By Steven T. Wright
This article originally appeared on Playboy.com.
"I'll tell you, nobody's getting rich off this. That's for sure."--David Shields, owner of Flippers
Sometime between 1996 and 2002, the concept of the video arcade finally died out completely. There were no flowers or heartfelt eulogies. In fact, its demise was so ignoble that it's essentially impossible to put an exact date on it. Faced with the unquestionable supremacy of the home console experience, the flashy amusement centers that once clogged the malls of America began to shut down one by one. By the time anyone noticed, it was already over.
Asheville, North Carolina is a city that prides itself on its wealth of curiosities. Its tiny yet bustling downtown is crammed with used bookstores, antique shops, and other countless models of commerce that pop culture ridicules as hopelessly outdated. With all this in mind, it shouldn't be that surprising that a self-proclaimed "pinball museum" manages to make rent there. However, the extent of its success managed to shock even me.
Nestled just a few blocks from the Grove Arcade, one of the city's most heavily-trafficked tourist destinations, the New Asheville Pinball Museum occupies something resembling prime real estate. On the sidewalk outside of its somewhat-cramped interior, empty-nesters and young couples alike ooh and ahh at the area's rustic charm, perhaps stopping in for a few rounds of a classic game before enjoying a chardonnay at the oh-so-cute antique book shop-cum-wine bar-cum-coffee shop across the way.
This is no coincidence. In fact, this is exactly the type of clientele that Pinball Museum owner/proprietor T.C. Di Bella was betting on when he first broke ground in 2013.
"I just looked at the demographics," he says. "I've lived here since '98. The people who come here are typically late 30s and up. Those are the people who used to play pinball."
We're sitting in Di Bella's makeshift office, wedged between his sizable pinball exhibition and the smaller arcade adjacent. Like the rest of his museum slash arcade, the lighting is low, almost to a histrionic level. Artifacts of '80s nostalgia clamor for his desk's scant real estate, from a tiny light-up DeLorean to a still-in-the-box action figure of Lo Pan, the evil mastermind of John Carpenter's cult favorite Big Trouble in Little China.
Di Bella himself cuts a rather unassuming presence, dressed in a casual t-shirt and jeans. His one-day stubble and heavy brow remind me vaguely of my middle school gym teacher, but his affable personality quickly dispelled that. He's in his mid-40s, but his natural exuberance melts some of that time away.
Unlike many of his fellow operators, Di Bella shies away from the label they all seem to share: "collector." He even chides me for it. "That's something everybody assumes," he says, his voice rising a bit too quickly.
"Yeah," I reply. "That's because it's usually the story."
But it's not Di Bella's. In fact, he bought his first cabinet just eight months before he opened the museum. To hear him tell it, it was more a series of sheer coincidences and calculated bets that led to the museum's formation than his overwhelming passion for the game.
Just two years ago, he was a middle-school teacher with twenty-plus years in the classroom, looking to transition into something with a bit more freedom. Then came the thunderstrike.
"I had a party. A guest of mine the next day sent me a link to the Seattle Pinball Museum. I said 'oh my gosh, put that in Asheville and it'll be a huge success.'"
He called his best friend who, coincidentally enough,was a pinball technician. With him and the wife on-board, it became a matter of accumulation.
"We started with 27. Now we have 70 or so, plus 25 classic arcade games. And we've doubled our square footage in less than two years."
With that, Di Bella rocks back slightly in his chair, a grin on his face. He's proud, and perhaps with good reason. But his goals, accomplished or not, seem to clash with the enthusiasts' usual credo: competition and collection, not curation. I ask him what he thinks about the competitive pinball scene, which I perceive as the most vibrant portion of the culture. Di Bella just laughs.
"Yeah, those guys sometimes come in here.... They tell us what's wrong with the machines. We laugh at that." I bristle; he continues, unabated. "Imagine having 30 machines on the floor. There's going to be a few light bulbs out, a few targets stuck...These guys go to conventions to get patted on the back, like 'good job for keeping pinball going!' It's a little--"
"Masturbatory?" I offer.
"Yeah. That," he says, with a laugh.
Some time later, I'm standing with a beer in my hand, perched above Di Bella's favorite machine, .Black Hole.. Despite my recent experience, my three steel spheres vanish into the void at an embarrassing clip. I look around to see if anyone is watching, hoping that my terrible secret has remained hidden. I study the machine, checking for flaws--perhaps a dimmed bulb or a blocked ramp--but it's hopeless. I'm just not that good at pinball.
I make a few more spirited attempts at nearly half of Di Bella's machines, but, as always, I feel like I'm humoring the hobby rather than actually enjoying it. I can engage with almost every genre of video game, but the immediate appeal of shooting metal balls up ramps seems to escape me.
I give Di Bella an apologetic smile as I walk out. I rub shoulders with tourists as I make my way back to my car, wondering if there are any pinball enthusiasts who weren't around for the heyday--like me.
