Nfld. & Labrador

Want your business to stay open? Consider catering to nerds

Businesses come and go in St. John's. But stores that cater to nerds are becoming decades-long local institutions. We asked them why.

In a tumultuous business landscape, nerd outlets seem to last forever

In recent years, the attendance at Sci-Fi on the Rock has swelled to more than 2,500 people. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

Walk through downtown St. John's, and you may notice the empty storefronts — vacant buildings where someone once sold coffee, liquor, knick-knacks, whatever.

If you're a small business owner it could seem pretty discouraging.

You'd see something else on that walk, though. You might pass by Sword n' Steele, a geek hobbyist store that's been open for 27 years.

A little further along Duckworth Street and you'll come across Downtown Comics, a collectibles haven that's been around for 22 years.

Drive out to Torbay Road, and among the big-box department stores and coffee chains, you'd see TimeMasters Comics, which has been selling geek wares for nearly three decades.

But who's buying all of this nerd product? And just how profitable is the nerd racket anyway?

David Stephens, the marketing liaison and sales clerk at TimeMasters, says a lot of the shop's success has to do with community loyalty.

David Stephens is the marketing liaison at TimeMasters. (Noah Laybolt/CBC)

"I think what keeps them going and what really allows them to survive — and hopefully thrive — is due to that loyalty. People come to a store and they connect with the employees," Stephens said.

When people arrive at the store and find merchandise that they love, Stephens says, they usually become regular customers.

"And people tend to wanna support the places that they love, right?" TimeMasters' website notes, "You have nothing to lose but your shame," and Stephens says customers embrace that.

We let our geek flag fly.- Jerry Burt

"I think we've seen that [happen] actually in the last 10 years.… We don't have to hide our fanaticism."

Another place where people can certainly express that fanaticism is at the Sci-Fi on the Rock convention, an annual gathering of nerds in St. John's akin to the famous Comic-Con in San Diego. People wear costumes and sell nerdy merchandise and attend panels on stuff like animé and the X-Men.

Darren Hann started the convention 14 years ago, when 200 people showed up.

This year, more than 2,500 people attended.

Darren Hann is in charge of Sci-Fi on the Rock. (Noah Laybolt/CBC)

"I think what it is now … being a geek, or geek interests, is becoming mainstream," he said.

"You've got TV shows like Big Bang Theory, Game of Thrones, Star Trek, Star Wars. It appeals to everybody."

Fortunately, Hann said, most people in the local scene have been making efforts to support local merchandisers, selling their favourite geek paraphernalia.

"Most people support local businesses that sell that [kind of merchandise] and I think that's why so many local businesses are doing really well with it."

Illustrator Wallace Ryan, with Downtown Comics, has noticed the local crowd of customers has changed a bit since he started his own shop back in the '90s.

Wallace Ryan is an illustrator and public relations manager at Downtown Comics. (Noah Laybolt/CBC)

"One of the major differences between that store back then and this store now is the amount of women who are into comics. And that's not just here in Newfoundland — that's all over North America," he said. 

"Women now are reading comics, women are writing comics. Which of course is one of the best things that could ever happen to comics because you can't have an art form that's based solely on half the population."

Each of the shop owners credit their fierce local supporters with their long-lasting success.

"They're more than customers," Ryan said. "They're friends. They're part of a community."

One of those loyal community members is Jerry Burt, who recently started his own nerd business: Geeks Public House.

It's a bar where you can play GameCube games while you drink. Walk upstairs and you'll find Mario Kart running on a vintage Nintendo 64.

Locals meet up for Dungeons & Dragons campaigns at the bar, while people of all stripes and colours play board games nearby.

It's not quite George Street; there are no VLT machines, and the music is kept at a low ambient roar.

But business has been steady since Geek Public House opened a couple of months ago.

Burt is passionate about offering a safe space for his fellow role-players and gamers.

Jerry Burt is the owner of Geeks Public House on Duckworth Street in St. John's. (Heather Barrett/CBC)

"I think the fact most people are missing is that there was a certain demographic of people that were always into it. They relegated themselves to basements and back rooms and they kept it hidden because it was always something to be bullied about," he said. 

"But now in the past four or five years, no one cares about that anymore. It's socially acceptable, and geeks are basically taking over the world. The rest of us geeks, the actual geeks, we never cared anyway. We let our geek flag fly."

Offering a unique angle on the downtown experience is crucial to surviving in a crowded market, Burt said.

"You look around town and you'll see several restaurants, and they pop up and pop down. And everyone just basically thinks that that's the norm. It's my personal opinion that when you put 15 restaurants downtown that all cater to the same clientele, you've basically split the market 15 different ways — so you're cannibalizing each other," he said.

"The thing with the geek market is, again, there were only one or two stores around town for years and years. And no one really catered to them before — they didn't know that we existed." 

The loyalty comes from the fact that we're doing this from a good place. We're doing it with good intentions.​​​- Jerry Burt

Events like Sci-Fi on the Rock, Burt said, have allowed the once-sequestered community members to meet each other and grow.

As the attendance numbers swelled each year at the convention, so did relationships.

Burt, for example, met the co-owner of his bar at Sci-Fi on the Rock, and many local business owners got their start selling their wares at the convention.

"We were all there in like a market mentality, doing our markets once or twice a year … and then we did well enough that we figured, 'Maybe we could make a go of this all year round.'"

It seems that customer loyalty among a strong, tightly knit community keeps these places afloat for so long — combined with the fact that the stigma of the bullied, introverted nerd has all but evaporated.

Despite this, Burt said there aren't millions to be made in this sector of the local retail economy.

"The loyalty just builds organically. It's not something you can buy.… The loyalty comes from the fact that we're doing this from a good place," he said.

"We're doing it with good intentions."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Noah Laybolt is a freelance journalist in St. John's.


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