Calgary

Behind the doors of this unremarkable brick building — a gamers' mecca so massive it made one customer cry

Its endless shelves and departments full of board games inspire such loyalty that some customers have even married here. Yet many Calgarians have no idea of the massive gaming mecca that lies beyond the doors of a nondescript brick building in Sunalta.

Massive Sentry Box — marking 40th anniversary — inspires such loyalty that customers have married there

The Sentry Box sits on a busy corner in Sunalta but many have no idea that inside the unassuming building is one of the world’s biggest board game stores. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Behind the doors of an unremarkable brick building in Sunalta sprawls a massive mecca for fantasy role-playing and board game enthusiasts from across the city, province and beyond — a place so special it has reduced at least one customer to tears and prompted others to marry there.

The Sentry Box began as a cramped 450 square feet of Dungeons and Dragons, historical war games and some fantasy miniature figures on the corner of Kensington Road and Crowchild Trail in the old Kensington Drugs building.

Fast forward 40 years and the store now takes up 13,000 square feet on the corner of 18th Street and 10th Avenue S.W. in Sunalta, opposite what used to be Mikey's Juke Joint.

It has endless shelves and departments full of games like Warhammer, D&D, Magic The Gathering and Catan — even a department dedicated entirely to dice. Yet many have no idea what lies beyond its doors.

"One lady thought it was a strip club at one point, which I thought was funny," said Sentry Box owner Gordon Johansen.

"It's very common when people first walk in they lean on the upper railing and they stand there for five minutes just looking…. One customer sat on the floor for five minutes and another customer came here from Winnipeg stood there and started to cry, which blew me away,"

One section of The Sentry Box in Sunalta which is celebrating 40 years in business in Calgary. The store caters to lovers of role-playing games, fantasy, sci-fi and military games and figures. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Johansen compares the building, which has housed The Sentry Box for 25 years, to Dr. Who's Tardis in its ability to hide its true scale.

At the risk of sounding trite, he says, community is what makes his store special. People have been married here, friendships forged and bonds established.

"People like other gamers and readers, it's the place they come to. They call it the 'third place.' We have comfort foods, this is their comfort store," he said.

The store is marking a big New Year's milestone: 40 years in business. The first official opening day was Jan. 2, 1980.

Sentry Box owner Gordon Johansen first opened the store on Jan. 2, 1980. He’s been selling role-playing games, board games, figures and accessories ever since with no intention of calling it quits anytime soon. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Customers have stayed loyal through economies good and bad, Johansen says.

"I still remember the first time I came in and bought some Games Workshop Space Wolves and I was blown away. It's a great place to meet people into the same hobby," said Travis Salonka, who first set foot in the store more than 20 years ago.

"I play D&D and all the Games Workshop games, like Warhammer, with my kids."

"It's a huge store with everything, you can get whatever you need," said Johann Berg, who shops for paints, board games and cards. "It's way bigger than you would expect it to be."

Changes in the gaming world

Johansen has seen some changes over the years.

He said while some games come and go, others manage to maintain their popularity.

"Dungeons and Dragons is coming back, actually it is back and everybody seems to be playing it again," said Johansen.

"With the new fifth edition, it's just exploded again. And now 40 per cent of the players are women, which is great. People like communicating together, telling stories," he said.

As well as books, board games and accessories, tabletop miniatures and war games are also big sellers. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

He said the uptake in board gaming among women is also reflected in his staff these days, with more women behind the counter as well as shopping at the store.

"That's way different to 1974 when I started playing," said Johansen, who said it was once an almost exclusively male-dominated hobby.

Bust times sometimes boosted business

Other things have changed, too.

With many independent businesses closing their doors in Calgary, Johansen said his success is down to buying the building and avoiding exposure to rent hikes that have spelled the end for others.

"I never pulled a lot of money out of it and we survived because we bought the buildings. If I had to pay the rent being asked for in the boom times I'd have been out of business," said Johansen, adding that he has turned down many offers for the building over the years.

Dungeons and Dragons has been a consistent seller for the store over the decades with another resurgence in popularity. Johansen says many of the players now are women, which wasn’t always the case. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

"I could have retired but I can't do that to the customers," he said. "Loyalty works both ways."

The Sentry Box rode out decades of Alberta boom and bust. 

"This is my third, fourth — I can't remember — recession over the years, everything from the original National Energy Policy and the first Trudeau period to the current Trudeau period," said Johansen.

"We tend to go flat when things are slowing down but games are cheap. We actually did worse in some ways when the economy was completely crazy and nobody had time to do anything," he said.

'Do what you love'

As for what's next for The Sentry Box, Johansen said he's looking to his family for a successor or successors to one day take over.

"Two of my daughters are starting to think about that a little bit but one daughter said, 'You can work 'til you're 72 or whatever,' so I've got at least another 10 years according to her. And that's the way it feels," said Johansen.

He says his plan to sell the building and retire seems to be gone right now.

"You've got to enjoy your job. It's got to be fun, do what you love," said Johansen. 

"I still play games all the time."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dan McGarvey

Journalist

Dan McGarvey is a mobile journalist focused on filing stories remotely for CBC Calgary’s web, radio, TV and social media platforms, using only an iPhone and mobile tech. His work is used by mobile journalism (mojo) trainers and educators around the world. Dan is focused on sharing stories from under-reported communities and groups in Calgary, including the city’s diverse northeast quadrant. You can email story ideas and tips to Dan at Dan.Mcgarvey@cbc.ca.

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