friend who lives in the area pointed me to this his business page which has a partial walk through of the interior of the store. They are still using "TSR Adventure Gaming" racks to display merchandise. : )

4 comments:

  1. Aero Hobbies was always a bit too far afield from where I lived for me to be a regular visitor the way I was at Last Grenadier in Burbank and a couple spots in Pasadena. I did go there once or twice around the turn of the century and it seemed like someplace out of time, like similarly old-school stores Brookhurst Hobbies in Anaheim and The War House in Long Beach. I remember they had stacks of A&E on the counter, and piles of old stuff on the floor in the back, where I found a couple of Judges Guild items.

    The last time I visited was probably about 10 years ago, after Gary Switzer's passing. It didn't feel the same, and really wasn't in any way distinguishable from any other game store if you didn't know its history - they had a bunch of Games Workshop stuff, modern card and board games, the latest WotC stuff, and not much else. It was cleaner and easier to move around in, but at least to me the charm was gone.

    It makes me a little sad that they're closing down, but the only thing surprising is that it took this long. That Santa Monica real estate is way too valuable. It would have been much more tragic to me if they had closed down while Gary was still alive.

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  2. Aero Hobbies has been my local game store since I moved to Santa Monica. I don't remember meeting Gary, but I've come to know Keith and Shanti and consider them friends. They really did have a great community there, and Aero will be sorely missed. As an aside, I also know Lee Gold and game with her. Alarums & Excursions is still published regularly, it's only an internet search away. And Niall Shapero, of Other Suns fame, also still lives and games in the area.

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  3. Thanks, both of you. Great to hear from folks in the area!

    Baron: Good point about A&E still going on. Gold also offers for sale pdfs of all of the back issues. I'm going to add a link above.

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  4. FYI for anyone in the LA area, Jared Daniel Nielsen, who is organizing the KS for the reissue of Manual of Aurania, commented on my FB post that "In celebration of our Manual of Aurania release I will be flying out to [Aero Hobbies] do one last game. If anyone want to join in let me know". If interested, he can be contacted through FB, find him the comments to this FB post.

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