On 219 Thompson Street, between a parking garage and a postal center, is an old-fashioned establishment bearing the name “Chess Forum.” Giant windows display chess sets that glow with Christmas lights at night and a red flag declares the store’s name. A glance into the store evokes a sense of authenticity and nostalgia, as wooden furniture and glass displays of one-of-a-kind chess-related novelties dominate the store space. The shop’s yellowing walls are decorated with artwork, from sketches to old memorabilia, and wooden cabinets are brimming with vintage chess sets. Hidden between chessboards are game sets for backgammon, Chinese checkers, and other board games as well.
In the back, men sit at tables; some read books and others play friendly games. It is frequented by seniors and some chess masters who give lessons to children who can be seen pressing clocks and talking in relatively hushed voices as to not disturb players going at it intensely. Some people rush in, asking the store owner, Imad, for something specific. He compares the qualities of differently priced, differently made chessboards. The customer listens and selects the best option for his/her needs. Other customers prefer to wander and explore the shelves, checking out the historically themed Civil War sets or the classic wooden ones. Couples wander to the shop on dates at night, enjoying hot chocolate offered by Imad and sitting down for a battle over the board. The shop is seemingly alive at all hours.
The Chess Forum store, as advertised on their website, is “the last old style New York chess store and game parlor open to the public.” It is a one-man operated establishment run by Imad Khachan, a Lebanese-American man who left his NYU education to open the store in 1995. The establishment is known for its rustic charm and what it provides for a niche chess community. However, in a 2008 interview for the Observer, Imad said, “We are en route to vanishing.” He cited financial and other practical reasons, but despite that, Chess Forum is still standing after more than a decade of changes and obstacles. It is necessary to delve into the social, historical, and cultural aspects of how the neighborhood of Greenwich Village has been deemed to be such a chess saturated district in New York City to understand why the Chess Forum still exists and survives.
Chess Forum is located in the general Greenwich Village area, but is also part of the historical district of South Village. Greenwich Village stretches from West 14th Street to Houston Street and is between 4th and 6th Avenue while the South Village area spans from West 4th Street to Houston Street and between LaGuardia Place and 6th Avenue.
The official NYC historic district designation report on South Village says that the streetscapes and largely residential buildings of South Village “illustrate the growth of the neighborhood from its origins as an affluent residential area in the early 19th century to a vibrant community of artists and working-class immigrants in the early 20th century.” That is in fact true of the Greenwich Village area as a whole but especially so in the designated historical district. The neighborhood had been primarily residential during colonial times and then became a tenement district in the nineteenth century before attracting artists for its location and inexpensive rent. Throughout the twentieth century, Greenwich Village became home to a community of artists and innovators. The rich history of art and bohemian culture of the area may account for how quirky untraditional stores like Chess Forum managed to gain a foothold in the past.
Looking at the statistical information from the more recent changing decades also emphasizes the social changes in the nearby area. The 1943 New York City Market Analysis’s 1943 profile of the Greenwich Village shows that, of a population of 77881, 55494 residents were native white while 21594 were foreign-born white, meaning that around 99% of the area’s residents were white. 2015 census data, provided by Social Explorer, reveals that roughly 82% of residents in the area identify as white. The other racial groups are a 4% black and 10% Asian population. While an 82% white majority does not equate to racial diversity, Greenwich Village has clearly been affected by waves of immigration and has become significantly more diverse. A diverse clientele is crucial for an establishment like Chess Forum, that aims to connect with a wider audience through the activity of chess.
A Look Into Chess Culture
On a cultural front, the Greenwich Village area has long been a hub of chess activity in the United States. Dating back to the 1940s, many people had been playing chess in parks and recreational facilities.
However, “street chess” playing in NYC allegedly grew to a great height due to a man named Bobby Haywood, who set up a chess set on a garbage can and was photographed by The New York Times photographers. People began playing at the Washington Square Park chess tables and it was popularized in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The chess hustling business was booming. Legendary World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer frequented the park, adding to its fame. The area in Washington Square where the chess tables stand has been known as “Chess Plaza” by many. Chess hustlers make a living out of the game, traditionally making money off playing tourists and random people in the park. The faces have changed, but the practice of chess hustling has not. Visiting and playing in the park has become a sort of pilgrimage for all chess players, even though the chess hustling practice has spread to other cities and even some other areas in NYC such as Union Square and Bryant Park. This is something to consider with Chess Forum’s close proximity to Washington Square Park. A historic chess club called the Marshall Chess Club is also in Greenwich Village. Founded in 1915, the club is also one of many places of chess player pilgrimage. Many tournaments, classes, and events are held there every week.
