A one stop shop for Vancouver nerds
If you're a twenty-something in Vancouver and you're not into drinking or movies, what do you do for a social life? Not much, says Mike Martins. Especially if you're in "the nerd range," as he puts it, there are few places to meet like-minded people and have a good time.
Martins, 30, is on a mission to change that. He owns a gaming shop in International Village called One Stop Shop Games. Martins and his shop are well known among gamers across the city, the province, and even the country for creating a no-drugs, no-alcohol, no-tobacco environment, selling affordably priced games, and setting hourly rates for his gaming computers well below his competition.
The G-rated atmosphere and low prices have been essential ingredients in the shop's success. One Stop Shop began five years ago in a dying mall on the edge of one of Canada’s poorest urban neighbourhoods. It's not just a business, but a community and a social scene in Vancouver for young people who might otherwise be sitting at home alone every night, eyes glued to their monitors.
But his success has come at a price. Not selling alcohol is crucial to the milieu he’s created, but it also makes it harder to turn a profit. Raising his retail prices by much is a tough decision because the core of his business is young adults without a lot of disposable income. The economy being what it is, he’s paying his bills every month and growing his business steadily, but that means running his shop solo and often working 18-hour days, seven days a week.
Why does he stick it out?
"There are so many happy people here," he said. "I have 650 fans on my Facebook page and close to 800 members. People adore this place. A lot of people tell me, ‘I don’t know what I’d do if this store wasn’t here, I wouldn’t even go out’—like a lot of people, in their twenties, and their thirties. [They say,] ‘This is my refuge.’"
Martins himself isn’t at all like that. Born in Portugal, he remembers a life where everyone from John-the-grocer to Maria-the-seamstress knew, and cared about, everyone else in town—and their grown sons and daughters who’d gone away to university, and their cousins in neighbouring towns. He arrived in Vancouver five years ago after living several years in Miami, where he ran a successful body shop employing Cubans who’d been granted automatic citizenship on landing in Florida but who couldn’t find work for love nor money.
That made it ironic that, although he was told he was welcome to stay in the U.S. as a resident and run his business, he was denied citizenship. Not one to dwell, he sold his shop, did some research, and picked a place to move to. He chose Vancouver because of its reputation as a great place to live. But, paradoxically, he chose a games business because of Vancouverites’ reputation as polite but distant and hard to get to know.
Never at a loss for words or opinions, Martins doesn’t seem like someone who’d have a hard time meeting people. Yet, he says, “I’ve lived in my building for five years and I don’t know anybody.” But where a more introverted person would have seen that as a detriment, Martins saw an opportunity.
An alternative to Vancouver's bar and club scene
“I thought to myself, maybe if I could bring something to Vancouver that’s going to bring happiness and joy to people instead of this whole bar scene, and the bar scene, and the bar scene, over and over again,” he says. “I thought if I put like seven, eight tables out and introduced people to games and brought people together, [I could help] bring back the whole social aspect of life.”
“The downfall of society today is that [young] people are zombies to their computers,” he says. They’re not only feeling isolated; they’re not learning basic social skills, like having a conversation, much less how to act at a job interview. Games provide a medium through which shy people can become more comfortable with others and learn life skills because, whether it’s a board game, a card game, or a role-playing game, it involves tactical and operational decisions that will affect the player later in the game.
Even group computer games, if they’re played in the kind of open, undivided space Martins has created, can foster social interaction, and they’re often a way to pull in new customers. His customer base largely comprises people from their early twenties to mid-thirties, somewhat more male than female, and often shy. They’re mostly college graduates, but there is also a small group with developmental delays or autism whose parents are thrilled for them to have a safe place to go and be with others their age.
“People here don’t care [if someone has a developmental delay],” says Martins. “Ninety-five percent of people who come here regularly are hand-picked by me. We have a lot of people who come in here that are ‘rules gurus,’ that are only out to win and they’re not part of the fun of the game.” Customers like that are simply not welcome, he says. The result is an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere for anyone who just wants to have fun and meet people.
Vancouver a lonely city for many young adults
By all accounts, that’s something the city needs and should be finding ways to support. According to a 2012 Vancouver Foundation survey called Connections and Engagement, which spawned a series of articles in the Vancouver Sun, up to one-third of 25- to 34-year-olds feel alone more than they would like to.
“This group had a greater sense of isolation and disconnection compared to other age groups,” says Denise Rudnicki, the foundation’s director of strategic engagement. “They may have friends, but they don’t interact with their neighbours [and] they find it hard to make new friends.”
