Geek Retreat
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A gaming family is set to turn a hobby into a business with the launch of a Geek Retreat store in Ipswich town centre.

Newly-weds Sharon Lockhart and Rob Harden are busy planning the new gaming shop from their garden shed in Bedfield, near Debenham.

They hope to open it by September or before — subject to planning permission.

Ex-teacher Sharon and former accountant Rob — who commuted to London for many years — tied the knot in December after originally postponing the ceremony due to the Covid pandemic.

Sharon — who has also run events and social media — said they decided to apply to run a store on a franchise basis after hearing about it from their eldest son, who is a customer where he lives.

Gaming retailer Geek Retreat announced its plans to expand into Norfolk, Suffolk and north Essex in November last year by launching 14 new stores around the country and many more over the coming years.

The business was started with a store in Glasgow in 2013 with its comic bookstore, gaming café and events hub format and from there expanded to 14 other city centre locations.

It aims to provide customers with a space to enjoy “geeky” interests and games, and also a “safe place to meet and play in an inclusive, welcoming, and social environment” for vulnerable customers such as those on the autistic spectrum or with mental health issues.

Rob went up to Glasgow to meet the team including franchise founders Peter Dobson — its chief executive — and Steve Walsh and liked the inclusive nature of the business. Both felt the business fitted their family — which includes six children and partners, and one grandchild — perfectly.

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“We both decided during lockdown to do something different,” explained Sharon.

“When we heard that there was a chance to get involved in the business and to open our own store, we jumped at the chance.

“Rob went to Glasgow to meet the founders Steve and Peter and we knew straight away that this was the perfect fit for us.

“We love the idea of people socialising and especially after a year of being so isolated from other people. We are a gaming family so a lot of what is offered in the shop is our interests anyway. Plus we love shakes and treats.”

They have set up their own limited company to run the Ipswich store on a franchise basis.

“This is the best of both worlds for us — we get to run our own family business but supported all the way by the amazing experience and knowledge of the head office,” said Sharon.

“We are doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work, getting the plans together takes a lot of work but is super exciting. We are also setting up social media and community contacts, ordering stock and building a community.

“We like that people are already chatting in our social groups about their interests and have had people say they are nervous to go out but they feel comfortable and cannot wait to come to the shop when we open.”

Their aim when the shop opens is to attract people from all walks of life, said Sharon.

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“That is the lovely part. There are lots of people out there with really strong interests in gaming and we want to provide the right environment for them to pursue their passions. We will have regular events for lots of the most popular games with special offers and prizes.

“But we also want to have special nights for those with autism and run things like mums and tots groups too — we want everyone to feel welcome, our mission is to be the friendliest place to meet, eat, shop and game.

“It is a fun café with an opportunity to try a new game, trade or participate in special events and tournaments.”

There’s already a great deal of interest and they attracted more than 200 Facebook followers in just over a week. The feedback so far has been “extremely positive”.

They have met with experts in various games and are working with them to develop groups and events when they open. They have also been talking to special needs support groups.

The whole family has got involved with the older children helping out with ideas. Even their eight-week-old grandson has a costume ready.

Their plan is to work together to build the gaming community in Ipswich, said Sharon.

“We want to be more than a shop,” she explained.

“The timing is right for people to want to do something — and the food is excellent too — comfort food with geek culture-themed shakes.”

They had chosen Ipswich for the venture as they live locally and feel it will give people a reason to come to town to meet up with friends or like-minded people, she said.

“We have been sad to see the devastating effect of Covid on the town centre and it is destination shops like Geek Retreat that will help bring people back to the shops.”

If planners give their proposals the thumbs up, the couple hopes to launch the shop in a former Age UK store in Upper Brook Street.

The new franchisees aim to be at the Comicon at Trinity Park in Ipswich on July 17/18 to meet people.

By Sarah Chambers

Source: Ipswich Star

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