I’ve been falling down some horrible nostalgia k-holes as of late. Here’s an exercise you should never do: go find the toys and games and things that completely obsessed you at the age of about twelve, find the addresses of the corporate headquarters offices of their makers, and plug them into Google Maps. The total disconnect between what you envisioned as a child and what these places look like now are phenomenal.
I think there are a few reasons this fascinates me. One is, I never travelled much as a kid. Any preconceptions about any area outside of northern Indiana/southern Michigan or Chicago was either based on TV, or just a guess. I never had any spatial awareness for any other geographical areas of the country. When I was playing with Star Wars toys and somehow found out they were made in Cincinnati, in my head, that meant WKRP, and Les Nesmond’s domain was the same as where my Han Solo was injection-molded. Never mind that the show was a loose montage of stock footage for the establishing credits, and then some sets at CBS Television City in Los Angeles. (If you’re curious on this one, btw: http://www.kennercollector.com/2013/12/kenner-tour-of-cincinnati-kenner-street/)
Another thing that informed these thoughts is that these toys and things were everywhere, so I envisioned massive operations, Detroit-sized city-factories, pumping out GI Joes and Milton Bradley board games. In reality, most of these were small operations, with a few dozen people working on a couple of machines. I probably should have known this, given that my dad worked in a factory, except instead of Hot Wheels, it was pumping out PVC pipe fittings. But they could have just as easily swapped out the molds in their machines and injection-molded Atari joystick pieces or whatever else.
Here’s a couple of examples of these rabbit holes. One, I was into model railroads as a kid. It was a passing phase, somewhere between Legos and model airplanes. I was never that interested in the train aspect, more the scale model stuff, but I also enjoyed the electronics, and the track layouts. One of the big names back then was Atlas Model Railroad. When you got the pre-packaged oval-track train set on Christmas, it was a Tyco. (Or Lionel, if you were O-scale.) But when you went to Kay-Bee Toys or a local hobby shop, Atlas was the big ubiquitous brand of cheap add-on track, running gear, and other accessories. If you read the train magazines, they worshipped the expensive imported German trains, or scratch-built stuff, and eschewed the Atlas stuff because it was cheap or not as detailed. But I wasn’t a retired dentist and didn’t have the cash, so Atlas it was.
And although I bought a lot of their track, the big infatuation back then was their layout books. They published these paperback 8.5×11 blueprint books with a bunch of different track designs in them, things that would fit on various table sizes. The books were well-illustrated, lots of details, and most importantly, had parts lists of everything you needed to build and wire the setups. Of course, these were all intended to get you to go buy more Atlas stuff, and it worked, because I would make endless lists of part numbers and pieces I needed to buy with my allowance. I would get so lost in those books, even though I never fully built any of those layouts. I just enjoyed reading the blueprints for hours, dreaming about what I could build if I had an unlimited budget and way more space.
So, in my twelve-year-old head, I always thought about the Atlas headquarters when I saw the address in the corner of a package or book. They were in Hillside, New Jersey. New Jersey was right there by New York. And I’d seen Ghostbusters, so of course I knew exactly what that looked like. I envisioned the Atlas empire as being something like the Chrysler Building, a hundred or so floors of people packing up HO scale snap-track in yellow envelopes and shipping them off to the sixteen billion stores that sold the stuff. Well, not quite. First, I didn’t know back then that New Jersey wasn’t New York. It’s not twenty square miles of bedrock with massive skyscrapers; it’s thousands and thousands of square miles of warehouses and single-story homes and suburbs sprawled out in every direction.
So, plug in 378 Florence Ave, Hillside, NJ 07205 and you get an unassuming two-story brick building, about the size of a bowling alley. At first glance, it almost looks like a junior high school, and resembles half of the factories near where I grew up, with a single semi bay and a parking lot for a dozen and a half employees. It’s right off the I-78, around a bunch of postwar cape cod houses wrapped in vinyl siding, maybe two miles west of Newark Airport. I haven’t even thought about model railroading in decades; I’m sure they still do great stuff. But the reality of the company is such a disconnect from what I thought of as a kid.
Seeing this building and the surrounding neighborhood is such a strange look inside something hallowed from childhood, something I could never see in the pre-internet days. Sure, looking at a Google Maps photo sphere of Pyongyang, North Korea is astonishing and bizarre (another k-hole to fall down…) but slicing open a childhood memory like that and attaching a completely different context to it is oddly mind-blowing. I mean, I flew in and out of Newark many times; I took the PATH over to Jersey and walked around, drove a car through the suburbs and probably ate at the Taco Bell just around the block from that place. But it’s a weird words-colliding thing to think about that now.
Here’s another big one: D&D. Like most geeks, I was stuck on Dungeons and Dragons back in the day. (Unlike many people who now say they are geeks, this was when geeks were geeks and you’d get the shit beat out of you for being into stuff like D&D.) From maybe fifth to seventh grade, I was infatuated with all things TSR, and I was sure that Gary Gygax and crew hid out in some Tolkein-esque castle surrounded by thousands of acres of meadows and caves. Even the name Lake Geneva, the city in Wisconsin from which they hailed, sounded palatial, like its namesake in Switzerland. I remember once when we drove to the Wisconsin Dells from Chicago, and passed a sign for Lake Geneva on the 94, and I freaked out at the thought of being right there, near where my Monster Manual was originally penned.
TSR had a more rocky history past those days in the early 80s: the ousting of Gygax (see this), the ups and downs of board gaming (and the video game crash), and the eventual purchase of the failed company by Wizards of the Coast. I have no interest in WotC’s corporate offices in Renton, because that was way after my dreams ended. (In fact, I lived in Seattle at the same time they bought TSR. And plugging their Renton, WA address into maps shows me a building that looks almost exactly like every other software company in the 90s in Seattle.) So I had to do a little more digging, but I found more.
I won’t write you a whole history about TSR, because a lot of other people have. But from this article, I found that one of the headquarters was a building on Main and Broad that used to be called the Hotel Clair. The first floor had a game/hobby store run by Gygax, and the top two floors had creatives, designing away games and modules and books. This three-story brick building looks almost identical to most of the storefronts in downtown Elkhart where I grew up, or any other small city-square town in the Midwest. My mom worked as an interior decorator in a building like this; the other buildings had insurance salesmen and stationery stores and banks and dry cleaners. They did not seem like a place that would hold the mecca of all role-playing games of the 1980s.
TSR outgrew this space, and found a warehouse at 201 E Sheridan Springs Road. This looks even more like the factories I knew from growing up, two connected, low-slung buildings with a large parking lot in the front. The building next door’s current occupant is Wisconsin Precision Casting Company, which seems like it could be in either building. TSR wasn’t in some huge Disney-esque building in the shape of a dragon, but in an anonymous warehouse that could have held a plumbing supply company or a place that did fiberglass extrusions for the mobile home industry.
The TSR thing is odd to me, because the worlds created in each of these games and books and modules were, in my mind, as big as the world I was in sometimes. And to think about a bunch of people creating these things, one after another, was mind-blowing to my twelve-year-old self. There’s already the time distortion of youth that causes these things to be so much bigger. But these huge and infinite worlds were created by a few dozen people in hundreds of square feet of below-average commercial real estate in small town America. I felt like companies like TSR, or Commodore, or Coleco were on another planet, a thing much bigger than my small town. But in reality, it was pretty much the same place.
Not that much else to say about this, except that it’s a bottomless rabbit-hole. I don’t even want to start looking at where the original Atari 2600s were built. I’ll leave that as a homework assignment to the reader. (Hint: start reading here.)