A few months ago I reconnected with a friend that I’ve not seen since high school in what can only be described as a completely random happenstance; I was at a dinner party and he walked in. It was one of those “small world” moments.
He introduced me to his wife, Salathiel, and we all had a brief conversation of the “Wow, how have you been these last twelve years?” variety… You know, one of those. They never amount to much, but in this case we at least made it a point to become Facebook friends.
And that’s how I found out that Salathiel was going to be opening a Steampunk-themed bookstore.
It was a strange concept, yet it immediately made sense. I myself knew lots of gamers and geeks—hell, Icrontic has even thrown Steampunk-themed parties. I realized that there was definitely a subculture that couldn’t quite be defined by RPG gamers, Trading Card gamers, or Sci-Fi fans. This subculture needed a place. Well, I found it, and it’s called Off The Beaten Path Books & Cafe.
Off the Beaten Path is the most appropriately named business I’ve ever visited. It’s in a terribly bizarre location for a retail business. It resides in an inner courtyard of what appears to have been an elementary school or a weird medical complex in a previous life. You can’t really see it from the main road very well, but walk through the courtyard and suddenly before you appears a beckoning glow of lights and a warm-looking entryway. It’s reminiscent of a much-needed inn in the middle of an urban forest. When you find it, you are simultaneously relieved and a bit nervous. Just approaching the storefront, it’s easy to imagine yourself in another world.
The first impression is hard to wrap your head around. Is it a clothing store? Oh, I see some books back there. What are all these potion bottles and leather harnesses? It looks like what I would imagine a Wizard’s Tower would look like, were such a thing to exist. A random mish-mash of important yet unrelated things, all of which have a very specific order that makes sense to … well, someone. Still, it’s clean and very big. It’s definitely welcoming.
Ostensibly, Off the Beaten Path is indeed a bookstore that specializes in a few specific genres: Horror, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Steampunk—but it’s really quite a bit more than that. In a way, it’s something like what a brick-and-mortar Icrontic would be for tech and gamer geeks: a physical manifestation of the perfect hangout for a devoted and tight-knit community.
I got a chance to meet some of that community. They’re like us in many ways: a bit mystifying at the outset, but very warm and open-hearted when you are willing to get over your uncertainty, step into a strange environment, and just say “Hello, I’m here.”
I stopped in on Game Night, which they hold on Tuesdays. There were a few different groups playing various board games, but commanding the attention of stragglers such as myself were a group of intense people gathered around a table upon which was a model of an entire medieval-looking town, rendered in exquisite detail. They were throwing dice onto one of the towers, talking about “hits and crits,” and getting down to peer at various parts of the village. There were heated discussions about what various factions had done and which parts of the town had been damaged. It looked fascinating and delightfully geeky.
In the back there is a classroom where they hold educational events. Want to learn stage fighting? Model painting? Illustration? Health and Wellness tips? The finer points of book collecting? Their website advertises a never-ending search for “interesting, exciting, and extraordinary acts,” all of which can find a home in this store. The things they do here all seem unconnected and a bit random at first, but when you overlay the sense of community over the whole thing, it makes perfect sense.
The book selection is a bit light, but then this store just opened in October of 2010, and I imagine stocking new books is an expensive endeavor. As is normal with the genres, there are a lot of serial books, but unfortunately many of the series were “broken.” Again, growing pains. I still walked out with two interesting books (one Sci-Fi and one Steampunk-themed) of genres that I don’t normally explore. If they stick, I’ll blame Salathiel for introducing me to a new expensive hobby.
The collection of Steampunk-themed clothing is fascinating. Not having shopped for these kinds of goods before, I can’t really speak to the ease of finding unique items like this at other stores, but I will say that now I know where to go if I want a genuine leather journal-holder with a clockwork steel lock, or a leather harness with clips and loops capable of holding potion bottles, or a bandolier for holding throwing knives. Various feathered caps, goggles, and other accessories and acoutrements for the proper lady or gentleman of the Steampunk persuasion can all be found here. If you’re not quite so daring as to wear a leather harness or a derby with gears on it in public, they most certainly have more traditional clothing in the form of clever T-shirts and such as well.
There is also a cafe; I didn’t have a chance to try any of the food or coffee yet, but I plan on going back to work from the shop for a day (because yes, they offer free Wi-Fi as well.) Salathiel assured me that the coffee was awesome (“It’s roasted by monks in Wyoming or something. For real!”) and I intend to find out.
This business could not have made it even ten years ago. It would have been too weird, too niche. The very existence of this store is testament to our changing times and our increasingly open-minded society that gamers and geeks are becoming embraced by the mainstream. As a gamer and a geek myself, I say “Huzzah!” to Salathiel and her weird bookstore. Don’t change a thing, babe.
Off the Beaten Path is located at 23023 Orchard Lake Road in Farmington, Michigan. And yes, in before “Icrontic road trip.”