The little store that could: How an Orléans board game spot lit up lives during COVID

·5 min read
Jack Daniel Morris runs Red Dragon, a board game shop in Ottawa. The store opened just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but it's quickly become a space where people feel comfortable being themselves. (Raphaël Tremblay/CBC - image credit)
Jack Daniel Morris runs Red Dragon, a board game shop in Ottawa. The store opened just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but it's quickly become a space where people feel comfortable being themselves. (Raphaël Tremblay/CBC - image credit)

They say it's a place where magic happens.

"The little store that could," others call it.

Walls lined with a colourful array of games and trading cards, and tables flush with miniatures and 3D-printed figurines — those who've set foot in Red Dragon Comics, Cards, Games say they've found a safe haven where they feel accepted and safe, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when isolation and restrictions made life dicey.

"I can go there and be myself and not have to worry," says Rickard Morin, an Ottawa resident who's immunocompromised.

"[It's] a place where I can go, I can socialize, I can engage in my hobbies that is looking out to protect people like me. And not every place in this city did that."

The modest board game shop tucked away in the suburb of Orléans has become a community hub for people around the city — and beyond.

It's a place where I can go where I can feel welcome. - Rickard Morin, Red Dragon community member

From teens to those in their 60s, Ottawans who are part of the tabletop gaming community are bonding here over games like Pokémon and Warhammer 40,000 — a popular game where players can immerse themselves in building and painting miniature armies and playing two-hour rounds with others.

Raphaël Tremblay/CBC
Raphaël Tremblay/CBC

Morin says he found community there, with no judgment.

"I'm autistic and dyslexic. So inclusive places that take that into account is something that's very important to me," he said.

"It's a place where I can go where I can feel welcome ... I can be myself. I don't have to mask anything. I can just be me."

Red Dragon has been holding game nights on Thursdays, even during the pandemic when restrictions were loose enough to allow them. When they weren't able to meet in person, the community turned to its online Discord server, an instant messaging platform, and the group quickly swelled to more than 500 Ottawa residents.

Dozens more joined in from Montreal, Kingston, Ont., and even Vancouver.

"I connect with them online every day," said Morin.

Opened doors just before pandemic hit

But the community hub, as owner Jack Daniel Morris calls it, wasn't built overnight.

"We opened just before COVID," said Morris, who moved to Ottawa to give everything to his new business. "COVID messed everything up. Not gonna lie."

But Morris said he didn't let lockdowns knock him down.

"I said, 'I can't let this fail.'"

He began connecting with people on social media, asking them what they needed.

During the first lockdown, he spent hours in his car, driving a total of 8,000 kilometres between Cornwall, Brockville and Kingston, offering free delivery of "hobby stuff" to customers — so they could stay inside, build and paint.

"That's kind of what started building the community," he said. "Now it's just snowballing like crazy."

Raphaël Tremblay/CBC
Raphaël Tremblay/CBC

"He didn't care how much you ordered, he didn't care what you were buying ... he would make sure you got whatever it was that you needed or wanted to continue working on your hobby projects," said Jeremy Atkinson, who moved to Ottawa just before the pandemic hit.

Atkinson said he's had a decades-long struggle with his mental health, and Morris has always been understanding.

On Red Dragon's gaming nights, it's almost like an East Coast kitchen party. - Emily Crocco, Ottawa resident

"I was diagnosed with chronic depression when I was 18 years old," he said. "If you're struggling, if you're having difficulties, if you're having a rough day, [Morris], he'll always check in with you.

"I'm truly grateful for having that environment and that place that I, to a degree, have almost called my second home."

'The gem of Orléans,' says mom

Noah Nadeau, a Grade 8 student, remembers playing his first tabletop game with another beginner at Red Dragon two years ago.

"I was the youngest person there by far," recalled Nadeau.

Submitted by Patrick Nadeau
Submitted by Patrick Nadeau

But the age difference between players didn't matter.

"Even though they're much older than me, everybody there is just really friends."

Nadeau said the community gave him a reprieve after hours of online school, staring at the screen all day.

"As a parent, we always want our children to find a community ... where they feel they belong, where they can be themselves," said Nadeau's dad, Patrick.

"This is the highlight of his week. And we couldn't be happier."

WATCH | Teen finds pandemic hobby, new friends at Red Dragon:

Mom Emily Crocco says her family discovered Red Dragon during the pandemic, and calls it "the gem of Orléans."

"[It's] really just a nook of a store in a small strip mall, but there's magic in the place. The available space seems to grow as more people come in," she wrote to CBC.

"On Red Dragon's gaming nights, it's almost like an East Coast kitchen party."

This weekend, Red Dragon is co-hosting one of Canada's largest Warhammer 40,000 tournaments at the EY Centre, bringing in teams from all over the world. Morris also dreams of branching out to work with schools and youth in the next few years.

But for now, he's grateful to everyone in his community for their support through the darkest of pandemic days, support that helped keep his business afloat.

"We've got a very dedicated group of people," Morris said. "And I love them all."

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