As a teenager in the early 2000s, Stephen Fontana grew up saving some of his lunch money to be able to buy board games and play cards at Gamers Illusions, a small two-table storefront in his neighborhood of Dyker Heights. Even though the gaming hub was always full of kids, the shop closed down when the owner moved away from the city.
Now a father, Fontana still lives in Dyker Heights, but walking down 13th Avenue, he said he can’t find a place where kids can socialize. He also says he can’t keep his children from asking to go into local vape and smoke shops, the windows of which are often clad with kid-friendly images like Spider-Man.
“My kids look forward to going to Walgreens,” Fontana told Brooklyn Paper. “That is their idea of daily fun now. They don’t know what an arcade is.”
But he’s got an alternative in mind.
Hoping to dive back into his childhood passion — and share it with kids like his — Fontana, a Manhattan construction worker by day, is spending the rest of his time fundraising to open Kobold Café, a new space for local youth to play table-top games and build their own community.
“During the pandemic, my now 6-year-old was learning how to speak and I realized how important it is for kids to socialize and to be part of a community,” he said.
In the ten years leading up to the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System surveys found that more than 40% of young people regularly dealt with feelings of persistent sadness. In 2021, according to the American Psychological Association, less than half of the teenagers and kids who needed mental health treatment received any.
For a teenager, social isolation can cause anxiety, depression, and even suppress cognitive development.
Fontana hopes Kobold Café can be a safe space for local kids, just as Gamers Illusions was for him and his friends growing up.
“This new cafe will be a table-top gaming cafe and community space that will provide a break from being bombarded by changing color from screens,” said Fontana. “Kids will be able to develop problem solving and be tactile playing board games, card games and role playing with games like Dungeons & Dragons.”
Fontana hopes to partner with different high schools so that older kids will tutor younger kids and help them with their homework at Kobold Café in exchange for stamps that they can trade for free board games. There will also be a reward system for those who bring in report cards with good grades on them, and the chance for kids to design their own games on school field trips.
Serving just coffee and cake, the local dad says the cafe will be booze-free. His dream is to have everyone under age 13 play for free, but adults will be welcome to join in on the fun. He hopes to also offer games for rent, so local families can try them out at home before deciding to buy them.
A similar space, Brooklyn Game Knight, opened in Sunset Park’s Industry City last year.
“Places like this one are opening everywhere and they are a hit,” he said. “Why not here?”
On Christmas day, Fontana took to the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to invite Brooklynites to help make his dream a reality. So far, he has raised more than $2,000 with 27 backers, and he is hoping to reach a goal of $86,000 in the next 50 days.
“If we don’t reach the goal, it’s back to the drawing board,” he said.
Meanwhile, Fontana says he’s still searching for the right space on 13th Avenue — ideally with anywhere from 1,500 to 2,500 square feet of space, and private rooms for friends to rent out and play on their own.
“I’m fully confident that the neighborhood is gonna get behind this when it opens,” he said. “People go on social media to complain about how the neighborhood is changing. Now it’s the time to back the people who want to bring back what used to make it cool. I can bring what needs to be brought.”