Electric chapel

Orlando's Geek Easy keeps group gaming alive

Electric chapel
Joseph Grey

Aaron Haaland lifts a paper sheet hanging toward the back of A Comic Shop and leads me into the Geek Easy.

“Come see what we've done to the bar,” Haaland says, shuffling past paint buckets and power tools to a countertop collaged with comic panels and video game characters. Drifts of unused clippings litter the floor nearby. “And those beams” - he points to the rafters above - “are going to be painted green, like Mario pipes. Isn't that cool?”

I'm struck by two things. First is the way Haaland obviously delights in the mess, the way a child might look at a random pile of wood but see only the backyard treehouse the wood will become.

Second is what he says next: “I want this place to be like church was for my parents.”

The allegory makes some sense. Decals of Mega Man and Dr. Wily's minions battle in 8-bits across one wall; a giant Super Mario Bros. mural adorns another, echoing the glory of an old-world church fresco. With the exposed rafters, even our echoing footsteps feel hallowed. Haaland has built a temple for the deities of his childhood.

But on subsequent visits, as I notice fans trickling in to help renovate and pitching ideas for the new Geek Easy (reopening May 5) it becomes evident the “church thing” goes deeper.

“It's where a lot of my friends hang out, and I'm friends with all the employees, so I'm in a lot,” Orlando resident Jesse Catto says one Friday afternoon, sipping a beer as other Geek Easy volunteers buzz behind him. “Aaron puts on events for everyone - there's a bunch of customer clubs. I'm president of the craft beer club here. We're relaunching it to coincide with the Geek Easy reopening.”

Catto also helped lay the new tile floor and install hanging lights over the bar a few weeks ago. The enthusiasm for pitching in extends to many A Comic Shop devotees. For instance, when Haaland issued a notice for volunteers to help tear out old ceiling insulation, he didn't know what to expect.

More than 30 people showed up. Church barbecues have wrangled smaller crowds.

“It was really incredible,” Haaland says.

For Haaland, the Geek Easy is a vision he's had for years: a place for gamers and comic lovers to call their own. That dream bore fruit when A Comic Shop acquired the bankrupt beauty school next door for basement-level rent, and the Geek Easy first opened its doors a few years ago.

“I would go out and buy comic books, and I literally couldn't wait until I got home to read them,” Haaland says, “so I sat in my car with the windows cracked and blew through them right there. Every time, I thought, ‘Man, this is total crap. Why can't I just chill inside at a table and read there?' That's really where the whole thing started.”

When the Geek Easy returns, it'll be with one big difference: They will finally be able to serve alcoholic beverages. It's not the first gamer-focused hangout in Orlando to do so - Beat the Box and Rocky's Replay, both now out of business, reached out to adults with “buds and booze” gaming. But those places embraced the pay-per-play business model from arcades of old, requiring hourly or per-session rates to keep the good times rolling.

Instead, Haaland will offer gamers a Geek Easy membership program. A $9.95 monthly fee will cover unlimited access to the bar's exhaustive gaming library, Wi-Fi network, and free admission to all Geek Easy-sponsored book signings and shows. Of course, you don't have to be a member to buy some snacks or knock back a beer or two with friends. That's key to the social- network-in-real-life idea: Anyone and everyone is welcome to have a good time.

“When I was a kid in Vero Beach, arcades used to be in shopping malls,” Haaland says. “Your mom would go shoe shopping or something, you'd take your handful of quarters, meet up with your friends, and maybe work something out where you spend the night at your friend's house. It was a win-win for everyone. I don't know if the quarter-for-play is viable anymore, but that sense of community those places had will always be important.”

I ask about console gaming's aggressive push into the web, thanks to gigawatt titles like World of Warcraft and the Modern Warfare series. Could virtual lounges ever replace real ones like his?

Haaland looks past me to the Super Mario mural, the familiar heroes and villains all present and accounted for, larger than they ever were on any screen.

“There's no way,” he says, shaking his head. “People will always need people. And they'll want a space to meet in.”

“Some people get together to worship, some people get together to play video games - it's not so different,” Haaland says. “We just want to get the word out. We're here for everybody.”

The Geek Easy officially reopens on Free Comic Book Day, May 5.