Ian Pietila opened Golden Rhino Games
in Ypsilanti Township at one of the worst possible times to be a new business owner, just after the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Michigan in March 2020. For his first couple months in business, Pietila wasn't able to allow customers in the store. But his business is thriving today thanks in part to a supportive and sizeable community of fellow gaming enthusiasts, built through his years organizing tournaments for the popular game Warhammer 40,000. Fans of his tournaments helped keep his new business afloat with donations until he could return to more normal operations.
"A ton of people donated to keep us running, and their names are engraved on the table we play on every day," Pietila says. "I built all our tables by hand. When I say my blood, sweat, and tears are in these tables, I mean it literally."
Golden Rhino, located at 2092 Whittaker Rd. in Ypsilanti Township, is just one of several recently opened Ypsilanti-area businesses that cater to those interested in all things gaming-related, from retro video games to tabletop roleplaying books and supplies. In addition to Golden Rhino, Wyrd Byrd
at 9 S. Washington St. in Ypsilanti and Game Pawn
's Ypsi-Ann Arbor store at 3763 Carpenter Rd. in Pittsfield Township both opened in fall of 2022.
Golden Rhino Games: Build it, paint it, play it
Golden Rhino Games is the most established of the three gaming shops. Business is going well enough that Pietila recently expanded the store from its original space into the vacated AAA Insurance agency space next door. Pietila has been running popular Warhammer 40,000 games and tournaments since high school and has used that interest to launch his store.
"If you can build it, paint it, or play it, we probably have it," he says.
Warhammer 40,000 is a miniature war game created by Games Workshop that is wildly popular worldwide. Pietila began running Warhammer 40,000 games in high school and went on to run small local tournaments. He named the tournaments Golden Rhino after the armored tanks used by Warhammer characters called Space Marines.
Golden Rhino Games owner Ian Pietila.
The tournaments and gaming meetups grew in popularity, becoming the largest group to meet at the Highland Township Public Library. Pietila got an insider's look into all things Warhammer 40,000 after working for Games Workshop from 2015 to early 2020. By then, Pietila says he knew he wanted to start his own game store, and named it after his popular tournaments.
"I left my old job at the end of February , and had a celebration of me launching a new business March 11, and then we went into lockdown on March 14," he says.
Pietila offered online sales and had customers pick up packages from his house. After that, he had what he calls "one skinny aisle" of merchandise and only allowed three masked customers into the store at any time.
He eventually expanded both his line of products as well as the physical space, and says the store is thriving now. That's in part because Warhammer 40,000 enthusiasts see Golden Rhino as not just a store, but also a place to connect with others who have a similar interest.
Golden Rhino Games owner Ian Pietila.
"There's nowhere else in Michigan you can walk in the door, ask questions about a game, get a full demo, have someone teach you to build and paint models, and provide a recurring community you can come back to every week and play games with," Pietila says.
He says he has 100-200 regulars who visit every week but also recently noted that he had more than 5,000 unique contacts in his database.
Golden Rhino is open noon-8 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday, and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday. The store's webpage is currently under construction. Pietila recommends following the business' Facebook page
or joining Golden Rhino's Discord page
Game Pawn: Catering to millennial nostalgia
Game Pawn's Ann Arbor-Ypsi location was started by high school friends Garrett Pyatt and Cam Sohrabi. The two made extra money together during their late teens by buying retro video games at garage sales and thrift stores, and reselling them for a profit online.
Though they split up for college, with Pyatt attending Eastern Michigan University and Sohrabi attending Michigan State, they decided it didn't make sense to keep selling independently. They got a joint bank account and went into business with their first Game Pawn location in November of 2020 in Waterford.
A few years later, Pyatt insisted that they open a second location in the Ann Arbor-Ypsi area, which he was familiar with from his college days.
Game Pawn owners Cam Sohrabi and Garrett Pyatt.
"There really wasn't any store like the one we opened when I went to school there," he says.
When they saw a vacancy in a busy plaza between a Target and a Meijer, they thought it was an ideal spot. They had to put the idea on the back burner for a little while but eventually opened in September of 2022.
The store's space formerly housed a credit union branch and needed serious remodeling. A colorful mural created by one of Pyatt's relatives has brightened the formerly utilitarian space. The store's main focus is on retro video games and collectibles, though it also carries and trades in Funko Pop! figures, electronics, anime, and more.
"There are a lot of games that are extremely rare. They're just getting harder to find and are more valuable," Sohrabi says. "We have games in our case that are [worth] upwards of a thousand dollars." He says older Nintendo or Sega games are "really popular."
Game Pawn owners Cam Sohrabi and Garrett Pyatt.
Pyatt says the store is benefiting from a wave of nostalgia.
"Video game collecting has been a thing for a long time, but we're definitely noticing that games that were the first games of the millennial generation are becoming very popular right now," Pyatt says. "Our thought is that a lot of these millennials have full-time jobs and they're making money now and feeling nostalgic. They have the money to buy these games back again. They want those games they had as a kid to play with their own kids or to relive their childhood."
Game Pawn's Ypsilanti-Ann Arbor store is open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays. More information is available at the store's website
Wyrd Byrd: "A labor of love"
Whether you pronounce it "Weird Bird," "Word Bird," or "Weird Beard," Wyrd Byrd owner Shawn Gates says you're saying the name of his downtown Ypsilanti store correctly. Wyrd Byrd sells new and used records, books, zines, and tabletop role-playing games. The name of the store combines Gates' love of the word wyrd, which means "ordained by fate," and his favorite pets.
"I love birds and own three conures [small parrots]. I work from home … so I am with my birds a lot," Gates says. "I pronounce it 'weird bird,' but all interpretations are correct."
Gates says he's been a music lover his entire life, and that's what influenced him to open a record store, even though he has to run it at odd hours to accommodate his main, full-time job.
Wyrd Byrd owner Shawn Gates enjoying some Thin Lizzy.
He began playing drums in various Washtenaw County-based bands while in high school, and eventually played on several recordings by two local bands, The Jaks and .Nema. That background influenced the offerings at his store.
"The new records I stock are primarily independent releases. I definitely favor metal and punk but have other genres like psych, folk, and electronic," he says.
Gates says his used record stock started with his own collection. Then he added things he finds and items patrons sell to him. He says pairing music with roleplaying isn't much of a stretch.
"I've found a decent overlap in folks that like independent music, especially punk and metal, and those that enjoy playing tabletop role-playing games. And all of these folks love a good zine," he says. "To me, these items just fit together."
Wyrd Byrd owner Shawn Gates.
Gates says business is going better than expected so far. He says he and his wife accepted that it was a risk to open a shop, but he'd done some pop-up sales like Rally in the Alley
, and knew there was interest in his mix of wares. He says business is paying the rent, and that's good enough for now.
"I work another full-time job, so I don't expect personal income from the store at the moment," Gates says. "This is a labor of love. I'm happy to break even right now."
Gates has been hosting events to get the word out about his store. The first is Wyrd Movie Night at 8 p.m. on the first Friday of each month. Past screenings have included "The Holy Mountain," "Black Christmas," and "The Blood On Satan's Claw." Wyrd Byrd Open Mic Night is the second Thursday of each month at 8 p.m. Poetry, spoken word performances, music and more are welcome.
Wyrd Byrd is open 5 p.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, noon-8 p.m. Saturday, and noon-6 p.m. Sunday. Keep up with Wyrd Byrd on its website
or on Instagram @wyrd.byrd.ypsi
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.