Nerd Haven

  • Post published:May 23, 2023

Story and photos by Zida Borcich

Music Merchant’s owner, Brian Shefrin, in his element, surrounded by a loose count of one million small things.

What’s a nerd?
[Definition loosely taken from Wikipedia]

  1. a person who is extremely enthusiastic and knowledgeable about a particular subject, especially one of specialist or niche interest:
    “the executive is an unabashed film nerd” · “I was always a science nerd, I loved biology” · “a comic book nerd”
    an unfashionable person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious:
    “I was not the sporty type, I was a bookish nerd.”
    SIMILAR: geek, dork
  3. engage in or discuss a technical field obsessively or with great attention to detail:
    “His engineering background means he tends to nerd out a bit on the numbers.”

If I didn’t have grandchildren who became fans of the impossibly complicated trading card game, Magic: The Gathering, I would not have become acquainted with the Music Merchant, a retail enclave that quietly sits on the main shopping block of Fort Bragg’s North Franklin Street, doing its idiosyncratic thing. I also probably wouldn’t have encountered Brian Shefrin, its owner since 2011, after the shop’s many incarnations and evolutions through several owners, name changes, and locations. It’s arguably the winner of the Musical Chairs game of moving a store around town. Locals will remember that the shop started out first as “Soundwaves,” on the corner of Redwood and Franklin (now a vacant lot), a record and CD music shop opened by Gloria and Gary King in the late 1980s. When they divorced, the free-spirited Gloria opened her own place and called it The Record Roost. She eventually closed that iteration and moved to Australia for a few years, then came back and reopened the store under a new name: Music Merchant. Brian, who is her stepson, says, “Her business really took off when she moved it into The Company Store on Main Street. Business boomed in the 1990s, but then the internet began destroying the middleman.”

A family affair: Brian and his stepson, Calob, at work, circa fifteen years ago. Photo provided.

When The Boatyard Shopping Center (where Harvest Market is still the anchor store) was opening up, Gloria took the plunge and moved her store into a space there. Brian, who had moved to Fort Bragg from Portland, Oregon, “where I went to find myself but didn’t,” went to work for Gloria full-time when the Video Place closed, and she took on the movie rental business as an addition to the repertoire of the store. Finally, Brian bought it when Gloria wanted to retire, and moved it to the strip mall where the DMV is, then most recently to its present much larger location in the middle of downtown. He changed the focus of the store, keeping the guitars and some vinyl and other recorded music, but added in games: Magic: The Gathering, Pokémon, Dungeons and Dragons, Games Workshop, Citadel Paints, and Warhammer as the main products. These additions began to attract a following of fellow gaming fans.

Blu Abuliak strolls the Music Merchant carrying a backpack with his prized collection of Magic: The Gathering trading cards.

Brian is a nerd. I once asked the lanky, bearded owner in his capacious watch cap and layers of striped shirts and metal band logo tees, sometimes topped by a well worn leather jacket, if the label “nerd” still has a pejorative cast to it and he got a kind of proud look on his handsome face and said, “Naaaw…Nerds are proud to be nerds.” So proud, in fact, that he has a little chalkboard propped in the shop’s front window that proclaims: “Nerd Haven.” His eclectic nest has become a magnet for kids, predominantly between the ages of fifteen- and twenty-five, who are iconoclastic, out-of-the-mainstream free thinkers who come to the space for socializing and game playing, posturing and teasing, along with extremely serious, brainy concentration. At any time, if you drop in, you might observe some fellow sitting on a stool playing the Blues on one of the fifty or so guitars he has on display, young people haggling with Brian over new Magic decks, someone thumbing through the vinyl records, kids at the back tables comparing notes and arguing about the infinite minutiae in their collections, or Brian laughingly fielding questions from four or five customers. The vibe is all offbeat energy, ironic weirdness, fun, liveliness, curiosity. Brian oversees it with a mixture of dignity, respect, wonder, and amusement.
My grandson Blu, who is most enthralled with Magic: The Gathering, has tried several unsuccessful times to teach me MTG. For the uninitiated, here is a description of the game from Wikipedia:
Magic: The Gathering is a trading card game—also known as a collectible card game—originally created by designer Richard Garfield and released by Wizards of the Coast in 1993. Widely considered the first trading card game, the game typically sees two players compete to defeat their opponent first by spending “mana” (points) to play creatures, spells, and other items and abilities.
Players can customize their decks before each “battle,” choos-ing cards from their libraries and—depending on the format—the current legal pool of sets and expansions. Nearly 25,000 different cards have been released for Magic: The Gathering since it first released, with over 20 billion cards printed between 2008 and 2016 alone.

