Down East 2013 ©
We all share this fantasy, I bet, of walking down a street in a quaint New England village and discovering, tucked among the old storefronts, a Great Secret Place. It might be a charming restaurant or a book- lover’s haven or a little shop of wonders. And the great thing about Maine is that, now and then, this actually happens.
My son Matt and I found All About Games  while poking around Belfast a decade ago. It’s right on Main Street, heading down toward the harbor. The word “games” on a store
sign does not often bode well — generally it portends a noisy den of digital sensory assault — but in this case, we found ourselves surrounded by shelf upon shelf of board games and card games, role- playing games, mystery-hosting games, pig-tossing games (don’t ask) ... pretty much the whole spectrum of things you can play without plugging them in first.
That day my son and I bought a German game called Löwenherz — a medieval-themed struggle to seize territory, gather resources and thwart your opponents. We later found this to be the tip of a magic mountain of modern European board games, few of which had found their way to the American market. This little shop in Belfast was, in that respect, a sort of beachhead.
We’ve been going back to All About Games for years now. It’s become one of my favorite places in Maine, often providing the occasion for a drive up the coast to Belfast (which is always worth doing, in any case). During this time we’ve come to know the store and its owners, Ray and Patricia Estabrook, and some of the interesting young characters who hang around upstairs in a separate establishment called the Game Loft.
Patricia and Ray are — if you’ll pardon the seeming oxymoron — serious gamers. They met in Portland in 1980 at an annual gaming convention and married a few years later. Ray had run a specialty game store in Massachusetts during the 70s — a halcyon era for dedicated game buffs — but the thought of opening a similar store in Maine did not arise until 1996, when the Estabrooks’ son Adam needed a summer job. The plan was to rent an inexpensive outlet in a downtown micro-mall where Adam could hold court.
When — in the time-honored fashion of teenagers — Adam quit after a week, Patricia took over the business, which thrived against all odds, attracted a dedicated clientele, and soon migrated to roomier quarters
The Game Loft upstairs is a whole other story, a rather inspired one. Always a kid-friendly place, the store had become a hangout for teens who gathered after school to play games, make noise, and generally fill up the room as teenagers do. They were good kids but they didn’t have a lot of money to spend, and the Estabrooks came to feel they should have their own space, separate from the retail store. Hence, the Game Loft, a nonprofit 501c.(3) establishment that sprawls comfortably through the second floor of the building and has evolved into a kind of unofficial Belfast youth center.
It fell to my younger son Tristan to scope this place out. We’d heard vague mention of this or that game being popular among “the kids up in the Loft.” But where was this Loft? Hidden in plain sight, Tristan found, behind its own street door at the top of a flight of stairs. He was just then getting into a game called Magic: The Gathering — an excellent way to dispose of that money you don’t really need, as it’s built around an endless series of “expansions.” Several Loft regulars were also Magic devotees, and on some Saturdays there were organized tournaments. So Tristan started going there fairly often.
Now the Game Loft is one of those places that looks halfway interesting at first sight but becomes much cooler and more fascinating with repeated exposure. During a given year it receives about 300 “unique visits” by local kids. It’s open seven days a week and serves a hot meal, without charge, every day. It’s managed by a small paid staff supplemented by adult and youthful volunteers. The core group of Loft regulars are middle school and high school students — just the ones in greatest need of a safe place to gather after school — but there are organized activities designed for younger kids at specified times of the week. The focus is, of course, upon gaming, but these games are of a sophisticated sort, designed to build social and interactive skills, and in some cases (as with a role-playing game called “Eureka”) to immerse the young gamers in real history.
To me, the whole scene has a good vibe about it: healthy and welcoming and fun. I hope both the store and the Loft continue to weather these trying economic times. They represent something really fine and appealing about small-town Maine, a sense of the possibility that endures in our little communities for doing well and doing good by sticking to something that you love.
Novelist Richard Grant lives in Lincolnville.