The Village Chess Shop was the most well known shop in the South Village/Greenwich Village area for many years. However, the owner of the shop had a feud with the now-owner of Chess Forum. This was a highly publicized legal war, which actually caused the creation of Chess Forum, as Imad established his own store only a couple of buildings away from the Village Chess Shop. The “war” was mentioned by the New York Magazine, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. The two shops were in competition until the Village Chess Shop was closed a few years ago and a “games cafe” was built in its stead. The games cafe, now called The Uncommons, still mentions the Village Chess Shop on its website, claiming to extend its legacy. Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York blog did a piece on the Village Chess Shop’s vanishing, notifying followers that the store owner had apparently been evicted. There is no clear answer as to what exactly happened, whether the store faced issues other independent businesses dealt with or had more personal conflicts. The legal battle may have brought temporary attention and popularity to Chess Forum’s business; now, there is certainly no longer much competition for a business already more aimed to a niche community.
Bumps Along the Way
Despite the strong presence of chess culture of the city, there have been many obstacles to Chess Forum’s survival as a consequence of modernization and other social, economic, and political factors. On both a global and country-wide scale, the rise of computers, the Internet, and smartphones have made some positive ripples in the chess community. It is now easier than ever for people of all levels to play chess at any time during the day, enabling more people uninvolved in chess professionally or at least at a tournament level to have access to chess. Many “chess prodigies” have started cropping up in the United States, accelerating their chess improvement with technology like Skype call lessons with coaches all around the world. Blogs, social media, and specialty chess online news sources have helped to gain exposure to the game and the global happenings in the “chess world.” However, such positive developments are paired with adverse effects and the relationship between online chess and real-world chess seems to grow ever shakier. Pertaining to Imad’s store directly, the rise of the Internet meant that people were more likely buy chess equipment and fancy sets online instead of at his shop. The online business of chess is more than an inconvenience for Imad, who depends on the sale of his collection of chess sets to an extent.
Since he cannot possibly be more efficient than a delivery system, Imad tries to one-up online purchasing by emphasizing his experience and knowledge of twenty-two years of running a chess store business. Even listening in on just a single conversation he has with a customer shows Imad’s expertise. To us, he explained, “I try to have better variety, a better format to buying chess merchandise. People need patience to look at the quality of the product. They need to be able to look and feel the chessboard, make sure it is what they want, like clothes shopping.” He names prices, what people typically use each board for, how the quality is different, where the board was made, and much more. His experience and knowledge is clearly unmatched.
I try to have better variety, a better format to buying chess merchandise. People need patience to look at the quality of the product. They need to be able to look and feel the chessboard, make sure it is what they want, like clothes shopping. Imad Khachan
In a broader sense of how the technological advancements of the digital age have affected the chess world, with more access to online forms of gaming, people tend to not want to leave the comfort of their homes to venture out and play chess physically. Chess Forum and chess clubs like the Marshall Chess Club seem to suffer as a consequence. There is no doubt, though, that many will still venture out to the physical places for enjoyment nonetheless and therefore, a balancing act of growing a bigger chess community online versus keeping the game physical grows as the years go on. Imad claims Washington Square Park’s chess presence seems to have diminished as well, but it may be due to a general loss of visitors because of technological developments. When many kids spend their days in front of computers and phones, fewer kids want to spend time in the parks, much less playing chess in them. Additionally, chess players have apparently reported moving to Union Square from Washington Square Park, as the area has had more traffic and potential players in recent years. There is certainly a possibility that the migration has also detracted potential consumers from Imad’s shop.
It seems that the chess culture of New York City may be in decline, which presents another change with great social implications. Even though the recent 2016 World Chess Championship was held in New York City, it did not generate the amount of attention that it has in the past.
This may have been largely due to a combination of advertising failures, lack of financial sponsors, and the constant push toward “commercializing” chess (which has never thrived on that concept before) on the part of the international chess federation, FIDE, and its “exclusive partner” company that now holds the rights to organize the World Chess Championship, AGON. Much of the chess hub presence has also been stolen away by the thunder of St. Louis, Missouri, which has recently gained investment by millionaire Rex Sinquefield to create and maintain the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis and the World Chess Hall of Fame. Many flock to St. Louis for a more exciting pilgrimage, now, rather than to New York. The chess culture in New York City has old reputability, but St. Louis boasts new, big tournaments in a dazzling chess club, and the more hole-in-the-wall seeming, creaky, old wooden floors of Chess Forum and Marshall lose their allure.
