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A one stop shop for Vancouver nerds

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“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.

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