As COVID-19 canceled live events, Anchorage residents went analog

A customer waits outside Anchorage House of Hobbies on Thursday, Dec. 31. (Abbey Collins/Alaska Public Media)

The pandemic has been devastating for many in Alaska’s small business community. But certain businesses unexpectedly filled a new niche: old-fashioned, pandemic-friendly analog entertainment. They ended up seeing growth in sales.

Anchorage House of Hobbies, in Spenard, has been very busy this year.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever had to work so hard,” store owner Ryan Raffuse said. “It’s been an exercise in flexibility.”

When the pandemic began to take hold in Anchorage, Raffuse sprang into action planning for a slow year.

“When I saw what was going to happen in March, I started planning what I was going to do with downtime. I had a list of all kinds of projects around the store that I was going to take care of. And when we did close, I took a couple days off,” Raffuse said. “But then we quickly found that people needed things to do, and they were constantly calling and messaging and emailing.”

It turned into the best year ever for sales. Raffuse said 2019 was already a record year, and now sales are up 10%.

Raffuse serves on the board of directors for the National Retail Hobby Stores Association. He said business has been booming at hobby shops across the county. He thinks it has to do with people being stuck at home. Those people who still have money to spend don’t have many places to spend it.

“My family didn’t go on a trip to Disneyland like we planned,” said Raffuse. “So that’s thousands of dollars we planned on spending that we didn’t spend. I know there are many, many families who had the same thing: They didn’t go places. They aren’t going to movies to spend little bits. They aren’t spending as much at restaurants. They aren’t doing all these other things. But they can stay at home and build models and play with RC Cars and planes.”

While it’s been a good year for the House of Hobbies, Raffuse recognizes that hasn’t been the case for others in Anchorage’s business community. This month he’s been doing what he can to support local restaurants, by buying his employees lunch from a different one each day.

“I and my family, we definitely believe in the community aspect of what we do, and how important it is for our neighbors to be doing well in order for us to do well,” said Raffuse. “We’re very much all connected.”

Down the road at Bosco’s, store manager Eric Helmik says sales have been surprisingly strong this year.

Once solely a comic book store, Bosco’s now sells many different products — board games, role play games and sports cards.

This year, Helmik says puzzles and games have been among the products selling particularly well.

“We had to kind of switch gears on a few things,” said Helmik. “Normally, we don’t go through a lot of puzzles. So we had to kind of scramble and check with a bunch of distributors and find out if they had extra puzzles and see what they could get us.”

The store also has an events room, but hasn’t been able to hold any during the pandemic.

“Pre-COVID, we would have, you know, all kinds of games going on there,” said Helmik. “Mondays we would have Pokemon or Star Wars. And then there would be Yu-Gi-Oh on Tuesday, and several days of Magic the Gathering.”

Now, Helmik said the events room is being used as extra retail space, to give shoppers more room in the store.

Helmik said he thinks at least some of the store’s success comes from people’s desire to escape the real world for a bit.

“A lot of people — they’re just wanting to escape reality,” said Helmik. “So they want comics to read, or graphic novels, or they want to play a role playing game just to get away from the real world for a few hours.”

Like Raffuse, Helmik said now more than ever, it’s important to support Alaska businesses and shop local.

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