Imad shared that the chess store was actually booming in the year 2000, but 9/11 was another sudden social and political turning point that Chess Forum could not have anticipated. One of the possible reasons Chess Forum has been thriving as long as it has is due to tourists, who seem to either know about the chess shop or know the history of the area’s chess culture and see the store on the way to Washington Square Park. After the attack, the decline of tourism meant the store would fall on tough times economically. Fortunately, the store managed to live on, even though many businesses closed after the attack and others still report lasting negative effects. In addition to such a crisis, Chess Forum does not go unscathed by common problems other small businesses face today. The decline of mom and pop businesses has been an ongoing trend especially prevalent in New York City. With high rents and the economic and territorial domination of corporate chain stores, shops like Chess Forum have struggled to stand their ground.
It is obstacles like these that have changed the clientele of Chess Forum in the past few years. Imad reported Father’s Day and the summer as popular times to shop, after online sales diminished Christmas shopping at the store. Now, there may not be as many tourists, but Imad constantly focuses on providing a space for the young, scholastic players who continue to be interested in the game. Many children go to the store after school, window shopping, seeking more knowledge, and playing fun games. This target toward helping the youngsters get a leg up in their chess careers are a way of giving back to the chess community, as well. Children learn chess lessons from masters at the store and get to play inside for free.
Chess Forum is a bit of an anomaly amongst the common closings of the nearby stores, likely because instead of necessarily appealing to residents of the Greenwich Village area, it can attract any visitors who do not live in the area, but take the subway into the nearby station and wander in. Another flaw may exist in the social data, too: according to 2015 census data, 59.5% of residents were of the ages 18-34 and 92.593% of residents completed some college, potentially reflecting the NYU student and alumni population who reside in the area. The progressive and well-educated impression is not entirely a false assumption, as 85% of residents have a bachelor’s degree while 32% have a masters degree or higher. However, the census data utilized by Social Explorer most likely may not recognize the portion of NYU students who live in dorms. With NYU being one of the most racially diverse schools in the country, there may be even more diversity than statistics may show.
What Imad personally feels cuts his costs immensely is that he does not have an immediate family to provide for. He is an unmarried man, knowing he cannot make ends meet with his store if he were to have a wife and children to provide for. As he puts it, “A large part of continuing my business is not having a family. I keep expenses to a minimum. I have a good relationship with the landlord, who has a policy of if you pay, you stay.” Imad is also the only paid employee, cutting the need to pay wages. This means he is at the shop for many hours a day, seven days a week. With these self-restrictions, Imad has made every attempt to make his business work.
Perhaps what may make Chess Forum continue to run is that although chess is considered a relatively niche activity, it still brings people of all ages to the shop, whether they are four or one hundred. It can be hard to find a business that caters to everyone, but Chess Forum seems like it could appeal to all. In the end, loyal customers and some support from the local chess playing community has helped out Chess Forum’s business immensely. The old customers return out of habit, knowing exactly where to go when they must sate their chess needs. A recent fundraiser for Chess Forum created by co-author and chess journalist Vanessa Sun is but one example of the power of loyal consumers and supporters to smaller businesses. In addition, due to the popularity of small businesses in Greenwich Village, it seems that, according to Imad, new customers all have “more awareness to buy small businesses.” It is possible that they know “when you buy local, you support your local economy.” As Imad adequately puts it, “A city without small businesses has no character. It would become one big city of Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.”
A city without small businesses has no character. It would become one big city of Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Imad Khachan
Imad continues working at the shop every day, hoping that it will survive as long as it can and knowing, like a customer once told him, that he is doing “God’s work” for the chess community in his personal contribution. Chess Forum has had to adapt to technological, social, political, and financial problems, but has persisted through 9/11, the rapid Internet developments, and a general decline in the recognition of NYC as one of the best “chess cities” in the country. The success of the business is forever fueled by the fact that chess is a great leveler of people of different backgrounds. It never matters where someone comes from or who they are. All that is left behind when you engage in a war over sixty-four black and white squares.
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