A few days earlier, I had sat on a bench just outside one of those conventions that Di Bella so avoids and interviewed someone who could have told me exactly what defects his machines had displayed. But he wasn't just one of the "pinheads" that Di Bella later poked fun at. Actually, he was a fellow operator.
David Shields doesn't give the impression of a man who works in "the amusement industry." In fact, his reticent demeanor and quiet speaking voice don't give much of an impression at all, besides perhaps that of a doting grandfather. Eventually, I realize why--when you've been in an industry for forty years, it's easier to let your expertise do the talking for you.
"I got in at '75," Shields says, palming through a tuft of wispy hair. "Opened my first arcade of my own around '79 called 'Flippers'... I had five at my peak, all around Virginia... Then, as the boom faded, I had to close 'em down."
To a layperson like me, this all seems a bit like ancient history. But to pinball fans, the name "Flippers" is anything but. In 2013, Shields bought a repossessed convenience store twenty minutes north of North Carolina's Outer Banks and filled it with his collection of arcade games and pins. Now rechristened as a combination gas station/arcade, "Flippers" rose from the dead, wiping twenty-five years of soil from its burial suit.
But, to hear the fanatics tell it, the business isn't shambling. It's thriving.
When I was trying to find Shields in the crowded convention hall, one anonymous pinhead recognized the name immediately. "Yeah, David? The guy that runs Flippers? He's awesome." The article that clued me in to the arcade's existence calls it the "Pinball Mecca of the Outer Banks." And the Georgia Pinball Appreciation Society mailing list has buzzed about it ever since I joined over a year and a half ago. Given all this apparent success, Shields' modesty is rather striking. But his motivations are far from monetary.
"It's not a money thing," he says. "I have an amusement route to support me." Shields has stakes in dozens of crane machines, jukeboxes, and stand-alone arcade games in movie theaters from Georgia to Virginia. It's enough to make a comfortable living. But that's not enough for him. "The arcade can hold its own," he says. "It's more a passion for pinball itself, having a league, playing with friends."
I'm fascinated by this. To me, gaming is primarily a solo activity; even when friends play with me, we're rarely in the same physical location. But that train of thought doesn't hold water for Shields. "It's kinda like a bowling league," he says. "Everyone's getting together to socialize...get out of the everyday routine."
Talking to Shields, I realize that his vision of pinball has more in common with table-top games like .Dungeons & Dragons. than the mainstream video games of 2015. It's a perspective I hadn't considered before.
I ask Shields the same thing I later ask Di Bella--why the Outer Banks? Surely he could do more business in a major metropolitan area. He shrugs off the question.
"Well, naturally you do more business in a more populated area. But to rent a building would be too expensive."
His tone is muted, almost casual. Clearly, he doesn't worry about location too much. And, considering his market, his position is more than understandable. He knows what the pinheads want. He's one of them, after all.
He has built it, and they are coming. Even an outsider like me can see that.
Greensboro, North Carolina is a city that never actually begins. Its seemingly endless sprawl of drab strip malls and gussied-up fast food joints remind me of the years I spent driving around the outskirts of Atlanta, where the trees first give way to the exurban mass.
Before 2011, I had never even heard of Greensboro, despite living in South Carolina my entire life. And I never expected to spend any length of time there, let alone make the five-hour trek from Atlanta on multiple occasions. Yet here I am, driving up the same length of battered road for the third time, toward a destination that my best friend and I first explored more than three years ago.
By all logic, Lost Ark Videogames should not exist. It is a combination of two business models that have each died a thousand deaths in the public consciousness: half-independent gaming store, half-video arcade. It resides in a city that is notable neither for its hipness nor its population density. And its management has little-to-no interest in shifting any aspect of its image away from its own ideals of "authenticity."
But it's here, and as I stand between racks populated with countless obscure games I wonder how the hell any of this came to be. Luckily, I know the one person who can answer that: the owner, Daniel McMillian.
When I approach McMillian, he's haggling with a customer over the price of a Super Scope, an accessory for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, which hit the states in 1991. He's wiry and ageless, and he speaks in a thick west Tennessee accent. Unlike Di Bella and Shields, he actually looks the part of an arcade owner, glasses and all. And he's happy to see me. "Yeah," he says, his eyes shifting furtively. "Let's find a place to sit down."
This turns out to be a taller order than either of us had anticipated. I had expected an "office" like Di Bella's, but what I end up getting is more akin to a closet overflowing with games and gaming accoutrement of all stripes, from ancient circuit boards to forgotten peripherals like the aforementioned Super Scope. I pick up one particularly dusty piece of plastic--a Super Game Boy, a mostly-forgotten peripheral for the Super Nintendo--and say "wow, I've only ever heard of this." And I pick up another, and another, before remembering I have an interview to conduct.
I almost didn't make the trek to Greensboro. The drive was considerable, and I had a sneaking suspicion that McMillian's story would ring too close to Di Bella's to be usable. I was wrong--egregiously so.
