“Is this your first time here?” – Weekend Anime
Before the doorbell could stop ding-a-linging, those are the words that came alongside a warm, inviting smile hidden behind a pair of smart rectangular glasses the first time I went to Weekend Anime. To call it humble is, well, humbling. Usurping the front of a computer repair shop for two short days a week, wire racks and pop-up shelves filled the space left by monitor displays and electronic paraphernalia to present something that, at the time, wasn’t exactly commonplace in the states: anime. Shelves of DVDs and VHS tapes, manga and Pocky, cute little plushies and all the things we take for granted in the days of Amazon. This was the caveman times of the mid 2000’s: Dragon Ball, Cardcaptors (Sakura erasure in full effect) Pokemon, Digimon, they all had come to our shores by now, but we were still at the mercy of whatever the TV lords decided we could handle. Rolls were nowhere near crunchy, internet streaming video was nascent to say the least and I certainly didn’t have access regardless, and Maine stores weren’t chomping at the bits to carry DVDs of cartoons the clerks couldn’t even pronounce. The floodgates were opened to me for the first time.
It, of course, being my first time, the clerk set down her copy of Battle Royale, reached under her ramshackle desk, and handed me some tapes. Free for nothin’. They contained the 6 OVA episodes of Bastard!!!, certainly age appropriate for little 14 year old me. I’d like to pretend I went to that store religiously, but it being so cramped and me being so poor, I only went to the weekend version of Weekend Anime a handful of times. The real fun began when they moved. Across from my local CVS and down two flights of stairs became what would be my high school oasis. They expanded to several rooms, open the whole dang week, though the weekend moniker stayed and continues to stay as to never forget their roots. Upon entering, you were surrounded by expansive wrapping walls of manga, more then than you can still find at any major bookstore. The register bifurcated the room between manga and video, and these boys were up for rentals. A couple bucks net you any anime you could desire for a very forgiving amount of time. We had most of Naruto fresh out of Japan before Cartoon Network could smell it on their radar. I remember a box set of Ghibli flicks Disney gated from the States because they were too lazy to dub them yet. An overwhelming amount of culture at your fingertips. These were the reasons to step inside. But the reasons to stay were out back.
Two side rooms sat across from each other, they themselves across from the register. On the right was a set of tables. This is where I first tried Dungeons and Dragons, and where I learned to hate the game for many years at the hands of a particularly non-newbie friendly Dungeon Master. Better masters were found, and D&D became one of my favorite hobbies, and a cornerstone in helping me develop a number of social skills. As elaborated in this video, Dungeons & Dragons offers a unique, non-pressurized way to practice interactions, develop assertiveness, and gain confidence in talking with other people through interactions with non-player characters, using the DM as a conduit. These low risk interactions help train your brain to realize that talking to people isn’t this massive undertaking, and saying the wrong thing isn’t the end of the world. As someone who, before I found this space, could barely talk to other people at all, the importance of this realization in my own life is immeasurable.
This room also birthed my love for Magic: The Gathering. I remember coming in second place in my first ever tournament in that room, my hands were shaking the entire last match. Eventually the wall to this room was knocked down to make room for more tables as Magic became more popular and my meager cashflow disappeared along with it. I spent every ten bucks I got on two boosters and a 2 liter of soda, content to twiddle the rest of my day down in that basement playing cards and perfecting my decks. More importantly, this is how I sat across from other people and talked. If Dungeons & Dragons taught me that talking to people wasn’t scary, Magic taught me that it was fun. Yes, you’re playing a game and yes, it’s competitive, but as someone who has historically mostly played casually, being locked across from someone gave me an excuse to open up and breach conversation, something I hadn’t really attempted much previously. Having that common link of the game gave me the jumping off point I needed to make that leap I was afraid to make alone.
The room on the left held a few couches and a TV, and as such was home to movie nights, anime marathons, and long gaming seshes. They had a Gamecube to rent and an imported Naruto fighter that, for a long time, was the entire building’s obsession. I got good enough to beat people who sucked at it. This is where those friendships I was developing learned to thrive. I remember more than a couple Magic pre-releases, where we all stayed until midnight, marathoning shows and holding tournaments and chatting, passing the time and enjoying every second of it. This is where I realized it was more than a store, not just to me but to all of us. If it was just a store, they would have kicked us out after we made our purchases. These side rooms would have existed at all. It was our clubhouse, and whether cognizantly or not, Julie and Ryan and everyone they got to stand behind that counter understood the importance of providing this kind of free and open space to explore, interact, engage, and feel safe around people who you trust.
It was my rock. High school was rough. I had been ripped from everything I knew a few years prior and moved to a new city, we could barely make ends meet. I didn’t have heat more often than I did, and the electricity went out more than a few times. I never really adjusted. I didn’t make friends at school, I didn’t take care of my health, many reasons went into me resigning to death, more or less. If I had a single guiding light in the darkness, it was knowing I could go down to the store and feel welcomed, find people who enjoyed my company and were willing to spend time with me. This is the power of a positive and inviting space themed around a niche culture: it becomes a gravitational pull to the ones who need it most. The outcast, the downtrodden, the kind of kid who can’t seem to fit in. Places like Weekend Anime provide relief in a very unique way by appealing to your interests in a sandbox and allowing you to play and engage with others like you. It turns what otherwise could easily be an antisocial hobby into a social one, nurturing friendships and helping overcome these feelings of low self worth in a safe location. It seems so simple and so small, but in such unfathomable darkness, even a match becomes a beacon.
High school ended, and the store and I drifted apart. They moved across town, I moved across the state. I’ve still never been in the new store, but every now and again I see them post photos on Facebook. I don’t recognize the faces anymore, but I recognize the looks on them. New kids making the same connections I did, the cycle beginning anew. And even beyond, I remember walking into a game store recently, seeing a door in the back corner, and hearing the unmistakable laughter and joy of folks who found their space. In the age of an all encompassing internet, it’s undeniably easier to find somewhere to fit in, and I cherish that truth. I’ve found spaces online that mean the world to me, and met many people that mean the world to me too. But I’m forever grateful places like Weekend Anime exist, and in the age of instant online access the only reason places like this could still survive and thrive is for the very reasons I stayed myself: what they as a space provide beyond how they keep their doors open financially. Hobby stores provide a physical validation for what you love, and a place to find others that need that same feeling. They’re places for puzzle pieces that don’t seem to fit to finally rest snugly, shake hands with their peers, and feel the truth, face to face, that they’re not alone.