Haven Philly, a new board game cafe slated to open in West Philadelphia next year, will be the first of its kind in the city to be owned by two Black gay men. Philly natives Marcus Hall and Chris Scott originally planned to open their game-centric coffee shop in October 2020, but COVID-19 preventive measures pushed back that date to spring 2021.
Fueled in part by crowdfunding efforts, Haven Philly will be stocked with about 200 games for in-house play as well as games for rent and purchase. Hall and Scott, who have professional backgrounds in education and technology with some overlap, initially met through the Greater Philadelphia Flag Football League, of which Scott is commissioner.
They got the idea to start the cafe in 2018 while in Chicago for a flag football event. While there, Hall stumbled upon the board game restaurant Bonus Round Cafe. When Hall and Scott learned that the space was located near three universities, they thought that opening up a similar place in West Philly, not far from Penn, Drexel and University of the Sciences, would fill a gap.
Their cafe would be the only board game spot in West Philly, and they will have the added component of offering games for rent, including classic fare like Monopoly and Scrabble, as well as more story-based, role-playing games like Gloomhaven. They plan to launch the game rental aspect of the business on August 15, and will most likely use another crowdfunding platform to help fund that aspect.
Hall and Scott said that growing up in Philadelphia as gay Black men, they never really found public spaces where they could comfortably acknowledge the intersection of their identities. Given West Philly is home to many people of color, LGBTQ folks and intersections thereof, they plan to make Haven Philly a welcoming space for queer folks of color as well as people of all backgrounds and walks of life.
“I think representation has been a big deal, especially growing up in Philly, not really knowing where I can go and really just be me,” said Scott, who hails from South Philadelphia. “I can go somewhere and play sports, I can go somewhere and read a book, but where can I go and let every single side of me show and not be in fear of discrimination? To me, [Haven Philly] just made all the sense in the world.”
The idea of a board game cafe struck a more personal chord for Hall. He lost his mother when he was 15, and board games were a staple of their relationship.
“When she was in the hospital at UPenn, one of the last memories I had was us watching this Packers-49ers game and playing board games side by side,” he said.
Board games have played an integral role in forging relationships in different communities throughout history, Hall added. He cited the famous example of a school teacher in a polio ward having invented the game Candy Land during the 1940s polio epidemic. Games also played a part in fostering a sense of community during the American civil rights movement.
“I have this picture of, essentially during the March on Washington when Blacks and whites were on a lawn on the National Mall playing chess together,” Hall said. He referenced the current Black Lives Matter movement and subsequent political unrest, especially the riots and looting that occurred around 52nd Street in West Philly, not long after George Floyd’s murder.
“If there’s any point right now in which there was any part of the city that got as much coverage, I thought it was West Philly,” Hall said.
Hall also addressed the socio-economic intersectionality of the neighborhood that Haven Philly will eventually serve. The Cedar Park area of West Philly, which stretches roughly from 46th to 52nd streets and Larchwood to Kingsessing avenues, has historically been home to predominantly working class people of color, though it has seen significant gentrification over the last few decades.
“You have this huge, loft building that was just built on 52nd and Baltimore, right down the street,” Hall said. “Just think about the income levels for those who are in that building, and then for those literally two blocks down. It’s a completely different world. I think board games can be used to start the conversation and bring people in.”
Hall and Scott’s endeavor would not be possible without collaboration with a team of people who have helped them with business aspects like marketing and web design.
Marcus Lewis, who has been helping Hall and Scott publicize Haven Philly, expressed his excitement about the prospect of meeting new people at the cafe, but also at the notion of the space welcoming both competitive hardcore gamers as well as casual gamers.
“I’ve always felt like if you didn’t know that game, if you weren’t a hardcore gamer, socially you typically weren’t accepted in the [game world],” Lewis explained. “I just find that Haven seems to have a nice intersection between it, even amongst our team. It truly feels like a safe space already.”
Hall, Lewis and Scott described Haven Philly as a “third space” between home and work, where anybody can go to unwind and be their authentic selves.
“You can come, you can commune with people, you can play games, you can work on a project,” Scott said. “At the base level, it’s a safe space where you can build community with really just anyone and everyone that you come into contact with.”