It was 1977 and a young Gene Lewin had a dream; to own his own pinball machine. It’s nearly forty years later and that dream is more than just a reality, it’s how he makes a living running the Vintage Arcade Superstore in Los Angeles. Gene’s pinball and arcade secondhand retail outlet have become one of the biggest secondhand arcade outlets in America, if not, the world.
“My first experience with coin operated entertainment was with my uncle,” explained Gene as we sat inside his office, filled wall-to-wall with arcade related odds and ends. “He had a shuffleboard bowling game. It’s one of those things with a puck and the pins that flip up. My grandmother had a ranch in Malibu and [my uncle] had it up there, and he’d let the kids play it. I was just fascinated by it. I played it for hours when I used to go up there.”
That love of games stays with Gene well into his teenage years. Dreaming of his own pinball machine he happened across an arcade in the midst of closing down; selling off all their games and offering free delivery to sweeten the deal. With the money he saved from working at Jack in the Box, Gene put down a deposit on a pinball machine, his favorite one – Jumping Jack. “Went home and told my parents I’m buying a pinball machine – ‘no you’re not!’ – but my sister helped talk them into it.”
THE BUSINESS OF PLAY
It didn’t take long for his hobby to become a business. Across the road from Los Angeles Valley College was a billiards hall with a few pinball machines, and not one of them worked properly. “I was a customer there and I talked a guy into letting me try my game there. None of their games worked that good. Because the company was big and they had three criteria: took a quarter, the flippers moved and the game reset. That was enough for the game to be considered working; if the features didn’t work they didn’t care and they never fixed it.”
Gene’s single machine out-earned all the others, and from then on arcades were Gene’s life. When he was 19 he met a technician in an arcade in North Hollywood building two machines for the movie Tilt, a long-forgotten comedy from 1979 starring Brooke Shields, who taught him all about machine maintenance.
“He was teaching me [about pinball machines] and I helped him do some work on those machines,” said Gene. “His brother owned an arcade that was open from like ‘72 until two years ago, one of the longest lasting arcades. And we’re still friends.”
By 1980 he opened his first arcade in Burbank, California, called Pinball Plus. From there, his business grew as he opened more arcades around California, from La Crescenta down to San Diego, before adding one more in Yuma, Arizona. In 1995 Gene he began selling machines in addition to running his arcades, before closing the last of his arcades in 1998 and focusing on the Vintage Arcade Superstore.
As Gene recalls, the arcade business dealt with its first crash in 1983 when Atari hit serious financial trouble, and again in the mid-90s with the release of the PlayStation. “Instead of arcade games having the technical advantage, companies like Namco actually made their games with PlayStation technology. Their circuit boards actually say Sony on the chips, so the games looked identical, there was no more technical edge. I think that was part of it, the PlayStation was as good as arcade games.”
Though he readily admits missing the old arcades, Gene says he’s just glad he was able to find some other way of staying in the business. “I still go out and pay to play pinball sometimes. Even though I have all those games I can play for free.”
The fragility of Gene’s business came up again in 2008 as America and the rest of the world dealt with the fallout of the global financial crisis. Considered the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression in the 1930s, Gene found himself in a tight spot with customers calling in and canceling their orders.
“It was really tough,” explained Gene. “What saved me was Disneyland. [Their] California Adventure [park] had this thing called Electronica for the new Tron movie, and they wanted to recreate Flynn’s Arcade so they rented over forty games from me for a long period of time. It was the best deal that I’d ever done, and that’s what saved me. But it was really tough.”
“I still go out and pay to play pinball sometimes. Even though I have all those games I can play for free.”
Since then the arcade business has been on an upswing that surprised even Gene. Centipede and Ms. Pac-Man machines that used to sell around the $1,600 mark are now fetching closer to $2,500. Gene said himself and many others in business feared the introduction of multi-game arcade machines would kill their trade, but in recent years the opposite has proven to be true.
“Me and this other dealer I work with in Pennsylvania discussed it and we said ‘the original game market is gone’. I couldn’t sell Centipede for anything. For years! And then for some reason people still like multi-games, but the original games have gone up in value.”
LIFE IN STORAGE
It’s hard to convey how huge the Vintage Arcade Superstore is. The premises is made up of three sections; the massive warehouse and workshop filled with broken arcade cabinets and spare parts, the showroom with all the machines ready for sale, and in between lies the dark storage room.
Housing a collection of artifacts from decades gone by, the storage space is a maze of machines. Around every corner was something new; a bright red Vs. Super Mario Bros sit-down cabinet, a Space Invaders machine with near pristine artwork, CRT monitors with severe burn-in waiting to be repaired.
None of these machines are lost or forgotten, Gene knows where all of them were. It’s not a graveyard, it’s storage for abandoned hardware waiting to come out and be brought back to life.
Moving through the old cabinets Gene showed me one with aging joysticks that moved like a stick in wet sand, unable to snap back to the center position. He explained that it “just becomes like sticky, gooey mush with age”, but that sticks are usually something they can change easily, but not always. “We just sold a game called Assault and the joysticks has the same bottom part as [most machines, but] the top is a handle with a trigger, and that you have to have the original joystick. So my technician spent an entire day rebuilding the joysticks because they’re a major thing to work on.”
The truth is, much like a lot of mass produced entertainment products, arcade cabinets weren’t meant to live this long. Some of them are pushing 40 years old at this point. But before anything leaves the shop Gene and his team go through a two-page checklist to ensure they don’t put their name on an inferior machine.
“The power supplies are sometimes still original,” explained Gene, “even up to 20 years old and they’re still working. But we change them because they may not stay working.”
Pride of place on a shelf in Gene’s office were a few of small trophies, one of which he pulled down to show me. It was from the Orange County Pinball League, a group of dedicated pinball enthusiasts who meet regularly for tournaments. Next to that sat some Star Trek memorabilia, books on video games and some Pac-Man plush toys.
Above al of them on the wall was a photo of Gene in a suit next to his to daughter. I asked if she loved pinball like her father, Gene laughed and told me “no way” as he talked glowingly about her.
As we walked through the relics of a bygone era in gaming once more time, it was clear that for Gene the arcade never ended, it just fell out of the mainstream. I envied how many perfectly restored machines he had in here. Near the entrance to the warehouse was some of the newer stock, like a faded Tekken 2 cabinet that reminded me of the small arcade near my local cinema back home. I felt that twinge of wanting one for myself.
The Jumping Jack pinball machine that started Gene’s journey back in the ‘70s lives here too, high up on a dusty shelf in the warehouse. He told me it’s been years since he pulled it down, but it’ll never be sold or given away. Now it’s just another memory, tucked away in a safe place.
As I wrapped up my time with Gene he was in the middle of playing Theatre of Magic, a 1995 pinball machine he affectionately called “the simplest, dumbest game”. Lining up shots with pinpoint accuracy, calling the targets he was aiming for then hitting them dead-on. It was already sold, he was just testing it before shipping it off to a customer. Perhaps another enthusiast like Gene, keeping the memories alive.