ph_120In a time when video games and online communities seem to take priority over real life, one Ithaca shop is trying to bring community back to live people in a room, doing things together.  In addition to being a good old fashioned hobby shop, Providence Hobbies brings people together to play games, build models, and share experiences in real life.  Manager Jeffrey Witty says when he opened the store teenagers had nothing to do, and that resulted in crime and social problems in Ithaca.

"I wanted to help move Ithaca out of that dark space and give teenagers something to do," he says.  "So we started our gaming events and started building our gaming community.  It pulled people who were feeling alone out of the streets and put them in rooms where they were playing games with other kids their age.  Soon they started building new friendship networks.  Eventually our community expanded so now it consists of a wide range of ages from 9 to 30."

The Buffalo Street store carries models, board games, comic books, model cars, boats, planes, and trains, and a full line RC (Radio Controlled) department.  Witty maintains a model shop where he repairs RC models and welcomes customers to come build their own.  A large space is used for playing group fantasy games such as 'Magic the Gathering' or 'Dungeons and Dragons, and a private gaming room is available for rent for birthday parties, D&D, or Breyer Horse parties.  A Magic tournament often attracts as many as 50 players, filling the large game room.

The stock is expansive, with boxes of new items arriving every day and others available by special order.

"We are a full line hobby shop," Witty says.  "We have models, board games, radio controlled equipment of every kind.  Sometimes by order I will design radio-controlled items or sometimes modify them."

A store like this is certainly not all work and no play.  Play is a big part of the work.  Witty recalls repairing a radio controlled tank model, then needing to find out how long a battery would last running it.  He told an employee he wanted her to run the tank all around the store, marking the time it took to run down the battery.

As he handed over the radio controller she smiled and said, "I love this job!"

Another employee, Josh Mosier, feels the same.  "I love it.  I get to play with all of these toys," he says.  "I couldn't ask for a better boss.  He puts a lot of effort into the store and makes it very enjoyable place for his employees and all the people who participate in games here."


That is reflected in Witty's customers.  People can come in at any time of day and find someone to play a game with, or talk to about their hobbies and passions.  Model builders often come in to work on their models in the store where they find a more social atmosphere, not to mention help when they need it, or a specialized tool.

"They could be building their models at home, but because we have given them a space there are preferring to come here where they can interact and be part of being bigger than themselves," Witty observes.

Building community on top of selling products has created a growing loyal following.  At no time was that more evident than in 2009.  The economy had crashed, and businesses all over the country were struggling to pay their taxes.  Witty could barely make his expenses, and while he was cooperating with the State to gradually pay his tax debt, Providence Hobbies was one of 23 Ithaca stores to be shut down for nonpayment.

Witty was despondent, and certain the shop was done.  Unbeknownst to him, his customers were saving the shop.  Providence Hobbies was one of the first businesses to have a presence on Facebook, and customers often checked the site to find out when tournaments and other events were taking place.  When they saw the shop closed they continued to check the Facebook page to try to find out what had happened.  A friend of Witty's logged on to explain what had happened, and soon customers were transferring money to the store's PayPal account.

Witty's computer had been seized along with everything else, so he was unaware this was happening until a friend called.

"He said, 'Dude, you need to look on the Facebook'.  I said I don't have a computer," Witty recalls.  "So he came over with his computer to show me.  I logged into Paypal and people were, in fact, putting money in it."

The story was picked up by the press, and even made national news when enough money was raised by customers and the store owners to reopen the shop.  Of the 23 stores the State closed, Providence Hobbies was the only one to reopen.  The money is being repaid, and the shop is slowly recovering with new customers coming from the publicity the story attracted.

Providence Hobbies started in Philadelphia, where Witty's grandfather had a hobby shop of the same name.

"He taught me everything there was to know about hobbies," Witty says.  "We used to build models together all the time, and he told me stories about whatever it was we were building."

ph_wittyJeffrey Witty

Witty was in the Navy when his grandfather died in 1984.  He had gone to college for business administration before going into the service, but now felt at a loss as to what he wanted to do.  He had such fond memories of his grandfather's shop that he decided to oen his own, and to call it Providence Hobbies.  That lasted until 1993, when he was incapacitated in an auto accident.

He eventually moved to Ithaca to be with family, running the Hollywood Videos stores.  But he wanted to get back to what he loved, and in 2005 Providence Hobbies opened on State Street.  Eventually it moved to a larger location on Seneca Street.  Recently it moved again to the spacious Buffalo Street location.

"I kept the name because it reminds me of my grandfather," he says.  "It reminds me of what 'providence' really means.  That is what I want people to find here.  It means if you find something unexpected, that's providence.  I want people to find that with us.  We get a lot of people, younger kids, who come here just to explore, and then they get into a lot of very cool things."

The community aspect of the store is key.  Witty says that many of the problems Ithaca teenagers faced in 2005 have been resolved, in part because of the efforts of the Ithaca Police Department, and also because of stores like Providence Hobbies and local programs that offer kids something productive and social to do.  You won't see video games in this store.  The focus is on people interacting the old fashioned way.  Witty says that it is important to him to not only earn kids' trust, but also their parent's to make the local gaming community a success.

Witty particularly loves leading D&D games for youngsters.  He says they are most imaginative and bring the game to unexpected places, and he loves their enthusiasm.

"I think older generations have a lot to share with younger generations, and they are receptive to wanting better in their lives and futures," Witty says.  "The only way that's going to happen is to build strong community networks.  It's about doing something you love.  If I had wanted to make a lot of money in business I'd be doing something else."