Tucked away in Yellowknife’s Centre Square mall, the windows of the Ogre’s Lair are filled to the brim with board games and plastic figures of warlocks.
Behind stacks of games, decks of cards, costumes, and miniatures, sits James Crozier. A born-and-raised northerner, Croizier has been running the Ogre’s Lair for more than 20 years – selling everything a gaming enthusiast could want.
“I wouldn’t say it’s an easy road,” Croizier says when asked why he got into retail. “I wouldn’t tell anybody to actually do this. I’m not independently wealthy or anything like that.”
But Croizier likes the freedom of being his own boss, and he’s been a big gamer since he was a child. At the end of the day, he says, “you have to be able to live with yourself.”
In different times, the shop would be more of a clubhouse. People play games and enjoy each other’s company, or maybe watch a movie in a back room.
The pandemic has ended that for now. But while people can’t hang out as they once did, Croizier has been keeping up with sales over eBay.
“When it comes down to it, retail in this town has always been kind of difficult,” Croizier says.
James Croizier has been running Yellowknife’s Ogre’s Lair for more than 20 years. Meaghan Brackenbury/Cabin Radio.
“The smaller stores, they’re all done because you can’t run the store and pay rent and try to have competitive prices. You have to have competitive prices because you’re dealing with Amazon, you’re dealing with all these other bigger companies.”
Croizier is finding creative ways to meet his bottom line. Selling items online is one. Another is linking his store to the internet through his phone as opposed to paying for a router.
Croizier also makes a habit of collecting bottles, milk jugs, and any other plastic he finds while walking to and from work so he can take it to the city’s bottle depot and get money back. He carries a bag with him every day and stores his findings in cardboard boxes in his stock room.
“That’s your challenge as a business,” he says. “What do you do to save money? How do you reduce your cost per month in order to actually have a competitive product?”
However, Croizier is – by his own admission – a bad salesman. He’s not in it for the money, he says, nor is he going to push products for sales.
“If people come in and they have fun, that’s fine.”
The store is packed to the brim with games and trinkets. Meaghan Brackenbury/Cabin Radio.
Reigh Foster DeBaie, president of annual gaming and cosplay convention Ptarmicon – cancelled this year due to Covid-19 – identifies as a hardcore gamer. She’s been frequenting Ogre’s Lair for nearly 10 years after moving to Yellowknife from Nova Scotia.
She made some of her first northern friends at Magic: The Gathering game nights.
“Creating that social connection with other gamers is super important, especially since so many gamers find themselves kind of anti-social and probably find it a lot harder to make friends than other people that aren’t as nerdy, I suppose,” she says.
“Being able to have those personal connections with other people, in the same interests that I have, just lets me relax.
“[It] lets me tell myself that I can be who I am, and I don’t have to worry about it. These people aren’t judging me, we’re all like-minded people.”
This idea recently caught the attention of academics at the University of Alberta, who are studying the social impacts of a Dungeons & Dragons group for at-risk youth in Edmonton. The group, called the Level-Up Gaming League, aims to bring teenagers together and foster social development.
In Croizier’s estimation, there are plenty of ways games help with life skills, alongside “keeping him out of trouble as a kid.”
“A lot of the games teach, cooperation, problem-solving, vocabulary, all sorts of stuff like that,” he says.
A Gollum figurine looks anxiously over its shoulder. Meaghan Brackenbury/Cabin Radio.
He adds: “Our imaginations are under siege.”
This is a point of passion for Croizier. With an abundance of media to consume, people are presented with ready-made stories and called on less to use their own imaginations.
Role-playing games, where the player is required to think up their own storylines and characters, challenge that.
“A lot of these games were built upon wit and guile. You’re presented with a challenge in these games of imagination, and you have to figure a way out of it,” Croizier says.
“And it’s not set in a card in front of you. It’s not in the book that you’re reading. You have to sit there and MacGyver your way out of this thing.”
With active imaginations, Croizier says, people can envision futures, lives, and possibilities outside of what’s directly in front of them. His store is a reminder that “there are other options.”
Foster DeBaie can’t wait to get back into the Ogre’s Lair once more and “throw money” at Croizier, who over the years has become her friend. She’s already making big plans to get her three-year-old son into gaming.
“I’ve been saying since the day he was born, pretty much, that as soon as he can understand numbers and basic math, we’re going to be learning to play Magic: The Gathering,” she says.
“Playing Dungeons & Dragons, you just need your imagination. That’s something we look forward to trying to play with him.”
This coverage of the NWT’s business sector during the Covid-19 pandemic is sponsored by the NWT’s Department of Industry, Tourism, and Investment. Visit Buy North for more information on businesses near you.