Interview with Chez Geeks’ co-owner Giancarlo Caltabiano, target of OQLF
Recently, Chez Geeks, a FLGS in Québec, was targeted by the L’office du Quebec de la Langue Francaise (Québec Board of the French Language). Put simply, this board’s goal is to keep Québec’s French heritage alive. They claim Chez Geek is violating several of their laws that were put into place in 1977 to do just that. Where video games have received special disposition to other goods, board games have not, leaving Chez Geek and its owners in a difficult position. TGN’s Jared Miller had a chance to speak with one of the co-owners, Giancarlo Caltabiano, about the problems the store and Québec face.
Jared Miller: How long has Chez Geeks been in business?
Giancarlo Caltabiano: Chez Geeks has been open a little over four years. Within the first two years we had taken over the location next to ours when they moved. We turned that whole section into our gaming room to give a little more privacy to our customers who want to browse and those who are there to play.
JM: What is your audience like? Family store? In store gaming? Etc.
GC: My customers are very diverse in terms of “gamers.” We’re in the Quartier-Latin in Montreal, which also has lots of tourists coming in. We’re also affiliated with Board To Death Reviews and lots of Americans know about us. We’re not just a game store, but more like a geek boutique. We have comic book related merchandise like t-shirts, keychains, and Funko pop vinyls, and also comic books themselves. That said, we hold nightly tournaments and our “hard core” gamers like MTG and Netrunner players, and D&D Encounter players often feel like Chez Geeks can provide their needs. I urge you to take a look at our virtual tour.
JM: Why did the L’office du Quebec de la Langue Francaise (OQLF) target your store?
GC: The OQLF has targeted my store, primarily, for having ads up for English only board games (for example the new release of Fantasy Flight’s X-Com the Board Game). Unfortunately, the French equivalent does not exist.
In Quebec, the Bill 101 or Charter was set-up to protect the French language and the French speaking populace (which we call Francophones). So according to its Article 54, English only board games that do not have a French equivalent “that require non-french vocabulary for their operation are prohibited in the Quebec market.”
Plus, they’ve targeted me for having an English only website, and have targeted me with a bold face lie: that I only serve my customers in English. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As a side note, video games do not have this law and are classed under article 52.1.
JM: Would you say the majority of your audience is primarily French or English speaking? Or both?
GC: Most are Francophones, but I have a lot of Anglophone customers. You have to understand that geeks love the gaming culture. They range from video games, to board games to anime/otaku geeks. Most are not concerned with the language barrier. Which brings up a point that I really want to stress. A LOT of my Francophone customers have shown immense support and realize the silliness of all this. Even better were the longtime customers that say they always came in Chez Geeks and we would ALWAYS talk to them in French. The amount of support from both sides (Franco/Anglo) is astounding! I never thought it would be so huge. Never make geeks angry! Holy Cow! And don’t threaten to take away their toys!
By the way, I really hate the term Francophones and Anglophones. It divides us from being who we are: Quebecers.
JM: So it sounds like these laws to “protect” the culture are really just hurting it.
GC: I do understand that they want to protect their language, heritage, and the Quebec people, and I’m all for it, UNLESS these laws actually HARM us in the guise of protection. Article 54 was last amended in 1997. Since then, online sales and commerce has increased. Any FLGS knows what they’re up against and the risk they take by opening up a game store. Where we have to excel is in providing service. That includes having the latest releases in stock.
Article 54 is in fact preventing me from offering that service. What the bureaucrats fail to realize is that board game geeks (including Francophones) want the original and first printing of their board games. Some, as I’m sure you’re aware, fall under “collectibles.” These can significantly go up in price (as we’ve seen, at least here in Quebec, games like Star Realms and Dead of Winter, which is now also available in French, skyrocket in price on after-market sites.) Article 54 would, in fact, inadvertently close my store down, and Quebecers would STILL get the English only games online, effectively giving our money to another province or country. So, in my views, Article 54 (along with many others like it prohibiting English only ads of English only board games) not only DOESN’T protect Quebecers, it’s downright detrimental to them!
JM: So if a game (or any product) is not officially available in French, according to the OQLF, you are not allowed to sell it at all?
GC: Yes. No “ifs, buts, and whats” about it!
JM: If you can’t sell your games, what happens to Chez Geek? What happens to you?
GC: That’s something my brother, who is co-owner of Chez Geeks, and I are discussing. We will start by seeing what happens with this in terms of if they want to eventually fine us. If they do, I will contest it, and then if I lose and pay, we will have to consider moving out of the province. The taxes are so high here and the profit margins are so low with our merchandise (as any FLGS would tell you) that paying fines on top of that would just make it nonsensical business-wise to stay here. We got into this business because of the passion of it, but if the monetary constraints and, worse, laws that force me to pay and give less service to my geek community are in place, I’d rather not do it in a province where they consider my income taxes akin to a criminal’s. Many other companies don’t put their business here because the laws are just way too demanding with their red-tape.
JM: What steps have you taken to comply with the Charter of the French Language before any of this happened?
GC: My store signs (including my storefront sign, my sandwich board sign on the sidewalk, and my ads for gift certificates) are not even bilingual (which is allowed) but SOLELY in French. Also, I try to carry the French equivalence of a board game if it’s out there, and if I don’t have it because I just sold it, I make sure to tell my customers that I can get it. The most important step we took was to make sure we spoke to anyone coming in our store in French first. Then, if they replied in English or if I get that “deer caught in the headlights” look, which you wouldn’t believe how often I get, I switch to English.
JM: What are you plans going forward?
GC: My plan going forward was always to open a second location. Now, it’s more of a question as to where. It used to be where in Montreal, now it looks like where outside the Province.
JM: Do you feel it’s important for companies to realize these laws exist and make games available in French (and other languages)?
GC: Look, companies are corporations. They look at the bottom line. It’s sad, but true. If an American game is successful enough in English, they’ll translate it in at least another dozen languages, including French. If a game didn’t garner any sales in English, they won’t translate it in French, period. This is the universal law of business: supply and demand. But now, even if it is translated in French, the cost would go up, and I’d have to make the retail value higher, which is illegal according to the “less favorable terms” part in Article 54. Furthermore, geeks have so much passion for games that they’ll use great board games sites like boardgamegeek.com to translate the rules, give house rule variants, and discuss strategies and what they like and don’t like that publishers almost don’t need to translate anything. Again, these laws predate the internet (probably one of the most important technological inventions in the 20th century). We’re in the 21st now. I think it’s about time the laws reflect that.
JM: Giancarlo, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
GC: What I find really sad about all of this is the division it creates. This was never an issue with my “real geek” customers. They know what it is. Ameritrash games from America will predominantly come in English, and if they are successful, will be translated in French. The politicians and bureaucrats don’t understand this culture. They couldn’t have predicted what would happen in the board gaming industry since 1997. Don’t take my word for it, search any new board game release video review and then do the same thing for any game pre-2006. You’ll see the difference in not only hits, but quantity for those reviews. Times have changed, the Bill 101 Charter was initially implemented in 1977, when Quebec was an economic powerhouse. Now, my street, which is touristy as I said, has an empty location every second step. Small business that have been around for decades are closing. Some of these laws do not apply in our times. We are a new generation. Life always evolves, why is it so hard to make laws evolve? And more importantly, we need to determine if a law that was there to protect us initially has indeed turned into one that actually harms us more. We need to look at the times they were formed, look at the times now, and see what the new generation thinks of these laws and how best WE want to implement them. Anything else is akin to saying women should stay at home and the men should go to work and support his family.