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Customers keep coming back to this Tualatin store because it's got game

Ancient Wonders hides in plain sight, in an early 20th-century house right in the middle of downtown Tualatin
by: Jaime Valdez Gamers regularly play upstairs at Ancient Wonders. It’s not a typical store, according to owner George Harrison. “This is their clubhouse.”

There's a place where everyone knows your name. A place where the same people come in night after night, week after week, year after year. The proprietor will listen to your problems, your friends are always there and, aside from the occasional brawl, it's a friendly, comfortable place to hang out.

No, it's not the Cheers bar. It's called Ancient Wonders, and it sells games.

Ancient Wonders hides in plain sight, in an early 20th-century house right in the middle of downtown Tualatin. If you're not looking for it, you may not even see the dragon-decorated sign.

But Ancient Wonders is far from undiscovered. Any night of the week the store is packed with people playing games: board games, card games, games with books, with dice and games with carefully hand-painted miniatures.

The evolution of the place

In 1980, the house at 19060 S.W. Boones Ferry Road turned from an auto shop into a book store called Lady Jane's. Years later, the house became Classic Cards and Comics. Sixteen years ago, loyal customer George Harrison bought the business and named it Ancient Wonders. By any name, the store has always attracted the same kind of crowd, and even the same exact people, and then their children, and their children's children, and so on.

Lady Jane's was a bookstore, remembers Tony Rains, 31, now Ancient Wonders' manager. Rains' mother brought him to the store 'back in the day,' right about when he was learning to read.

'When I started being able to wander around Tualatin on my own, I'd wander down here,' Rains said. It was at Lady Jane's that Rains first discovered the card game, Magic: The Gathering.

'I've been coming back here ever since then,' he said.

Lady Jane's is where another of the store's longest-running businesses started, a comic book 'post office': All of the service's 100 customers have their own individual mailboxes, where they can pick up their new comics every month. One subscriber has been using the service in this same building since Lady Jane's moved in.

Harrison grew up in West Linn, and like Rains, remembers visiting the store under its its previous names. He picked up Dungeons and Dragons on a Boy Scout camping trip and never looked back. He calls games like the ones sold in his store 'complicated games of let's pretend.'

'In some sense, they're just about figuring out the consequences for what your actions are,' Harrison said. In such a game, players can experience whatever they want, he added. 'It limits the danger, if you will. I can go skydiving without having to land.'

As a kid, Harrison had two dreams. He wanted to be a stock broker, and he first invested in the market in grade school. Then he wanted to be a nuclear physicist.

A sizable collection

'Neither of those happened,' he said. Instead he stuck around, spending a little time working at Marylhurst College and caring for his parents. When his local game store came up for sale, he thought he'd found something he could really be good at.

'One of the things I thought was, 'I know how to play a lot of games, I played a lot of board games, I can teach people how to use them,'' Harrison, now 47, said. 'I was wrong. When it came right down to it, I didn't play nearly as much as I thought.'

The world of gaming was bigger than Harrison had imagined. 'I had played three dozen board games or something. Well, that's not that many, in the grand scheme of human events.'

Ancient Wonders currently carries, at Harrison's estimation, about 120 board games.

It also carries 1,500 books and manuals for role-playing games, like the popular Dungeons and Dragons. This is, Harrison said, one of the largest such collections in the country.

'Our competition is not other local game stores, but actually Powell's Books. Sometimes they have more; sometimes we have more,' Harrison said.

Ancient Wonders also houses a giant collection of Magic: The Gathering cards, which players can pick out individually to build decks. The store even has its own league: The Ancient Wonders Elite Society of Magic Enthusiasts, also known as AWESOME.

Customers at Ancient Wonders range in age from 8 to 60-plus, though, Harrison added, 'When Pokemon was big, it dropped down to as low as 4.'

Though there is quite a bit of variety, the average customer fits a stereotype: mid-20s, male, interest in technology - nerd.

More than a store

One Thursday night, Harrison and Rains climbed the stairs to Ancient Wonders' second story, which is all gaming rooms. Dozens filled the folding tables. At one table, a group of teen-to-mid-20s men played magic. At another, a mixed crowd played a board game based on the television show 'Battlestar Galactica.' Across the room, a handful of intense gamers picked up their long-running Dungeons and Dragons adventure.

'We're not a typical store,' Harrison said. 'This is their clubhouse. This is where they can go to play.'

And they come. Ancient Wonders sees 400 to 500 visits a week, and some events bring in up to 100 gamers at a time.

'We have customers that will be here every day, and then there are some guys who will show up once a week, but they've been doing that for 15 years,' Rains said.

Tualatin resident Bryan Bertsch comes to Ancient Wonders three times a week.

'It fulfills a social need as well as an important hobby fix,' he said. 'It's got a very 'Cheers-esque' environment. Not only do you get your game fix, you run into people that you know, and it's that sense of community that makes coming here different than a lot of other stores that I've been to in town.'

Heather Newell, 19, is one of the store's three full-time employees. Ancient Wonders is a lot more than a store for her.

Newell dropped out of Tualatin High School, but her friends at Ancient Wonders wouldn't let her stop schooling. They encouraged her to get back to work.

'I got my GED, and that way I got to figure out what it was like to be in the college scene,' Newell said. 'That made me want to do more with my life.'

Now Newell is enrolling in PCC.

For Newell, Ancient Wonders provides the perfect social group. 'I don't like every other scene,' she said. 'Kids are usually doing drugs and alcohol, and that's really not my thing. Here I can act like myself, and get to know different game systems and hang out with the people who are more like me than your common teenagers.'

The community aspect of games, and at Ancient Wonders, is the main business.

Cheaper than others

In recent years, the down economy has definitely affected the store, Harrison said, but it hasn't done so consistently.

'During the time of the crash in 2008, it was just terrible,' Harrison said. But sales picked up, and last year was 'a really good year.'

And why is that?

'We are a cheaper entertainment dollar than others,' Harrison said. 'If you're going drinking, that's expensive. If you are going to the movies, that's expensive.'

The board games sold at Ancient Wonders can cost around $70 - but they can be replayed.

'If you play that for 140 hours, that doesn't sound nearly as bad as a movie,' Harrison said.

And then there's the other challenge: The store sells books and games; these are the kinds of products that are being sold on the Internet, putting local bookstores and chains like Borders in tight financial times. But Ancient Wonders keeps going.

'Yes, you can find this stuff cheaper online,' Rains said. 'What we offer is a place to play. We provide an atmosphere that you can't get over the Internet.'