BRATTLEBORO—In the past four months, Brattleboro has upped its geek cred by quite a few notches.
Whereas earlier this year one would be hard-pressed to find much for sale downtown to satisfy lovers of comic books or video or board games, today the town has two outlets for assorted geekery.
The first to open, in early June in the Latchis Block on Flat Street, was Monsters & Heroes.
Labor Day weekend saw the debut of Positive Geek, a shop selling science- and science-fiction-related toys, games, and clothing, located in Brattleboro’s Harmony Lot.
Monsters & Heroes is owned by Laura Calchera and her husband, Shane. It sells comic books, comic-related merchandise, and board and card games.
Looking through the huge plate-glass windows of Monsters & Heroes, one sees several large tables surrounded by comfortable chairs. This is where visitors can play the games the shop sells, either by $5 day pass or annual membership.
Calchera mentions the air conditioning, snacks, and large-screen television as extra incentives.
“The membership monetizes the space,” she explains.
She also points out that retail sales keep the doors open, but fostering community is central to the store’s mission.
“I don’t think I’d be enjoying this as much if I was just selling stuff,” she says, noting that selling a good product is “a noble thing” but offering customers an experience means more to her: “I’m trying to create a model here that’s a little different.”
Mentioning the isolation that can come from rural living — or from simply being shy — Calchera says she wants her store to be an antidote to this loneliness.
The shop’s multiple weekly game nights, for board games, Magic Draft, and other trading-card games, “help people break out” of their feelings of being alone.
“My vision here is about interaction,” she says, noting that games draw people together.
But Calchera is adamant about the format of the games she includes in her model: “We sell no video games and we never will. That’s not my vision for the store. That screen isn’t giving you a conduit to that other person like board games will,” she says.
She clarifies: Yes, board games are entertainment, “but it’s a good way to get a message across."
One message Calchera says she feels particularly strongly about is identity — and honoring those who have tended to be marginalized.
Although Calchera and her husband are business partners, she is the public face of Monsters & Heroes. “I’m the owner,” she says. “We felt it was important to have a female face at a comic book store."
Noting the misogyny one sometimes finds in the gaming and comics world, Calchera says that at her store such behavior is prohibited.
“We have a code of conduct,” she says. “We are fun people and we have fun here,” and that includes maintaining a comfortable atmosphere for everyone, including young girls.
Another long-maligned identity Calchera aligns herself with is “geek."
“I’m happy about the evolution of that word,” she said. “I grew up in the ’80s, when we had Revenge of the Nerds,” she says, referring to the 1984 comedy about college social life. Although the film’s nerds prevailed, they were seen as subjects worthy of ridicule.
Now, Calchera says, “a lot of people are getting on the geek bandwagon."
“To me, a true geek means you’re following what floats your boat,” she says, mentioning gaming, Doctor Who, and comic books as examples.
“I say, let your geek flag fly,” Calchera says.
Geek chic, in all its forms
Geekery also includes a love for all things science and science fiction, and the owners of Positive Geek hope to fill that need, too.
“I can’t think of another physical business that combines this — science, games, and music — all together,” said James Maynard, one of the shop’s owners.
Positive Geek has a small number of electric guitars for sale, because “musicians are the ultimate geeks,” Maynard says, mentioning that that’s his business partner, Charles Hornbeck’s, area of expertise.
Hornbeck points out refrigerator magnets he made displaying 1980s pop-culture icons such as a smurf, a ghost from the Pac-Man video game, and singer Debbie Harry from the music group Blondie.
Although many people under a certain age may not recognize any of these images, Hornbeck says he’s not concerned.
“Kids can’t have all the fun,” he says.
The part of the store where kids of all ages can have fun is Maynard’s favorite: the play area, where visitors can try out selections from what he describes as “our large, affordable video game section.”
Positive Geek will host occasional “Friday Night Frag Fests,” Maynard says, explaining this event involves “a bunch of people sitting around a table, plugged into a computer, playing the same game” either as individual competitors or as teams.
To frag, Maynard explains, is to destroy your opponent brutally.
Other items geared toward the geeky adult are collectible figurines from vintage films and television shows — items some parents might consider too precious for the kiddos to destroy.
Hornbeck and Maynard mention their interest in cosplay, where (mostly) adults dress up as characters from graphic novels, comic books, cartoons, video games, and films and television programs — and sometimes recreate scenes from their sources.
“We’ll have some costumes, accessories, wigs, Maleficent horns, Lord of the Rings scarves, and the Doctor Who scarf Tom Baker wears,” Maynard said.
Star Wars, the 1977 film and its prequels, sequels, and vast extended universe, loom large at Positive Geek, which should come as no surprise to those familiar with geek culture.
Merchandise from the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens, set to open in mid December, will be available at the shop, and Maynard and Hornbeck consider this a triumph.
“We’re a little Brattleboro shop and we’re allowed to have the [film-related] stuff at the same time as the big chains,” Maynard says.
“The Force Awakens is red-hot, desert hot, Tatooine dual-suns-hot, so hot that we are expecting a meltdown,” Hornbeck says in the press release announcing the opening of Positive Geek.
Some of the shop’s offerings have nothing to do with movie or video game screens but rather fit into the “science and nature” categories.
Maynard, who was manager of the former Earth Treasures shop on Elliot Street, has stocked the shelves with hands-on, build-your-own toys such as kits for making rubber balls and catapults, and terrarium sets for growing coffee plants and strawberries.
The store even stocks several types of meat-eating plants in its garden kits, Maynard points out helpfully.
Maynard and Hornbeck, friends since the late ’80s, brought together their respective careers in retail and computer services to create a store Maynard describes as a place where adults and kids can come in, play, and have fun:
“I’ve always wanted to do a science and nature shop, and Charles likes music and collectables, so it’s a good combination.”
When asked about having Monsters & Heroes in such close proximity, Maynard expresses excitement over the synergy, and speaks to what sets Positive Geek apart.
Neither he nor Hornbeck is into comic books or gaming other than video games. “Monsters & Heroes takes care of those categories,” Maynard said, “and we do everything else."
Laura Calchera of Monsters & Heroes says she is excited about the crossover potential with Positive Geek, and says she hopes to collaborate with them on geek-related projects.
While brainstorming names for their shop, Hornbeck says, “Positive Geek always left a smile on our faces, so Positive Geek it is."
“Geeks were always thought of as outcasts [until] not long ago,” Maynard says, but times have changed. “While geeks were once outcast by most of mainstream society, the lifestyle — including an interest in science, science-fiction, gaming, and campy pop culture — has become far more popular in recent years,” notes the shop’s press release.
“I read 17 percent of Americans consider themselves geeks, and two-thirds of millennials consider ’geek’ to be a compliment,” Maynard tells The Commons.
“I’ve always considered myself a geek,” he adds.