If owning a business were a card game, Heath Newton would be holding a winning hand.
That’s because at an early age the Wilmington resident tapped into a niche market that turned out to be, well, Magic.
As a student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington studying computer science about 15 years ago, Newton started selling digital Magic: The Gathering cards.
“I would field orders between classes even,” Newton said. “Back then, I would literally have to be online the same time as you … I had to manually type in every card the person ordered.”
These days, he has internet bots for that, two full-time employees and seven contract workers throughout the U.S., with a manager in Argentina. Newton is the owner of MTGO Traders, one of the largest sellers of digital Magic cards in the world, and Cape Fear Games, a board game store and gathering place for card players and board gamers or those who just want to learn how to play different games at Anderson Square in Wilmington.
Newton and his employees buy and sell digital and physical Magic cards on his website, mtgotraders. com. He has three full-time card buyers among the more than 20 part- and full-time employees at his 4107 Oleander Drive store, which is managed by Andrew Westin.
Cape Fear Games opened in Wilmington in 2009.
The story of how Newton got into Magic cards goes back a little further than his college days in 2003. First published in 1993 by Wizards of the Coast, a company now owned by Hasbro, Magic: The Gathering is a trading card game that grew to include millions of players, though reports differ on the exact number. As Wizards of the Coast explains it, Magic: The Gathering can be played by two or more players, each of whom has a customized deck of Magic cards, and over the course of a game players take turns playing cards such as lands, creatures, sorceries and other spells. There are different formats, and many more details involved; players say it’s easy to learn but difficult to become good at.
In the late 1990s while attending high school in Hendersonville, Newton used to play Magic with a wrestling teammate who was also Westin’s older brother. Andrew Westin was playing then too.
“I remember hustling the wrestlers in chess and Magic for, like, dollars and quarters because I was in elementary school and they were in high school (Newton graduated from high school in 1999 and Westin in 2002),” Westin said.
Westin and Newton reconnected later, when Westin, then a Brooklyn, New York, resident, ordered from Newton’s Magic card website. A couple years later, Westin did some part-time work for Newton on the digital side of Newton’s business. Then around 2009, Newton sought Westin’s help to open a storefront, and Cape Fear Games was born.
“I would not have opened this if it wasn’t for Andrew because I didn’t want to do it myself, and I didn’t have experience in retail, and so Andrew was willing to take the risk and move down here and try it,” Newton said.
Westin was living in Raleigh at the time. In 2014, Cape Fear Games moved from a leased unit in front of Independence Mall on Oleander Drive to space that Newton purchased at Anderson Square at 4107 Oleander Drive, which includes a number of other retailers and restaurants such as Pizzetta’s Pizzeria and Tazy’s Burgers & Grill.
On a recent Wednesday night, the parking lot at Anderson Square in front of Cape Fear Games was packed with cars. Magic: The Gathering players meet at the store sometimes multiple nights each week, including banker Joey Seltzer, grocery store manager David Carriker and software consultant Joe Goldberg.
“I travel a lot, and I’ve been to different card stores [around the U.S.], and this is by far the nicest store and the most welcoming community as far as players go that I’ve ever been to,” Goldberg said.
Seltzer said the group plays anywhere from two to five hours at a time.
Players can order the digital and paper cards online and also pick the paper cards up in the store.
“People who are local will just order on a computer upfront, and we’ll pull [the cards] out of our inventory,” Westin said.
Magic isn’t the only game that people buy there or that they can play in a designated area at Cape Fear Games.
“We carry Monopoly and Sorry and those types of games, but we also want to show people all the other things that are out there that they might not have heard of that are really, really fun,” Newton said.
Most game stores are smaller than Cape Fear Games, Newton said.
“I wanted a place that I would want to come play at that was nice,” where he would feel comfortable with his kids, said Newton, who has two young sons.
Some inventory in the store evolved over time, such as items for disc golf.
“That’s become a pretty big part of our business, too, now,” Newton said.
These days, Newton is planning a new venture connected to his games business.
He’s hoping to open a cafe in the unit he owns next door in Anderson Square, currently home to The Wine Sampler, which plans to move. The cafe would be a spot where people could eat and play games, with wider tables and non-messy menu items conducive to playing while eating (so not barbecue).
“I think it would work. It’s not going to be like a bar atmosphere. We’re going to serve light food, drinks and coffee,” Newton said.
But just as he found Westin to help him open the Cape Fear Games storefront, he would also need the right general manager for the cafe.
“It was hard learning retail, but with a restaurant, if you do that wrong, you can lose a lot of money,” Newton said. “I don’t want to open a bad business.”