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‘I’ve taken on a second job to keep Aberdeen Geek Retreat dream alive – and loyal army of nerds is making it possible’

Owner Scott Leslie opens up about the challenges he's faced - but tells us "Union Street is the place to be" for his business.

Geek retreat owner Scott Lesley outside his Union Street store.
Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson.

I meet Scott Leslie on a video call as he sails across the Norwegian Sea.

The North Star Shipping vessel is not his usual place of work.

In fact, the 36-year-old would normally spend most of the week in his Aberdeen store Geek Retreat, surrounded by games, sci-fi memorabilia and fellow enthusiasts.

The shop, which also has a cafe and stages events, has been a haven for Scott and his “loyal tribe of geeks” ever since he took over the empty unit at 177 Union Street.

Scott knew he was taking a giant leap of faith when he opened a bricks and mortar outlet on Aberdeen’s Granite Mile in February, 2022.

Scott Leslie shortly after opening. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson 

And he knew it would be difficult.

But he never realised quite how hard it would be to steer the shop through its own choppy seas.

And yet he still believes Union Street is the place to be.

For the past few months, Scott has been working hard to keep the business afloat – including returning to life at sea to cover costs.

Speaking to us after marking his second anniversary, he tells us about Geek Retreat’s fight for survival in a city centre where so many other traders have fallen.

Owner Scott Leslie with stormtrooper Bryan Jenkins and Witcher character Keith Morrison at the opening of Geek Retreat.
Owner Scott Leslie with stormtrooper Bryan Jenkins and Witcher character Keith Morrison at the opening of Geek Retreat. Image: Chris Sumner/DC Thomson.

He reveals:

  • How tough challenges threatened to turn his Aberdeen city centre dream into a nightmare
  • How loyal fans kept the business alive when it reached its lowest point
  • What he has done to ensure Geek Retreat has lasted two years
  • And whether he would have done anything differently…

‘I was being squeezed from all sides’

It was with “hands trembling” that Scott gave up his job of 10 years overseeing a fleet of North Sea ships to follow his dream.

The dad, a former Ellon Academy pupil, spoke to us at the time about his hopes and fears, telling us he “hoped he’d not given up an amazing career for a mistake”…

Geek Retreat owner Scott Leslie pictured on Union Street.
Running a business on Union Street became a difficult task at some point, Scott says. Image: Paul Glendell/DC Thomson.

Looking back, he admits to some second thoughts since opening.

Electricity bills began rising, the cost-of-living crisis hit and Scott found himself “near a point of desperation”.

Restocking the cafe became more expensive, and stacking shelves with colourful merchandise “required calculated risks”.

A lot of work has gone into converting the unit at 177 Union Street. Image: Paul Glendell/DC Thomson.

From his nautical cabin, he tells me: “I was being squeezed fairly tight from all sides, with no obvious solution.

“You suddenly just notice that your weekly costs have been steadily going up and no longer balance against your sales.

“And I was seeing a number of businesses around me close one by one, while others had to radically change or evolve.

“I really was reaching a point of desperation so going back to my old job became a necessary lever I had to pull to keep the business alive.”

Scott in his job as a marine superintendent before opening up Geek Retreat.
Scott in his job as a marine superintendent before opening up Geek Retreat. Image: Scott Leslie.

‘Closing Geek Retreat would have had to be considered’

There were times when he feared the worst…

Scott continues: “It’s so difficult to work in retail in the city centre right now – and if I weren’t able to take the other job, closing the store would have had to be considered.

“But thankfully, we are just driving through and using all the levers that we have available to us to try and overcome that.

“We are still coping and there is no plan for us to close – in fact, we want to grow.”

Geek Retreat owner Scott Leslie.
Scott came up with a number of ideas on how to keep Geek Retreat afloat. Image: Gemma Day/DC Thomson.

So how will Scott make Geek Retreat grow – beyond Union Street?

His philosophy for growing the business is a simple one: If customers don’t come to them, then Geek Retreat will go to where they are.

As numbers began to dwindle on Union Street, Scott decided to boldly go where Geek Retreat had never gone before.

Suddenly, they were venturing to places like Ellon, Pitmedden and Mintlaw to find likeminded sci-fi fans.

