This is something that may end up on Critical Hits, it's certainly in line with the topics there, but I haven't put enough thought or research behind it for it to go up there. In essence, this is a brainstorming post.
I see a lot of people, especially on the internet, throw around the opinion that the RPG hobby and market are declining and that there are less Gaming Stores (FLGS - Friendly Local Gaming Store is almost becoming an overplayed joke to me now), and very often the decline in the number of gaming stores is one of the first signs used to point to the decline in the industry. I have a lot of problems with these opinions when they're expressed, typically the biggest hurdle is how they're expressed - like the trumpets of the coming apocalypse or impending doom, often with the sense that it's already happened and it's too damn late to do anything about it. Some of the latest of which have finally bothered to put some numbers behind their argument, but I still have only seen the present day stats which they then compare to non-solid conjectured numbers that could just as easily be thrown there simply to prove the person's point. Example: this quarter's top-selling print run of books in 2010 was 5,000 books, but back in the day we used to wipe our asses with 5,000 books every day so clearly the market is declining. Decent stat/fact compared to conjecture = point proven. Wrong, and this angers me.
The number of gaming stores in the US may have declined over the last few years, I don't know about that but it is something that I'll concede because I can believe it, however I do not believe in the proof that less gaming stores means the hobby and market are declining. To me the obvious reason is because there are a lot of other, often better places to get your gaming books and supplies from and so gaming stores just aren't as needed anymore. No matter what anyone says, gaming stores are not there to propagate the hobby, they're not there to get new people into your favorite game, and they're definitely not there as hubs for gamers. Gaming stores exist to sell games. All of those other things were developments of the era that gaming blossomed and the necessities of the people at those times.
The internet is most likely the biggest force pushing gaming stores out of business, and it is funny because though a gaming store's only real purpose is to sell games they are almost certainly losing business because the internet can also duplicate the other roles that gaming stores have traditionally served. Gamers love to get together and nerd-talk together, and the internet definitely serves up a whole helping of that (like this post, for instance, and every other place on the internet ever pretty much).
In much the same way that people point to the decline in gaming stores as the first sign that the hobby is in decline, many of those people therefore argue that if gaming stores go away the hobby will go away also. For the most part these are inter-supportive arguments, but if you throw away the first one (like I do and discussed at the beginning of this post) I still cannot completely brush aside the second argument. Gaming stores surely help propagate the hobbies in many ways, but also people generally argue that gaming stores get lots of new gamers into the hobbies. I'm not entirely sure I agree with this, the odds are that if someone is going to a game store they were going to find a part of the hobby anyway. That said, a game store is certainly useful for people (often "kids") who come there to buy Yu-gi-oh or Magic cards are very likely to then stumble upon things like board games and RPGs like D&D and BAM, that's the...ahem, magic of gaming stores right there.
However I'd also venture to say that having D&D books in the larger book stores like Borders/Barnes & Noble are at a higher chance of reaching even larger audiences. I bought my first RPG books at the local Walden Books in the nearest mall, and went there almost weekly to check out the books and see what was new and pick up my occasional copy of Dungeon or Dragon magazine. I did that, and THEN I'd go to a gaming store to pick up my Magic cards. Now if we look at things from the internet side, you'd have to be absolutely nuts to not realize the fact that in the last year or two Penny Arcade has certainly brought a decent number of new or borderline gamers in to the D&D hobby. That alone lets me know that even if every single gaming store in the US goes out of business, the hobby will still exist and there will still be a market for RPGs.
There very well may be less people playing tabletop RPGs today then there were 5 years ago, and that number may be lower than they were 10 or 15 or even 20 years ago, but when I read people talking about how the hobby/market is in decline what I really read is that the hobby/market AS THEY KNEW IT is in decline. For many of those people, if they cannot go to a local gaming store every once in a while, then the hobby might as well be dead. What I'm much more interested in reading about, and talking about, is not how the RPG hobby/market is doomed or dying or been dead since 4E raped its mother and killed its daddy but rather how the RPG hobby and market are going to look when they're alive and being played 50 years from now.
I mean holy shit, for a hobby that started out with a bunch of people in a basement stapling pieces of paper together so they could play games, people sure do seem terrified of the hobby becoming a bunch of people in a basement with stapled pieces of paper playing games together.