Music Merchant’s window display includes this little chalk board boasting its credentials as a Nerd Haven.

But these numbers don’t take into consideration the many iterations that have been offered of each card over time—the different artworks by different artists, different expansions, symbols, different printing years for reprinted cards, and so-on. These considerations bring the number closer to 50,000 cards. But wait! If you also count the number of FOIL cards, which are reprints of the same designs except they are shimmery, it brings that number up to almost 80,000 cards. That all these kids (and used-to-be kids who started playing in middle or high school and kept on going) have an unimaginable collecting opportunity is part of the attraction. And I should say that, with four sets released each year—and up to three hundred new, unique cards in each set—the MTG company has found a way to relieve a lot of kids of a major part of their allowances. Bragging rights go to kids with the fullest books. Not to mention the other swag involved, the special binders with plastic compartments on each page for displaying fronts and backs of each prized card, and backpack and messenger bag manufacturers who benefit from the enormous loads these players carry around. Additionally, there are websites full of the gothic lore that sort of underpins the rococo artworks and fantastical names of the creatures, places, and godlike beings that are the game’s rai·son d’ê·tre.

Kamarohn Daily is a regular at Magic on Fridays games nights and works for Brian part-time

Umm…OK, I give up. The cards have their own language, and the language is opaque, at best. The words are familiar, but their meanings are nothing I’m up on. They have their own aesthetic, too, and their own legends and much (too much, to my mind) war and mayhem. I have asked my grandsons Blu and Enzo what the object of MTG is, if it’s like gambling or betting, if they win other people’s cards or money or anything like that, but the answer is no, it’s just about “winning.” And winning is opaque to me also. I have come to the conclusion that this stuff is not FOR me. But still, I’m intrigued…
What is impressive is the amount of sheer brainpower it takes to memorize or keep straight the paragraphs of instructions and symbols that are printed under the elaborate artwork depicting alternate worlds on each card. These players can recite the instructions and rules the way we used to memorize epic poems by Chaucer, back in the olden days. Probably not for all the thousands of cards, but for an impressive number, nonetheless. And it’s a global phenomenon: I’ve learned that the game has been released in seventy countries in a multitude of languages, and it’s estimated that there are twenty million players worldwide. Every Friday night, in every MTG location, including at the Music Merchant in Fort Bragg, CA, friends of the game meet at an appointed hour for Magic on Friday—in Fort Bragg, it’s six o’clock sharp—and begin schmoozing and playing. The age span ranges from ten or eleven to late forties or even fifties. Some of the players dress up: you might see a big, black cape, fluorescent pink hair, tats, unusual headgear, extravagant makeup, baggy hoodies with Gothic script logos on the back, or any number of other madcap sartorial choices. Nerds display their individualistic fashion preferences, and nobody cares. Letting your freak flag fly is part of the fun and part of the draw.
That is what is most wonderful about the space that Brian has created on the Mendocino coast. Music Merchant is its name, but it’s so much more complicated than that. Music, yes, but the main event is the ambiance Brian has cultivated among his nerdly peers. They are in a safe, fun space where they can completely be themselves, completely fit in, and happily find their cohort.
When I asked Brian how he got the idea to add games to his shop’s original offerings of music and guitar lessons, he said that he played Dungeons and Dragons first in 1991. “I was the painter of the group, painting all of their miniatures. When Magic: The Gathering came out, I was playing Shadowrun and HeroQuest. When I bought the store, I wanted to add in something else, and I started playing MTG with friends, so…I started a small group of people playing, then people saw what was happening and wanted to be a part of it. Plus, it’s addicting. I included my stepson Calob Holland in the games, of course, and also took care of my friends’ kids after school. They would hang out in my store after school and before parents could pick them up, so they got instructed, too.”

MM stocks over fifty guitars and other instruments along with a collection of vinyl and CD recordings in many genres.

