For over 40 years, The Sentry Box has been the crown of Calgary’s gaming community. But, for owner Gordon Johansen, the quest to protect his shop has been fraught with financial peril, as well as great reward.
Originally working as a power engineer, Johansen started his gaming business as a small one, selling products from the back of his car in his spare time. His goal was to retire from engineering at 36 and open a game store.
“It was shift work which gave me the time to do the game stuff and it’s why I started whole-selling,” says Johansen, explaining that he “met a guy at a convention and wanted to get cheap games for me and my friends and it kind of started all from there.”
Instead of retiring after losing his job, he was convinced by friends to purchase a space to transform his hobby into a full-time career. He saw his opportunity with a small ten-by-ten square foot store called The Sentry Box.
The first owner of the store was a lady “who ran it for a couple of years, got bored and quit.” It was later bought by someone else.
Johansen was able to buy The Sentry Box from the second owner since “the guy who owned it wasn’t a gamer” and he believed Johansen would be a worthy successor.
“He once said that ‘I wouldn’t have sold it to anybody else’ because someone else wanted to buy it too,” says Johansen, adding that the former owner “ended [up] going off and became an undertaker.”
From there, Johansen grew his empire by buying property around the first location, moving the business to a second location in Marda Loop, and 25 years ago finally settled in to their current location on 10th Ave.
Unending attack of taxes
At the same time, Johansen ended up having to fend off different hardships and disasters like the “Great Sewage Flood” of 2013. Repair work on the pipes on 14th Street and 10th Avenue caused 10 inches of sewage to spill into the back areas of the store, taking out the front part of the building and about a quarter million dollars’ worth of damage. As a result, Johansen had “loyal staff wading through raw sewage to save product.”
Another costly problem Johansen still deals with is the changes the city made by raising the property taxes six years ago. Changes in his payment schedule and a 65 per cent increase has cost him an extra $70,000 a year.
“And this year we got hammered again. It went up another 25 per cent after that. So now I’m paying as much per month as I used to per year when we first moved here.”
Johansen’s Sentry box has over 13,000 square feet dedicated to displays and gaming space and has over 100,000 different items on the selves. Photo by Daniel Gonzalez.
But Johansen takes these events and places them into perspective.
“You have to look at those moments and go, ‘You know what? This sucks,’ simple as that. But the reality is I’m living in Canada, I’m healthy and my kids are healthy.’”
And his business seems to be healthy too.
Recently, Johansen has seen an increase in the number of female customers. Many are interested in European-style games, where the players interact and compete indirectly with one another. But most notably, he says many of them enjoy playing the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons.
Johansen attributes the growth of female adventurers to the fifth edition specifically since it appealed to both genders. “That was the tip of the iceberg of female players and the potential base they could access,” he said. Other factors that re-popularized the game included the Netflix series Stranger Things, the Critical Role podcast and celebrities who play the game.
What hasn’t changed, however, are the different connections and experiences that bring people to the Sentry Box. One event that took place at the shop six years ago was a wedding and reception.
“That was basically one of the cooler stories. Basically, their comment was that they said they couldn’t think of a place that they’d had more fun together,” says Johansen. “And that was pretty flattering.”
“The fact is, my customers are what makes it fun. That’s the one thing I love about Christmas time is that I have to go down and not be dealing with computer work and paper prints. I’m just down there helping people because I really enjoy it.”
The Sentry Box recently celebrated its 40th anniversary and Johansen will never forget the comments and appreciation of one long-time customer who brought him a bottle of wine and a beautiful two-page handwritten letter about how much the store had meant to him.
“He’s a normal guy, you know? But it was really, really flattering to know that you’ve had that kind of impact.”
But what Johansen enjoys more than anything else is gaming with family and fellow gaming enthusiasts.
This set of dice from Sentry Box is the best selling item in the store. Photo by Daniel Gonzalez.
“You know, that’s what makes you feel good — when you make someone’s evening. I never want to recommend a higher-priced game that I don’t like. I have to tell people: ‘Just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean they won’t. But if you recommend it you better like it,’” he says.
Johansen compares the way he runs his business to the classic war strategy game Fire in the East, which uses over 2,500 pieces to simulate the fighting in the Soviet Union that took place during the Second World War. It can take months or even years to play.
“It’s all because each piece represents a division, regimen or a battalion and it’s got combat strengths and different abilities. And in some ways, running this place is like that. There’s so many moving parts and pieces to it.”
He believes that games, life and his business are all the same. There is no meaning in simply winning or losing. It’s all about the experience.
“You don’t want to gloat if you sell a game to somebody. That is not the win. The win is having the good game.”
Johansen continues to share his passion of games with anyone who enters his store. Although he achieved his goal of owning his own game store, he has no plans of retiring.
“Probably what I’ll do is keep working for another 10 years as my daughter says. I’m 63 now. I have no real desire to retire, but once you hit 60, you start thinking about things a little bit. But what would I do, play games and read books?”
Johansen and The Sentry Box are located at 1835 – 10 Ave. SW.
This story is part of our March-April print issue. Check out the digital version here or grab a copy at newsstands across the city.
Editor: Kaeliegh Allan | email@example.com