Six years ago, a little action figure store named Cincinnati Sci-Fi was nestled between Valvoline Oil Change and Starbuzz Hookah Bar. The store, which belonged to David Silvieous, was stocked with toys, action figures and comic books that lined the tiny building with barely enough space to walk.
That is, until he sold it, and it became Total Concept Gaming. But the relationship between the retail store and the gaming community was lost.
The place was a wreck—it hadn’t seen a paint job in years and the entire back end of the store was used for storage.
The customer base was dying, and no one knew if it would ever come back to life. And so with $700 in his pocket and the choice of either paying his rent or buying the store, current owner of the gaming store and previous employee of Cincinnati Sci-Fi John Helt said, “Screw it,” and bought the store, renaming it The Illuminaudi.
On any given Friday night at 6:30, gamers swarm The Illuminaudi like vultures. Cars of all sorts squeeze into the 50-by- 80-foot parking lot—which is meant to hold only about eight to nine cars—some resorting to parking across the street at Ace Hardware and sprinting across Cincinnati-Dayton Road.
It’s a dilapidated, repurposed house with dead shrubbery lining the front of the building. Outside the front door are young adults smoking cigarettes, and above the door is a white sign with red lettering reading “The Illuminaudi.”
Inside is East alumnus Zach Schork, who graduated in 2011. He’s involved in a game of Magic: The Gathering, the card game that brought almost every patron into the store. He and his opponent aren’t talking. Rather, they communicate by moving their cards along their playing mats, biting their nails and glancing up at each other every now and then.
“[I come here] probably every other day at least,” Schork says with a laugh. “Six to seven hours a day. It’s like my second home, pretty much.”
Then there’s Aaron Reichert, a boy wearing glasses, a gray sweater and an anime necklace. He’s 20, and graduated from East in 2010. He’s looking to sell his $20,000 Magic card collection and move to Japan for a year, but tonight he’s just here to hang out.
“I’ve been playing Magic for two and a half years now,” Reichert says. “At this point I don’t really trade or play, I just know everybody. Really I just come because it’s Friday night and this is what I do.”
And there’s a 31-year-old named Jonathan Medina, whom Reichert says is the reason he got started in Magic. Medina’s black hair is slicked back, and his royal purple shirt is unbuttoned at the top. He has at least three boxes of cards stacked one on top of the other, keeping them close to his side as he explains the unknown lifestyle behind Magic.
“There’s actually celebrities in the Magic realm where people will ask them to sign their playing mats or sign their cards,” he says. “It’s kind of like being a rock star among the geeks.”
He’s being modest, but really, he’s talking about himself. Medina is widely known in the Magic community due to his articles on big-name Magic websites and his weekly podcasts on his website, Legitmtg.com. But when he’s at The Illuminaudi, he’s just another patron.
“When you come to a place like this where you all have something in common, it’s like a shelter,” he says. “Nobody’s making fun of anybody else because we’re all playing this geeky card game.”
To anyone else, this shelter is nothing but “a hole in the wall,” from the outside, as Helt puts it. But because The Illuminaudi is so different than other gaming stores, it attracts a different kind of weird.
21-year-old Jamie Kellum, current employee of the store, remembers when the place was once robbed of Dragon Ball Z cards, something patrons like to laugh about because Dragon Ball Z is worth nothing compared to the other cards that are sold in the store.
“The damage the robbers did to the door was way worse than anything they actually stole,” says Kellum, who calls himself “Second in Command” at the store. “Dragon Ball Z is a dead game. A Dragon Ball Z booster box was five dollars; they stole all of that while they passed up the hundred-dollar Yu-Gi-Oh cards.”
Then there’s the self- proclaimed “workaholic” owner, Helt, who claims he’s gotten into a physical tussle with William Shatner, been on a date with Natalie Portman, and met just about every actor from Star Wars.
“John’s a bit of a storyteller,”Kellum laughs.
And then there’s the store’s not-so-strict “Showering Rule.” “Shower before you come here,” 19-year-old Kurghan Horn, nicknamed Dragonlord, puts it simply.
But Helt says that The Illuminaudi really isn’t a typical “nerdy” store full of people who forget to use deodorant.
“I have the so-called geeks and dorks. I have the jocks. I have the preppy girls. I have the cheerleaders,” the 32-year-old says. “I’ve had football players from East and West come in and [people] would be like, ‘Aren’t you a football player? I didn’t know you liked Yu-Gi-Oh.’ Every [stereotype] that you can think of in high school. At one given time, they’re unified.”
Kellum, who likes to measure the time he’s been working at the store in Magic card set releases (12 sets, or four years), says it’s necessary to walk inside to understand that The Illuminaudi is more than just a store—it’s a little community of people who love to game.
“People come in here and they’re just like, ‘I’m home,’” Kellum says. “There’s a sense of camaraderie around here. We strive to not really be a store as much as we are a hangout place. We want you to come in here and spend money, but more than that we want you to come in here [and] then later say to your buddies, ‘Oh yeah, I went to The Illuminaudi and it was great.’”
For 31-year-old Joe Strickland, this camaraderie in Magic takes a more literal sense. During his 10 years in the Army Reserve so far, he spent a portion of his free time in Afghanistan and Iraq ordering cards and building decks.
“Finding other military members who do play Magic is really rare,” he says, “but it’s really nice when they do because you instantly have a friend on two fronts.”
Not only is Magic a recreational game, but some people whom Kellum likes to call “Magic economists” don’t even play the game on a regular basis. They simply collect decks to buy, sell and trade. For these people, the little two-by-three-inch pieces of cardboard are gold.
“It’s like a stock exchange,” Reichert says. “Except you’re physically holding your stock.”
In addition to the location on Cincinnati-Dayton Road, The Illuminaudi is in two other locations which Helt owns in Amelia, OH and Alexandra, KY. But his primary focus is The Illuminaudi, on Cincinnati-Dayton Road.
“This place [on Cincinnati- Dayton Road] has been identified as a card gaming place and a toy store since 1997,” Helt says. “I’m the original employee from Cincinnati Sci-Fi, and I kept that going. There’s no story behind the other stores like this one.”
Whether it be to play, trade, or just hang out, The Illuminaudi is open for everyone.
“Some stores like to charge people [an admission fee]. I don’t,” Helt says. “I really want people to have fun and game for free. I’ve had people who have fought each other at school and then found out that they both play Magic. Its amazing how one store can reach out to so many people.”