OpenFile writer Jesse Donaldson countered with a suggestion that the vast majority of respondents do not belong in this group, and that loneliness in Vancouver is a myth. But one-third of a population is still a large group of people, says Rudnicki.
“It matters a great deal to the entire community when young people, and a large proportion of people, feel alienated. There are consequences. There’s a pessimistic attitude, a withdrawal from community life. They don’t want to participate in the kinds of activities that make a neighbourhood a better place to live. And we should care about that [because] there are cascading negative consequences of loneliness and alienation.”
It’s that loneliness that Martins strives to address, and a sense of community that he’s trying to build. And he’s succeeding.
Board game nights help break isolation
Peter Davies has been hanging out at Martins’ store almost since it opened. He likes it so much that he volunteers there at least five days a week, mostly helping people learn to play games. To him, the best part of hanging out there is just having a place to relax and meet people without a lot of social pressure, having the kind of guess-you-had-to-be-there moments that are hard to explain, but that we’re all familiar with.
“I think the most memorable time I ever had here was taking part in one of the weekly board game nights,” he says. A group of people were playing the game, Dominion. One player predicted what the next card would be. When he was right, everyone laughed. Then he predicted what the next card would be, and was right. Then they all started doing the same thing and laughing and—there was nothing specific about it, Davies says.
It was just one of those impossible-to-duplicate evenings that makes him smile every time he thinks about it. “Normally I’m not very social, I don’t get out a whole lot, so being able to come in here and talk with people and play these games has really helped.”
But it’s not just the entertainment value that keeps Martins’ customers coming back. They know he cares about them. Sometimes, if he knows a customer is job-hunting, he’ll let them print out their resumé for free or advance them 24 hours of computer time for job search. Occasionally, he’s loaned customers a few dollars to pay their bills until the end of the month. Once, a customer’s backpack full of Magic the Gathering cards was stolen and Martins gave him a couple hundred new cards for free.
Then there’s Thane Nguyen. A few years ago, Nguyen, now 23, was diagnosed with cancer. Martins hosted fundraisers to help him pay for medications, and drove Nguyen to his treatments every day. All the support he got from his friends at the shop was invaluable to his healing.
“I’ve made lots of friends here,” Nguyen says. He sees them mostly at the store, playing card games, but sometimes they go out drinking, and occasionally they’ve persuaded him to step far outside his comfort zone and do things he wouldn’t normally do. “About six months ago, my friends from the store wanted to go skydiving, and I wouldn’t ever want to go skydiving. But they convinced me, and I went, and it felt really great,” he says. “And I’m afraid of heights, too!”
Those are exactly the kinds of experiences Martins wants his customers to have—maybe not skydiving, per se, but making friends and enjoying life in surroundings where they can be comfortable just being themselves. He provides that in a way that few businesses or nonprofits in the city seem to be doing.
But, much like the people he’s helping, he could use some help. A lit-box sign outside the store would bring in more street traffic. A few more gaming computers would improve his profit margin, maybe enough to hire some help. Even changing his lighting over to LED bulbs would save him $108 per year per bulb, he figures, but the bulbs cost $50 each so he has to buy them one at a time.
It’s not as if Martins would be the only one to benefit if his business were to grow. He estimates that his shop alone pulls in up to 30 per cent of the patrons at the International Village McDonald’s and the food court, and that plenty of stores get walk-in traffic from customers who’ve come to the mall primarily to play games.
He’s applied for business-development grants, but granting agencies tend to seek applicants who can match funds. He’s gone to the bank, but he doesn’t own property to use as loan collateral. And because he runs a private business, not a nonprofit, he doesn’t qualify for foundation grants.
Is he a perfect business man? No, he says, admitting he could use some advice. But when you think about the research and planning he invested in coming to Vancouver with the idea that he was “not just coming here to be here, but to do something,” he’s a bit of a visionary. You’d think there would be something out there to help a young, ambitious, compassionate micro-businessman. You’d think there would be some way to support—not rescue, but support—a social entrepreneur who’s found a great market niche and, on his own time and his own dime, is shining a bright light in a corner of the city where all too many people fall into the dark side.
But if there is such support, he hasn’t found it. Granted, working 18/7 doesn’t leave a lot of time to research the possibilities. And, the economic climate being what it has been for most of the time he’s been in Vancouver, it’s hard to see that changing any time soon.
But it should. Because once you find your way through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, into International Village mall, and past the facades of shops that have opened and closed in a month, once you talk to Martins and chat with some of the patrons that many of Vancouver’s hipper set might dismiss as nerds, One Stop Shop Games is exactly the kind of business that the neighbourhood and the city could use more of. For that matter, Martins himself is the kind of person we could use more of.