A community center was born in the middle of the 14th Street Bridge one November day ten years ago.
Kathleen Donahue got the idea for Labyrinth Game Shop (645 Pennsylvania Ave. SE) while sitting in the middle of traffic. She had driven out to Northern Virginia in search of a mancala board that her son David, then six years old, wanted to bring as a gift to a birthday party.
Now she was trapped in traffic on her way home, late to collect David, and on the phone with her husband. “That’s what you should do,” he told her. “You should open a toy store in Capitol Hill.”
Toys, Donahue wasn’t interested in. But puzzles and games?
Donahue had been looking to start something new, unable to imagine returning to her career as an international business consultant, but wanting to get back to work full time. As inspiration, she drew on the spirit of play she remembered at Kobe’s Corner, a hobby store in her hometown of Pensacola, FL, that carried Dungeons and Dragons, puzzles, loads of games —and would let kids play with them.
Playfulness has been with Labyrinth from the beginning. In non-COVID times, families would come in and try out most everything in the store on tables throughout the store. People came in for birthday parties, events, and clubs from the First Moves game hour for four and five year olds, to a Mahjong night for the members of Capitol Hill Village.
Labyrinth taught the community, and the community taught Labyrinth. Early on, parents asked Donahue to offer chess lessons, so Donahue began offering classes in game strategy. At the request of families at Brent Elementary and Two Rivers Charter School, Labyrinth staff brought classes into the schools, the zygote of an after-school program that last year offered multiple programs in nearly 20 different District schools.
Community building is key to Donahue. Labyrinth brings an emphasis on community from the little convenience and liquor store her father ran while she was growing up. People would come just to talk and hang out together; in the evenings, after work, there was a bit of a happy hour.
“It was a lot like Cheers,” Donahue said now. “Very community-oriented.”
Donahue said she remembered her father getting calls, asking for donations and contributions to community causes, and very early on made the decision that Labyrinth would support kids in the local community, with a focus on local schools.
Labyrinth has donated tens of thousands of dollars to schools, teachers and non-profits. In 2019 alone, Labyrinth raised over $8,000 for Children’s National Hospital by hosting a 24-hour board gaming event. For its contributions to the community, Labyrinth was named the Retailer of the Year by the DC Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD) in 2019. Donahue was also awarded the 2020 Steve Cymrot Spark award by the Capitol Hill Community Foundation, an award that recognizes individuals whose contributions have ignited institutions of lasting value and importance to the neighborhood.
Donahue said the community is the key to the success of the store and to her satisfaction with her daily work. “I cannot possibly tell you how many amazing people I’ve met in the last ten years because of the store, and just seeing the people get to know one another and become friends from game nights really means the world to me,” Donahue said. “If anything that’s my best legacy, probably. Just all the people. I love them.”
The people love Labyrinth back, with more than 6,000 following the store on Facebook alone. Donahue says that she has tried to reach out to a lot of different groups, from those following one game, like Magic: The Gathering, to those favoring jigsaws and crosswords.
Labyrinth has survived the COVID-19 epidemic with that community support, Donahue said. Many have started their holiday shopping early, and are taking advantage of Labyrinth’s Holiday Gift Assist, where customers fill in a form giving information and Labyrinth staff make really detailed gift recommendations. “It’s my way of trying to give online shopping a little Labyrinth flavor,” Donahue said.
Donahue wrestles with how to remain competitive in a world where shopping is increasingly done online or through big box retailers. She said she hopes people think about the way they are shaping their own world every time they make a purchase. “I think having small local businesses like Labyrinth or East City Books or Hill’s Kitchen builds something to the fabric of our community that makes Capitol Hill really special.”
Changing the Landscape
Labyrinth has impacted the landscape of Capitol Hill, said Lyman Moquis. Moquis is a long-time Hill resident and father of four. When he moved here twenty years ago, he said that he feared the revitalization of Pennsylvania Avenue SE would lead to a row of bars and restaurants, but a loss of retail.
“Her store, plus the bookstore right next to it, have created this kind of linchpin in the neighborhood where not only did she have some interesting offerings, but immediately had an impact on the local environment,” he said.
One day, Moquis was looking at Carcassonne, a boardgame in which players construct a medieval landscape. His six-year-old daughter walked into the room and told him she had played it in her after school program, put on by Labyrinth at Maury Elementary, that same day.
Moquis thought this was extraordinary — not just that his child was playing a relatively rare German boardgame, but also, as he put it, “I didn’t even know about this, and here I am, Mr. Gamer.”
Moquis is a not just a gamer. He’s a multiple-World Boardgaming Champion. His eldest daughter went to school with Donahue’s son, and he gave some early input on the kinds of games Labyrinth should stock. He said gamers have a special place in their hearts for stores like Labyrinth, known as an FLGS or “Friendly Local Gaming Store.” The FLGS not only provide games for sale, but game nights, clubs and events, critical to continuing the culture of board games and building community.
“It was really intriguing to me how the creation of a store like this could begin to have real effects on people’s lives,” he said. Kids played the game at school and told their parents, who then went to buy it.
“Maybe there’s a little less video game playing, a little less TV watching, a little more family interaction with some fairly simple cardboard and wooden bits that teach you things about applied math, strategy and social dynamics that you wouldn’t learn at school,” he said.
Even as she celebrates this milestone, Donahue isn’t sure what the future holds. She said she never expected to make it ten years in the first place, but these days much of what she loved about running Labyrinth has been erased by COVID. The events room is now the shipping room, filled with product going out for online sales. There are currently no families coming in to play, and she misses the community part of her work. Donahue said some days, it feels like she’s running a warehouse.
”If we can’t have the events again, and if we can’t have people come in and play, I don’t know how much longer I want to do it. I miss the community part of it so much.”
Moquis encourages people who are on the fence about buying a game to just go get it —from Kathleen. “Nothing at Christmas is better than a game that brings a family together.”
Or a whole community. Happy Birthday, Labyrinth. Here’s to ten more years of playing together.