For nearly 15 years, Game Seeker’s blue-and-yellow sign has swung in the Santa Barbara breeze, a beacon of fantasy and wonderment for the old, young, and young at heart. With toys, puzzles, board-game classics like Monopoly and Scrabble, and high-strategy challenges such as Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride, Game Seeker has something for everyone.
Last November, the State Street store’s very first employee, Ingrid Lino, came full circle and took over as owner. “Honestly, I always joked that one day I would own this place,” she said. “I knew that it was this really great little gem. It had so much potential.”
Lino was born with the deck stacked against her. She was the first child of a single mother and grew up poor. At 18, she started working at Game Seeker and was eventually promoted to manager. Her entrepreneurial spirit and passion for games propelled the location from its humble beginnings to one of the cornerstones of the Santa Barbara gaming community.
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From the moment I started working there in 2011, Lino took me under her wing, teaching me the fundamentals of playing games as well as selling them. A year later, she left me in charge as store manager in order to pursue her full-time career in senior care. But luckily for me, as she herself explained, “I never really left.”
“I mean, I would always come back from time to time,” she said. “Sometimes I would come help with inventory, or just come back for the Christmas season. There was something about this place that just had a hold on me.”
I worked hard to keep the wheels turning, but retail is a fickle business, and unfortunately we began to fall on hard times. Fewer and fewer people were embracing their inner child. In 2015, I left for college, but when I took my job back this year, Lino and her fiancé, Steven Estrella, were the proud new proprietors.
“I always tell everyone it was fate that I bought the store,” Lino mused. “I mean, it was completely random that I had lunch with [the former owner Lisa Gerr] that day. When she told me that she was selling Game Seeker, I knew that was my chance.” Estrella, an engineer at a small startup in Goleta, had a chunk of savings that could serve as a down payment, but convincing him to put it in a board-game store was another hurdle altogether. “I told him you could invest in a company you don’t know, or you could invest it in us, in our future,” Ingrid smiled. “And it worked!”
Between operating a retail store during a pandemic, working a full-time job in senior care, and planning a wedding, Lino’s plate is full. While COVID may have temporarily shut their doors, Lino’s unfailing energy is still moving product and making people happy. From offering phone and online sales with curbside pickup to working directly with Old Town Coffee selling products at their Goleta location, she is keeping Game Seeker afloat.
Among Lino’s proudest achievements at Game Seeker is her work with Transition House, which offers donation opportunities through local businesses. “Lots of people bought stuff for us to donate,” she said. “Game Seeker provides me a way to support the community that supported me.”
And Lino doesn’t plan to stop there. As a minority business owner in a predominantly white and male-driven industry, Lino believes her position can inspire others. She wants to use Game Seeker to introduce minorities to games and make them more accessible to underprivileged children.
“I just love what these games can do, and I’m just so grateful to have them in my life that I want to share them with other families like mine,” she said. “Many of these kids come from difficult family situations; games are a fun way to have family time.” Eventually, Lino plans to work with Santa Barbara elementary schools to create a scholarship program for kids to hone their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills by inventing their own games. “You know, a family that plays together stays together,” she said.
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