By SHELDON BERMONT / Petaluma Towns Correspondent

By day, Hobbytown resembles any other retailer in the Plaza North Shopping Center. By night, the hobby store is transformed into a community hub for the young-at-heart.

Seven nights a week game and hobby fans of all ages gather in 600 square feet of dedicated showroom floor space to play games, build models, race cars, do arts and crafts, play board games and trade information with others who share their passion.

Owners Jean and Steve Elliott are the forces behind the enterprise. They migrated to California from Rockford, Ill. 16 years ago as part of California’s telecom industry flood, but for the entire 27 years Jean Elliott has known her husband, his dream has been to open a hobby store.

Seven and a half years ago they broke out of their computer-based career ruts to buy a Hobbytown franchise. As part of their effort to get to know their customer base, Steve Elliott, 51, went to group meetings at customer’s homes and quickly discovered that all the groups had the dire need for enough room to spread out for work and play.

That was all the Elliotts needed to know. They were confident that if they offered the space, tables and chairs, equipment and gaming supplies, they could attract hobbyists on a regular basis. Once there, they would be more than  likely to make a few purchases.

So far, it has worked well. Each group has its own equipment needs, specialized knowledge base and sometimes tremendous affinity for fantasy, said Jean Elliott, 48. “We provide a space and a designated time for that to happen.”

The Santa Rosa chapter of International Plastic Modeler’s Society has made Hobbytown its base of operations for almost seven years, and chapter president John Admire said, “Steve and Jean treat us like gold. It has almost become a second home for a lot of us.”

The couple’s first attempt to attract gamers, in their first year of business, was devoting Friday nights to the fantasy card game “Magic, the Gathering.” Elliott explains, the game “uses each player’s resources to cast spells and summon mythical creatures to reduce the opponent’s chances of winning.”

It took off, drawing as many as three dozen participants, and has remained a steady Friday night offering. Others include:

* Monday and Wednesday nights: “Warhammer 40K and Flames of War,” battles executed with miniature figures.

* Tuesday nights: Yu-Gi-Oh! And Pokemon – card games based on television characters.

* Thursday nights: Wine Country Modelers – Builders of small-scale custom cars, spacecraft and fantasy figures meet to talk about and help each other with their latest projects.

* Saturdays: A rotating schedule of Redwood Empire Model Shipwrights, Outdoor Remote Control Car Racing and Strategy Game Day.

* Sundays: Community Board Game Day, devoted to a wide selection of games from family classics to state of the art Euro strategy games.

Themed birthday parties are another way Hobbytown brings the community together under their roof, Elliott said. Their appeal during tough economic times? “People aren’t making the big-ticket purchases on vacations, cars and power boats; so they might be able to afford what we have to offer,” Elliott said. “Plus, ” she added, “we still can’t believe how busy our Christmas season is.” She also attributes some of their success to the store’s location next to Trader Joe’s, which draws the perfect family demographic.

“In the beginning, we had a minivan with the store logo plastered on it,” Elliott said. “People would see us driving down the street, honk, wave and give us the high sign. That’s when we knew we were starting to have a positive effect on the community.”

On any given night, she would see an 8-year-old talking with an 80-year-old about their shared fascination, and she knew a special connection was being made.

Hobbytown is located at 171 N. McDowell Blvd., Petaluma, 762-2176. For more information about scheduled events, visit hobbytown.com.