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Norman Schwartz has been a gamer all his life. Now he's making a living at it.

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Norman Schwartz sells games, puzzles and hobby supplies at Arsenal Games and Hobbies in Martinez. Many people gather to play at the store on weekends  Zach Boyden-Holmes/Staff
Zach Boyden-Holmes/Staff
Norman Schwartz sells games, puzzles and hobby supplies at Arsenal Games and Hobbies in Martinez. Many people gather to play at the store on weekends

There's a growing society that comes to his store, Arsenal Games and Hobbies, to buy tabletop war games, fantasy and science fiction games, puzzles, books and hobby supplies.

Schwartz, the managing partner, operates the South Belair Road store with his wife, Carolyn, and Jim Birdseye.

Arsenal Games opened in Martinez nearly a year ago after operating briefly in a kiosk at Fort Gordon. It eventually expanded next door to make room for game nights.

Gaming is a way of life for many of its customers. It's not uncommon to find patrons hanging out at the store on their days off from work, playing games or painting figurines. On weekends, high school and college students and military personnel also gather to play.

The store's bestselling game is Flames of War, which is based on World War II. Other popular games include Magic: The Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer, The Lord of the Rings and Munchkin. The store also carries Dixit, a storytelling game that has won awards overseas, said Joe Schwartz, who works for his father.

Customers are the best advertisement, he said.

"It helps to have people playing the games. (Demonstrating) the games is very important. The more activities and events that you have going on in the store, the more buzz it generates, the more people it brings in. Bumps up sales. Word of mouth helps also," Joe said.

Game stores have a reputation for not having a positive atmosphere, but his father wanted to end that stereotype.

"We try to set ourselves apart from other stores by keeping a clean shop, keeping the atmosphere as G-rated as possible, so that anybody that comes in will feel comfortable," Joe said. "Mothers can come in and drop their kids off. We don't allow cursing in the store. It's 25 cents a curse word."

Every January, Augusta plays host to Siege, a national gaming convention, at the DoubleTree Hotel. People travel from as far as England and Australia, said Keith Felger of Martinez, a customer who faithfully attends the convention.

Recently, he was at the store to pick up an order of army figurines for his favorite game, Flames of War.

"It's a nice hobby. It's very relaxing. We always say, 'A bad day at the game table is better than a good day at work,'" Felger said.

People would be surprised at who's among the gaming crowd, he said.

"There's lawyers, school teachers, doctors, you name it. There's just a whole eclectic group of people. You come in here on a Saturday afternoon, this place is packed. There's a huge gaming crowd in the CSRA," he said.

George Bouchard, a lifelong gamer and one of Norman's best friends, loves Arsenal Games so much that he volunteers at the store.

He likes its variety and said Norman and his partners have done a good job keeping up with demand. He hopes to one day see a second location.

"There's still more that he will have to learn, but I think he's doing great," Bouchard said.

Bound for the Navy

Schwartz was born in New York, but his family moved often because his father was in the Army. Growing up, he moved back and forth from Augusta to locations overseas, spending two years in France and three years in Germany.

His father taught him to play chess when he was 5, and once a week, his family had game night. They sat around the dining room table and played dominos, Sorry, Monopoly and Crazy Eights.

"It was a good way to grow up," Schwartz said.

As he got older, he started playing more tactical games, such as Wooden Ships and Iron Men, a game based on naval combat in the 19th century.

"I was hooked. I love those kinds of games. I've been playing them since then," he said.

Schwartz always knew he would be a Navy man. When he was 6 or 7, he saw the World War II Navy ships and aircraft carriers in the Hudson River.

"I said, 'Wow, that's what I want to do.' I knew I wanted to be in the Navy," he said.

He joined the Navy a year after high school and worked as a medic for more than 20 years. He retired in 1999 and returned to Augusta.

Schwartz met his business partner, Birdseye, at the local gaming convention. When Birdseye moved to Georgia from Virginia, there weren't many local gaming options, so he helped start an event. Now in its 20th year, Seige attracts 160 to 200 people every year, he said.

A few years ago, Birdseye was in the hospital recovering from surgery. Schwartz went to visit him, and Birdseye, who was heavily medicated with morphine, said "Hey, let's open a game store."

Schwartz didn't take him seriously. Two weeks later, he went to Birdseye's house. Birdseye asked whether he had considered his proposal. Schwartz was shocked that he remembered it.

It turned out that Birdseye had owned a game store in Virginia that had done well. He sold the store because his wife got a job in Augusta.

Even though there were other game stores in town, Schwartz knew there were people ordering game pieces online because they couldn't find them locally. He agreed to help open the store.

They started the store at Fort Gordon in March and opened on South Belair Road in May.

"It's been scary and exciting and frustrating. I'm still having fun with it, though," he said.

The gaming business

The partners opened on a shoestring budget because they had trouble getting a loan. They started with inventory from a local man who had owned a game store in the area.

Schwartz said he hasn't made a dime from the store yet, but he's optimistic.

"It's been pretty steady month to month on sales. The trend has been upward," he said.

The economy is down, but he doesn't think people will stop playing games.

"The last thing people will give up is their own recreation," he said.

Norman Schwartz

TITLE: Managing partner at Arsenal Games and Hobbies

BORN: Jan 28, 1960 in New York

FAMILY: Wife, Carolyn; children, Joe and Benjamen

CIVIC/EXTRACURRICULAR: Columbia County Chamber of Commerce

HOBBIES: Scuba diving, gaming, racquetball and reading

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