In the late 1990s, a trend of hyper-specific mall stores swept the nation. Stores that sold only one type of thing or companies themselves opened entire stores. While it still happens nowadays, with stores like the LEGO store being popular, malls were much bigger 20 years ago, and could attract a lot more people for retail. And in 1998, Wizards of the Coast wanted in on some of that sweet mall action -- especially since game stores were also on the upswing in the 90s.
So, in '98, Wizards of the Coast opened up a bunch of stores around Washington state, creatively called the Wizards of the Coast Game Store. Inside was all manner of WotC products, highlighted by, of course, Magic: The Gathering products, Pokémon, and D&D. Matches were held inside the stores in special areas, unlike the back room in converted Foot Lockers or around old poker tables that players in other places were used to. It was as if WotC had control of their own destiny away from game stores and big box retailers like WalMart.
Inside, the stores were designed in an aesthetic that was one part medieval, one part pre-Harry Potter, and one part late 90s black steel track lights. Tables inside were made of faux marble and statues of things like wizards and eagles and whatnot could be seem placed around. Even the flooring - a specialized tile - was unique enough as to give the stores a certain fantasy appeal. Release days were big events and some stores even had lines one would expect from big movie premieres. Game stores took note, as lines for something so specialized weren't all that common.
Needless to say, the stores were an immediate success with Wizards expanding them nationwide in 1999. They bought up the Game Keeper chain and opened up stores in California, Michigan, and even in the Mall of America in Minnesota. The stores were so successful that they were even a factor in Hasbro buying the company later that year for $325 million. The stores expanded up, including Hasbro games in stores and moving into more locations in Washington and California throughout 2000, even expanding more nationwide to around 85 stores at their peak.
However, the good times didn't roll forever. In late 2001, the economy started falling due to the 9/11 attacks with big box stores and the Internet taking a lot of business away. Wizards let go of 100 people in 2001, and stores began closing that year. Retail sales even fell by almost $20 million in 2002.
Still, some stores (primarily in California and Washington) remained opened. But with sales still were low enough despite now a rebounding economy, the last stores closed up shop at the end of 2003 and lasted just long enough for Christmas sales that year. The last one, the Kitsap, Washington location, closed on December 31st.
It's hard for many players to believe now, even those old enough to remember such stores, but, at one time, there were indeed dozens of stores that catered directly to Magic fans across the country. And somehow, they only lasted six years.