As a lifelong nerd, Brian looks out over his eclectic kingdom knowing that he has created a place unlike any other: “I feel like I bring the Cheers show attitude to my life. People come to the store to shop, but most of the time they come to add that special something that their life or day is missing. That real quality and that real conversation, a place where everyone knows your name,” he says.
As a kid, he recalls, “I grew up hanging outside of a comic shop and a music CD store. It was my hangout and shopping experience. I also come from a background as a youth group leader and feel that my purpose here on earth is to bring joy and help to all around me. That being shared shows how I have grown this simple CD store into so much more than that. I saw that Fort Bragg had none of what I grew up on and decided to try and build it myself. That inner gut feeling I carry with me: I don’t like the news I hear, so I’m gonna go make my own. I feel like a hub for anyone looking for a smile and a spot to chit chat as well as to grab some entertaining items. I want to stand out as a major reason to come visit Fort Bragg. This area has a lot to offer vacationers, and my store is something you will not find anywhere else. Bringing music/entertainment and building a gaming community has, over my time here, created an iconic image. When children stop in and say, ‘Wow,’ and when parents get that eye lifting grin when they walk in, I feel like I have accomplished one of my major dreams. I have created what I loved as a teen. And I still get to hang out with superheroes and musicians! I also like to think that I do ’me’ so well, that a community benefits from it.”
That “me” includes embodying a dizzying number of identities: heading up his industrial metal band, Tinksweat; providing guitar lessons to kids and adults; keeping the approximately one million little items on his shelves in stock and in order, overseeing his toy museum at the back of his store; raising his stepson Calob from age two to eighteen (he’s now a high school senior}; and, as Brian’s roommate noted, giving up his Friday nights for the last twelve years to provide Friday Night Magic to a few generations of players. It’s true that Brian is a proud nerd, but also possibly the King of Mensches (Yiddish word that means a person of integrity and honor who does good works). His astonishing Music Merchant shop should be on everyone’s list to visit when they are in downtown Fort Bragg. REM 337 North Franklin Street, Fort Bragg, CA 95437 (707) 964-6920

Cynthia Wall believes there’s nothing like bonding over a hot Scrabble board for cementing friendships. Playing games like Scrabble or Magic: The Gathering, going for walk-talks along the headlands, making art or food together, listening deeply, and keeping confidentiality open our hearts to real relationship by creating a ‘safe container’ where true friendship can blossom.

Myths about small town life hold that friendships are easy to make and hard to sever, that everyone really knows each other, and that eccentricities are more easily accepted and tucked into the community without judgment. I wish. Everyone has some experience of not fitting in, not finding “their people.” Even the most extroverted of us long for deep connection with a group with similar tastes and interests. The internet allows a dollop of it, and was a life-giving placeholder for the real thing during lockdown. Alone-with-a-screen cannot match the blast of positivity felt when meeting in real place and time. Brian Shefrin is the benevolent leader of such a gathering, and thanks to REM’s introduction to his welcoming oasis for gamesters, musicians, and comic-con aficionados, it will be available to even more fans and friendships-to-be. Friendship requires more than just shared interests: it takes time to build a “safe container,” to reveal truth and feelings that are accepted and understood. It opens a special place in our souls that can only be touched with tenderness and shared belly laughs. Long before we became epidemiologists, the Music Merchant’s Friday eve “let’s play!” provided a safe space of belonging. I don’t know how the game-group bridged the gap during 2020-21, but when they came together as soon as they could, I can only imagine how grateful and joyous was the rebonding of old friends, and the invitation to new. CW


By Cynthia Wall
From Cynthia’s blog Unsolicited Advice

Friendship mysteries are underexplored. Most articles, shows, and YouTube videos extol the highs and lows of romantic relationships, as if they were the more important points of light. My experience is that the depth of true belonging is found in the realm of friends. I’d be lost, diminished to a shadow, without trusted pals. They have been the constancy during crises, collapse, and “wanna die” rejections. Anxiety and doubt (and inflammation) melt in the presence of caring and tenderness. Partners and family can do this, but not always. And we don’t all need dozens of people, it’s more about the depth than the number. Sometimes our pets and just a couple of humans give us the belonging that allows us to live our best lives, if we tend to them.
When a romantic tie comes undone, it’s an expected part of the wild ride. A clever beloved compared a first marriage to the “first pancake,” the test to see if the griddle is hot. When romance cools, we (re)turn to long time companions for the quieter kind of tenderness that is proof of being loveable, especially with those we met in school, roomies, or early workmates. We shared everything from humiliating crushes, periods and voice drops, and crises of major proportion, and didn’t give up on each other. Trust was built on being real, talking talking talking, and listening with compassion. The interruptive stages of marrying, children, moving, career, and loss always challenge bonds, but it’s magical when they strengthen them. Getting together from across the country, or after a few years of unintended absence, “It’s like we were never apart!”
How well have you tended to long-time relationships during pandemic isolation, aging, crises, and dread of the near future? I hear from many that they are waking up to having lost intimacy with their dearests. Much of the angst and depression we (and our valuable young beloveds) are experiencing is due to passive isolation, only overcome if brave enough to invite a conversation. For those at a distance, we can even start with a well-chosen symbol. I’ve convinced a beloved who hesitated to reach out “Because you are so busy” to send me an emoji when she thinks of me. She didn’t know what I meant at first, but now I’m getting clever parades of images that tell me how she is. Not sure what the girl vampire meant, but she’d just had blood work, so…? Then we must extend beyond the digital.

