Everyone’s heard the expression, “Find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” But what if instead of finding a job you love, you turn a favorite hobby into a job? Is that possible?

Joe Huber, co-owner of Mankato’s Dork Den says heck yes!

“It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to own my own game store,” he said. Ever since he played his first game of Dungeons and Dragons in elementary school, Huber has been hooked on board games, especially the imaginative, storytelling type.

“It’s probably a bit of escapism,” Huber said, musing on the appeal that board games have always held for him. “It’s similar to video games because you go to lots of different worlds and experience lots of different stories, and it’s more communal than reading.”

Photo by Don Lipps - Interior of The Dork Den in Mankato
Photo by Don Lipps – Interior of The Dork Den in Mankato

Path to a Passion

Instead of diving straight into the gaming industry, Huber chose to take a more traditional avenue after graduating Mankato East High School. In 2001, he received a degree in accounting and worked in the industry for a few years.

When someone takes one of my recommendations for a game and has a great time and comes back and shares the joy that they’ve gotten from us, that means a lot. Joe Huber

The turning point for Huber came when he realized his coworker Greg Fenske had the same passion for games and small businesses. While they knew they weren’t ready to begin a full-scale shop, the pair started purchasing Magic the Gathering collections and reselling them to interested parties. Any profit they made went straight into a designated bank fund. When they finally felt prepared to expand, they attended game trade shows in Madison, Wisconsin.

Submitted Photo - Fans of Magic The Gathering meeting at The Dork Den in Mankato
Submitted Photo – Fans of Magic The Gathering meeting at The Dork Den in Mankato

“We got to talk to a lot of other store owners as well as industry veterans, and it created some support and contacts that we still use to this day,” Huber said. With new contacts and products in their arsenal, he and Fenske were ready to go big.

Photo by Don Lipps - Dork Den ceiling hanging - Airship from Magic the Gathering
Photo by Don Lipps – Dork Den ceiling hanging – Airship from Magic the Gathering

Launch & Growth!

Mankato’s Dork Den opened in the Wooden Spoon’s current location. At first, Fenske and Huber were the sole employees but after six months of positive business growth, they elected to hire another worker so that they could have one night off a week. Within a year, they’d outgrown the space thanks to the lively gaming events for which the Dork Den became known.

Photo by Don Lipps - Some of the selection of comic books at The Dork Den
Photo by Don Lipps – Some of the selection of comic books at The Dork Den

“When we opened, we had just four tables for play and events,” said Huber. “When you get that many people congregated in that small of the area, the volume gets loud and makes it uncomfortable to shop!” The co-owners made the decision to move to their current location at 603 North Riverfront in 2013 and continued to increase the number of Dork Den events.

“It gives people an outlet or social gathering space, much like someone who joins a gym,” said Huber. “People find a family. Pre-COVID, we ran an average of 18 to 20 events a week.” The Dork Den hosts a game night for every new game they sell, but Magic the Gathering, Pokemon, and kids’ and adults’ Dungeons and Dragons, War Hammer 4,000 tournaments are all popular recurring events.

It’s the Game Nights

Employee James Jindra thinks that Dork Den’s regular game nights are what makes the store so unique.

“The community is amazing,” Jindra said. “If you came down for War Hammer 4,000 and you had no clue what it was, but you just want to see what’s going on, that group alone would be like, ‘You don’t know how to play this? Well, sit down next to me, and we’ll go through it and you can figure it out.’”

Tokyo gather at The Dork Den in Mankato
Submitted Photo – Fans of the game The King of Tokyo gather at The Dork Den in Mankato

First and foremost a commission painter, Jindra was introduced to Huber when he started custom-painting game miniatures for Dork Den customers.

Literally every kid has a phone now, but no phones are touched during the D&D week. They walk in the door and they don’t touch their phones, ever, until it’s the end of the day and they need to call their mom and dad to get them. James Jindra

“Joe allowed me to do my consults at the Den,” said Jindra. “We had several people meet at the Den, pick minis off the shelf, buy them from the Dork Den, and then commission me to paint them.”

When the Dork Den needed more workers, Jindra thought the job would be a perfect fit. “It only made sense,” he laughed. “I’m here all the time anyway!”

Jindra loves to see newcomers find a favorite game and become repeat visitors. He believes that the Dork Den offers more than a selection of board games – it offers friends and educational experiences.

Something for All Ages

“We have a Kids Dungeons and Dragons camp in the summer and it’s actually a learning-beneficial time,” Jindra said. “They learn interpersonal communication skills because they have to communicate with their teammates and all the NPCs, the non-player characters that the Dungeon Master plays. They learn critical thinking skills and problem solving.”

The Dork Den also supports education through a special longstanding promotion known as the Good Grades Discount. For students who make grades of at least B in all of their classes, the Dork Den will take their GPAs, multiply them by 10, and discount one item in their store by that amount. The discount is valid once per report card.

Tech-Free Fun

According to Jindra, the Dork Den’s events, including the Kids’ Dungeons and Dragons camp, have an added bonus of supporting tech-free fun.

“Literally every kid has a phone now, but no phones are touched during the D&D week,” said Jindra. “They walk in the door and they don’t touch their phones, ever, until it’s the end of the day and they need to call their mom and dad to get them.”

Photo by Don Lipps - Model paint selection at the Dork Den in Mankato
Photo by Don Lipps – Model paint selection at the Dork Den in Mankato

Most of the Dork Den’s games are similarly tech-free. Early on, Huber and Fenske made the decision to carry only analog games.

“It’s really where our knowledge is,” explained Huber. “We both play video games but we’re not avid collectors.” Instead, Huber and Fenske enjoy introducing their customers, many of whom have become friends, to unique board games for all ages.

Jindra’s current favorite is a Norse-themed game called Bloodrage. “Each player plays for one of the Viking tribes and then you fight for land,” Jindra said.

Huber is currently favoring a game titled Journeys in Middle Earth, which is based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s writings. Participants play as Lord of the Rings characters, and the game is controlled by a smartphone app rather than a non-playing director known as a playmaster.

“I used to have to be the overlord or playmaster, so it’s nice for me to play as a character,” smiled Huber.

While the Dork Den workers appreciate their product for its own sake, their biggest satisfaction comes from turning a game novice or seasoned player onto a new adventure.

“When someone takes one of my recommendations for a game and has a great time and comes back and shares the joy that they’ve gotten from us, that means a lot,” said Huber.

Additional Links

If You Visit

As of Monday, May 18 the Dork Den is open for in store shopping once again. However their gaming events are still on hold for the time being. Visit their site for the most up-to-date information.

Author

  • Katie Roiger

    is a freelance writer who works out of the Greater Mankato Area. She enjoys exploring every town she visits and knowing where to find the best Mexican restaurant in any 40-mile radius.

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