The Fairbanks gaming community lost more than a store when Atomic Video Games closed its doors last month. The electronic entertainment outlet provided the latest gaming titles and DVDs. But it was also a place where kids of all ages could find a safe haven.
Ryer Kornkven, 15, is home schooled, so most of his social needs were met at Atomic. He would go to the store almost every day, just to get out of his house. That’s where he met most of his friends. “We all play the same games and we’ve known each other for awhile. We are all good friends and we will still hang out after Atomic.”
As long as customers were spending money while they hung out, that might be a good business model. But more and more, the gang at the video store was there to socialize. Parents would drop off their kids and pick them up a couple of hours later. That’s an inexpensive daycare for parents, but an expensive proposition for Atomic.
Manager Steven Barona said that might have helped lead to the store’s downfall. “I had complaints about too many kids running around or other distractions. When people get fed up, they go somewhere else.”
Loose kids may be a distraction to customers, but having a safe place to hang out was a benefit in a town known for a lack of opportunities for youth. Several youth facilities have opened and closed over the years. A perennial issue for local parents has been finding things for their children to do.
Store owner Gary Grassi knows the issue firsthand. He has taught in the local school district and is familiar with the town’s lack of safe places for kids. “I didn’t get into this business to provide this kind of opportunity, but I always felt proud that we were able to provide a ‘hangout’ of sorts.”
But that kind of public service doesn’t pay the bills. Grassi acknowledged that if every customer had actually spent money at the store, he wouldn’t have had to close.
Now that the computers have been sold off and the titles taken down from the shelf, the Eagle Plaza is missing an anchor and a portion of the clientele.
At the Comic Shop on the other end of the outlet, Elizabeth King has noticed a change in the customer base. The 20-year-old girl with long hair and an enthusiastic smile has worked there for four years, long enough to notice that much of their business came from the same patrons who frequented Atomic and the nearby Mayflower restaurant.
“I’ve definitely noticed a reduction in the amount of kids under the age of nine who come in to buy snacks,” she said.
King liked having Atomic nearby. The staff of the two stores got along well. They even managed to thwart a would-be fencer who had stolen a stuffed animal from the Comic Shop and tried to sell it at Atomic.
Logan Kunz had been one of the under-nine set, but grew up along with the store. Now that it’s closed, the thing he’s going to miss the most is a guaranteed place to play the computer.
“Somewhere close to go in case my house is locked. A secure place where I knew there would be people that I know.”
Customer Jeff Kohler echoed that sentiment. “Once it’s gone for good, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m still gonna play video games at my house.”
But he has an idea to work towards. “Maybe I’ll save up some money and try to open up a store of my own one day. I love helping people. And a video game store is not just helping people. It’s helping young people.
“Video games themselves might be a game, but it’s also a story line. It’s like a book that you play. I was never really a good reader, but I’ve learned how to type, read and communicate with others better just by playing games.”