In thinking about this piece, I recalled a quote on a cross stitched pillow: “A friend to all is a friend to none” (such is the fame of Aristotle: my words will never appear in needlework). He was prescient about the confusion created by social media redefining this important word. During these isolating times, we were forced to trade face-to-face for Facebook. It brought a wink of needed connection. The hard truth? Cyber-folk cannot generate belonging—that can only exist in real life. We need to relearn how to fully focus on each someone. Rebuilding intimacy is impossible with distraction machines in our hands, broadcasting the undeniable message: “You are not as important as whoever is going to call, tweet, Instagram, or text.” It is only by dropping the shield of cyber-distance (or too much time not connecting for whatever reasons) that we build genuine belonging. (You can start to dread a future post on this uncomfortable topic).
I am lucky to have been blessed with a “good friend gene.” My parents’ companions were aunts/uncles/cousins with different DNA, often preferred to the actuals. Living in the same town for fifty years helped. The post-WWII housing crisis meant my parents shared an apartment with another couple while mom was carrying me. They became lifelongs, despite secrets, crazy moments, and core differences in religion and politics. I studied how my parents curried their friendships: door always open, liquor cabinet at the ready for solace and celebration, set another plate for dinner. They knew who was up or down and what they might need, whether a casserole, a discreet ear, help with a building project, or a short-term loan, equally reciprocated. If they didn’t hear from someone, they kept calling before answering machines, on phones stuck to the wall. Final evidence is on their headstones: my mom’s reads “Everyone’s Best Friend,” and my dad’s? “A Friend in Deed.” This is a hard act to follow, and I’m still learning.
“Friendship” is a course I don’t take lightly, having failed it in the past, still learning to let go with a wildly varying degree of honesty and grace. The truly painful fails came when I alienated those who were super important to me by taking them for granted, crossing boundaries, being blithely unaware that I was hurting their feelings. Isn’t everyone temporarily capable of being insensitive, self-absorbed, or just plain too much? I wantonly believed those I love would speak up when I crossed such a line, giving me a chance to atone. But it is often too much to expect: it takes huge courage to be critical, and is action based on love. Mended relationships grow stronger by telling the truth and asking for what we need to trust again. They sustain us over our whole lives. The ones that didn’t make it, that ended with a bang or a whimper? I still treasure memories of sharing great time and love and good work, even if the connection was severed by disinterest or rejection.
My more recent need for hardcore support during too many major crises, mostly during pandemic limitations, has proved the value of re-bonding. I’ve needed the care and support of so many, including those who live far away; just knowing they care enough to email or text, to ask how I am doing, has been a lifesaver, and became placeholders for face to face. This recognition of the importance of tending to friends has turned into a frequent journal prompt. When I’m feeling lost or alone, I let others know I miss them, believing it’s entirely possible that they need connection, too.
I offer this process, just a few minutes of exploration, as an antidote to loneliness, isolation, and any guilt for not reaching out earlier. It’s not too late to turn many friends’ ships back to your shore, maybe initiating reconnection with a single emoji.

  1. Sit undistracted, and ask yourself what kind of social contact could benefit you right now? Let that steep a minute, and consider the activities you are missing that are better with a boon companion. The following categories of shared experience spring to my mind, recalling those who:

. make me laugh and ponder new perspectives, suggest books and movies

. trade off care/attention when disaster strikes

. keep current, know I want to hear from them, especially when they’re having a hard time

. suggest we play games, promote mini-adventures

. love being creative, doing artsy projects together

. share my joy in “awe” and suggest joyful excursion, walks in the woods

. pursue spiritual and calming moments, like meditation and spiritual teachers

. love me as I am, and remind me to feel the same for myself and I, them.

. understand it’s okay to say “not now,” supporting the mutual need to retreat, to be alone

  1. Now create a list of the names that evoke belonging. Reach out in some small way, making sure to let each of them know they are important to you and that you would love to spend time together at some point. It isn’t a demand, it’s an invitation. Everyone at times is insanely busy with crises of life, health, and needs to be quiet and alone.
  2. Ask yourself who might be hesitant to contact you, whether going through a hard time, or maybe felt you didn’t have time for them. Busy people need to be reminded they are loved, and not alone, even if not immediately available for getting together. Be the leader, and notice who responds. In this way, you may find your schedule dotted with planned fun, being useful, feeling appreciated. Real friends can do this for us.
    Cynthia Wall is a marriage, family and child counselor, writer, and a true friend indeed. You can read more of her essays on the blog on her website Her book and audio book The Courage to Trust is a touchstone for fortifying and rebuilding trust. You can purchase them on her website, along with her 90-minute guided visualization, Embracing True Prosperity, and her new guided visualization, Finding Your Perfect Summer Cabin. REM