PALM HARBOR — On a recent Monday afternoon, among the patrons in the little library on Nebraska Avenue is a convergence of gamers. Two boys are playing a board game. Two other boys take turns rolling dice. And 10-year-old Thomas Carter is playing Nintendo with his little brother.
“First, we get to play the game and then we do our homework,’’ Thomas whispered. “We have to concentrate to play, and that helps me learn to focus. I have trouble sometimes focusing.’’
Welcome to the new Mark Mazurek Gaming Center at the Palm Harbor Library. Housed in the middle of the library, it is a nirvana for gamers. The center includes two new video game stations with both vintage and contemporary games. Shelves are filled with dozens of tabletop games, including perennial favorites Guess Who and Jenga, as well as books for role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, Dresden Files and Pathfinder. The centerpiece is an oversized, custom-made gaming table with eight high-back chairs.
The gaming center could be described as a joyful place born from a tragedy. On a summer’s day in 2017, Mark Mazurek, a Palm Harbor Library employee who had recently earned his paralegal degree, was heading back from visiting the State Law Library in Tallahassee. During a rainstorm near Mile Marker 408 north of Gainesville, the car slid off the road. Both Mazurek, 32, and his fiance, Michelle Campbell, were killed.
As his co-workers coped with the sudden, tragic loss of their colleague, they realized a way they could honor Mazurek’s spirit — a new gaming center in the library.
“Mark had a booming voice and wanted everyone to feel at home in the library,’’ said Samma Fagan, a co-worker and longtime friend of Mazurek. “He will be remembered for his big personality and the way he could make babies stop crying by pulling out his bubble maker.’’
At a memorial for Mazurek, with 200 people in attendance at the library, Fagan, 32, shared the idea for the gaming center.
“We were already planning on creating a new area for the games that we already had, and when I talked (to the gathering) I said I’d like the area to be named after him,’’ Fagan said. “Mark was a people person. Everyone loved him.’’
After the memorial, his parents, William and Karen Mazurek, reached out to Fagan and her supervisors, library director Gene Coppola and assistant director Elisabeth Roen, offering their support, including a donation of $12,000.
“The money from his parents was an amazing help,’’ Fagan said. “We started brainstorming. We knew we wanted a place for people to pick out games, have the opportunity to talk about the games and sit around a table together. We were able to get such a nice table because of that money as well as add to the collection.’’
William Mazurek believes his son would approve of the project.
“Mark always made people feel welcome and that was really a unique thing about his personality. He would have loved to have seen this,’’ he said. “The gaming center is really part of the vision to get more and more people through the doors of the library, especially young people. Mark loved that library, and we know how hard the staff works.’’
When Mark was 11, he won a spot on the Late Show with David Letterman for an invention, “Mark’s Cool Fork and Spoon.” When he was 12, he joined the then St. Petersburg Times X-Team, writing for the newspaper’s kids’ pages, recalled Karen Mazurek. “Mark loved gathering facts and he always went to the library,’’ she said. “He also always had a joke.”’
Although he may have been quick with a smile and a laugh, life was not easy for Mazurek. In elementary school, he battled a brain tumor. It was non-cancerous, but he underwent two major surgeries and took more medicine than he cared to, his mother said.
“When he wasn’t feeling well, he didn’t like to socialize, but he would still visit the library. It was a place where it was just easier for him to meet friends,’’ said his mother.
Her son also found solace playing video games.
"I think the games helped strengthen his hand-eye coordination,'' she said, adding he especially liked playing Mario and Luigi with his brother Jonathan. "After Mark died, Jonathan got a tattoo of Luigi on his arm. Jonathan didn’t tell me about it, I just saw it on his arm one day when he came over. He teared up, and he said, ‘This is in honor of Mark, mom. He was always Luigi.’ "
While the library staff worked on the design for the center, Mrs. Mazurek was quick to gather particular items from her son’s game collection, including a set of plush Pokemon toys, to add to the family’s donation. The toys now sit on a high shelf near a caricature portrait of Mazurek, all seemingly smiling down at visitors.
“I know he would have liked what the staff has done,'' she said.
For Fagan, she sees the new center as part of her life’s mission — to see more individuals at play. “Most creatures, including humans, learn through play," she said. "It helps kids develop motor skills, as well as thinking skills, and it’s a really great way to disguise learning.’’
Fagan said the Mark Mazurek Gaming Center is also assisting the Palm Harbor Library with its key mission.
“The library always wants to provide public access,’’ Fagan said. “We provide a safe place for people to come together, play both table top games and computer games, and we always want to be a place that offers materials that might not be available to people at home.’’
If you are interested in playing video games like SNES Classic or Sega Genesis Flashback, or simply want to dive into a game of Guess Who or Jenga, the Palm Harbor Library, at 2330 Nebraska Ave. is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Thursday; and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For information, call (727) 784-3332.