Hidden behind a fingerprint-stained door, Evanston Games & Café radiates light and vibrant colors. Inside, patrons mingle near stacks of games or munch on freshly-made grilled cheese sandwiches. In the back, a coffee machine lets out a hiss as it empties its contents into a white mug.
“If you wish to pass unsearched, I’ll be needing four gold pieces,” says Max Stoll, a senior at Evanston Township High School and a store regular. Right now, he’s playing a popular board game called Sheriff of Nottingham. Four other players join him, each posing as a merchant trying to sneak illicit goods into the city. Tensions rise as players eye their small piles of gold printed coins.
Stoll has been visiting Evanston Games & Café since 2015, when it was still called Elysium Games. Back then, Jessie Reynolds ran the store, using a large settlement from a motorcycle accident to fund the operation. But after a few years, Reynolds realized he did not have enough experience to run a business, and he offered the lease to Eli Klein, his old roommate, who entered with seven years of retail experience.
“One of the reasons I wanted to take over this place instead of letting it close down is the incredible community here,” Klein says. From his first day on the job, he says the community has been welcoming and accepting.
After taking over, Klein decided to partner with Chef Sarah Stegner of Prairie Grass Cafe, an upscale eatery in Skokie, Illinois. Her original creations range from Balsamic Onion Grilled Cheese to Lemon Berry Cupcakes. “She‘s phenomenal,” Klein says. “We couldn’t do this without her.”
Beyond the delicious food, store patrons can expect rousing games of Settlers of Catan, Dungeons & Dragons campaigns and a weekly board game night. Klein likes to say there’s something for everyone.
Today, players mull around the store, catching up with old friends or meeting new players. At the back of the room, a boisterous laugh erupts from a group huddled around an intricately arranged board.
Emmett Hilly, a sophomore at Northwestern, has visited the store a few times over the past year. “There’s a lot of theory about why people play games,” Hilly says. “But one of the central engagements is camaraderie. I like a good challenge and I’m competitive. Those are the two big drivers for me.”
The little shop doesn’t just attract the local community, though. At Magic the Gathering tournaments, players come to the store from as far as Indianapolis to gain a fighting chance at winning larger national brackets.
With sandwiches, steaming cups of coffee, and a tight-knit community backing him up, Klein says he’s prepared to make Evanston Games & Café bigger and better than ever before. “Even before I opened, an incredible community started forming here,” he says. “I’m not going anywhere.”