They were even invited to Shetland and Orkney to run games tournaments.

Image: Scott Leslie.

“The store in Aberdeen is still our home base,” Scott explained.

“But we have essentially been branching out as a pop up shop.

“And that’s another thing we have used to survive – it’s just a necessity for us.

“If we can’t get customers to come to us, we are going to go to them.

“It’s about building bridges and forming a closer bond with customers all over to make them part of our tribe.”

Geek Retreat has attracted a host of new events to the city since opening in 2022. Image: Geek Retreat.

‘Our loyal tribe of geeks saved us’

And it is that ardent army of proud nerds Scott credits with pulling him back from the brink of closure.

Last February, he issued a heartfelt post appealing for support on social media.

In a last-ditch “use it or lose it” plea, he admitted things had been getting tougher than ever. The business was “almost to the wall”.

Then something magical happened.

Like something from a movie, his fans started packing into the store making purchase after purchase.

Stormtrooper Bryan Jenkins pictured outside Geek Retreat along with dozens of other games enthusiasts at the official opening of the shop. Image: Chris Sumner/DC Thomson.

Scott smiles at the memory: “They showed up in their droves, we nearly doubled our monthly revenue.”

He reckons that the loyal clientele recognise the “authenticity of our geekdom”. In other words, they know Scott is one of them.

“That gave me a shock,” Scott chuckles.

“Everybody was buying unnecessary stuff – but they came in, and said ‘We are doing this because we want you to survive’.

“It showed me how much Aberdeen wants us here. And knowing that now gives us the drive to continue trying to make it work.”

Mel McKenzie outfitted in an impressive costume for a Cosplay competition at the store. Image: Chris Sumner/DC Thomson.
Mel McKenzie outfitted in an impressive costume for a Cosplay competition at the store. Image: Chris Sumner/DC Thomson.

But what is the secret to survival on street hit by string of closures?

Geek Retreat might appear to have little in common with renowned jewellers Jamieson and Carry apart from being near neighbours on the Granite Mile.

But they do share a similar strategy when it comes to surviving – and thriving.

That is making sure that each visit is an “experience”.

Scott says: “You can go to a department store, you can go to Amazon, you can go to all of these various places – but the process of doing that is just soulless.

Scott says they try to convert people who come through their doors into a tribe – rather than treat them as one-time customers. Image: Scott Leslie.

“You would go there mechanically to buy the product at the cheapest price, and that’s something we always have to be aware of.

“But you would come to us if you wish to explore your hobby and share a passion for a game.

“And that’s probably the prime reason we have customers coming to us over and over again.”

Scott, wearing the thick jacket from his life as a marine superintendent, knows the city centre is experiencing tough times. Picture by Paul Glendell/design by Gemma Day

What are the benefits of Geek Retreat Union Street berth?

Scott waited almost his entire first year in operation for the revamp of Union Terrace Gardens to be completed – and the promised footfall boost that would bring.

And he noticed an uptick in 2023 as the Aberdeen public began to embrace the rejuvenated Vicotrian spot.

That summer, the first of the city’s new influx of cruise ships arrived.

They too came with the promise of increased trade for city centre businesses – and Scott was pleased to welcome many tourists through the doors.

Cruise ships docking at South Harbour unloaded thousands of tourists, eager to explore Aberdeen. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

It’s something he hopes will happen again this summer.

He adds: “As a business, we want footfall, we want traffic, we want good rate of conversion – and we do get that from our location.

“We often get people just walking by and coming in to buy stuff straight off the street, or people that get off ships, come in to buy a board game and we never see them again.

“And that’s only achievable because we are in the city centre.”

Would Scott change anything?

Glancing over his shoulder at his workmates, Scott is waiting to be called back into action.

I ask one last question… If he could start all over again, would he have chosen a different location?

Scott ponders, but not for long.

Upcoming developments like the new market on Union Street are bringing a lot of optimism about the future of Aberdeen city centre.Image: Wullie Marr/DC Thomson.

“Union Street is the ideal place for Geek Retreat,” he says.

“And if I were given the option to choose a location once again, I would pick the high street once again.

“It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

“And as long as Aberdeen wants us here, I’ll continue fighting to drive Geek Retreat forward.”