As I interview him, it becomes clear to me that the forces that drive McMillian are entirely different. While Shields and Di Bella delivered their responses with a sort of relaxed candor, McMillian crackles with nervous energy. His words tumble out in short, eloquent bursts, using turns of phrase like "machinations of the university machine" and "we contain multitudes." It gives an impression more befitting a James Joyce than an arcade owner. Like all good talkers, he even has a tic--he snaps his right thumb and forefinger against his hip and leg, but only when his monologue directly concerns games.
It turns out the Joyce comparison isn't far off.
"I came to Greensboro to get a PHD in English literature. I had a crisis of faith and left the program in the 11th hour, punted, and followed my heart again. And here we are. Everyone I knew tried to gently or not-so-gently tell me 'this is not a good idea.' Independent games store in 2011. But I believed in it. It was me and my best friend...we worked six days a week. Then he left. And for three months I just did it by myself."
I'm impressed. He waves my compliment off.
"Everybody who's done something like this has a story like that. Your significant other hates your guts and all. Either it all crumbles or you push through."
I ask if he's still married. He answers in the affirmative, and we both laugh. He knocks on a nearby wood-paneled game console.
As our talk progresses, I get the sense that while Shields and Di Bella built their operations through a series of calculated decisions, McMillian's arcade comes from a very different place--a place that was reached by passion and desperation rather than deft business sense.
"I never had a dream of running a games store," he says, shaking his head. "I'd rather someone else run it and be in this cool place. But I do it for the arcade experience. It's an experience I loved and fell in love with all over again. I thought, 'This is great. I want to do something with this.'"
McMillian sounds like a man who is trying to reverse-engineer something he has lost. "Not to wax nostalgic," he says, his eyes beginning to light up. "But, there's something about when you went to the arcade. The lights, the strangers milling about. You elbow up to a total stranger on the machine and put in your quarter. You interact, maybe you're opponents, maybe you're working as a team...It's very superficial, but there's an energy to that interaction, because it was real. You're really hitting on those big buttons...You can't get that when you're playing online."
I just nod. I'm unsure if I'm even capable of understanding his perspective. But I certainly want to. Later on, as I walk through his arcade, I begin to fathom the depths of McMillian's ardor. It comes through in the little things: the perfect pull of each joystick, the spotless screens on his colorful Japanese-style "candy" cabinets, the tactile pleasure of the buttons. You can sense the pride he takes in his work.
But, even considering all that, it's the extent of his curation that most impresses me. His collection features the old standbys and the chronically-overlooked in almost equal measure--Capcom's classic Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo shares space with cult favorites like SNK's Windjammers and Namco's Outfoxies.
As I sit down at his Outrun 2 machine--possibly my favorite arcade game of all time--it occurs to me that this is The Real Thing. I'm not entirely sure what The Real Thing is, but, as I drift around the opening corners of Outrun's beach stage, I know that this is it. This is how the arcade survives. This is what McMillian was talking about.
So I did a thing I told myself I wasn't going to do. I brought some people up to Greensboro. I watched as two of my best friends from home went round after round on a fighting game called Psycho Force 2012, grasping the mechanics of the game more and more after each nail-biter of a defeat. We took turns on the Outrun machine, each of us trying different routes, trying our best to blaze a path to the very end of the road. And we shot our way to the end of Jurassic Park: The Lost World, dropping raptor after raptor in our quest to save two innocent scientists. And, by the end, I started to have an idea of why men like Di Bella, Shields, and McMillian do what they do.
Later on, my friend and I were swapping games on one of McMillian's two pinball machines, Theatre of Magic. I didn't need Shields' expertise to tell the pin was in perfect working order--it shone like a grand piano. I put up what I thought was a respectable score on it. I was so sure that my friend wouldn't best it that I walked away. But, lo and behold, a few minutes later he taps me on the shoulder and shakes his head.
"Four hundred million," he says. "Beat that."
I crept over to the pin, ashamed of my hubris. But then a funny thing happened. I looked at the display flashing my friend's score and I felt an enormous rush of jealousy. I wanted to win.
So, I pulled out all the stops. I read the instructions. I identified the ramps. I used a few balls to practice. Then came the real thing. I locked one ball, then another, then another. Then I shot it right up the middle. Presto. All the balls came tumbling down at once. Multiball--just like the instructions had said. I ended up just edging my friend out. But something had clicked. It all finally made sense. All I had needed was a friend to point it out to me.
I now find myself scouring through online auctions and arcade supply stores, trying to find a good deal on a "candy cabinet." I even found an Outrun 2 machine in Arizona for half-a-song. I tried to talk one of my Phoenix-based friends into it, but he turned me down, again and again. "You're not thinking straight," he said.
At the time, I let it slide off my back--but now I wonder if he has a point. For me, there is no nostalgia to mine, no perfect memory to re-capture. Whatever passion I have is born from the reflections and lamentations of those who have felt the passing of an era. To some degree, I am appropriating their experiences, and I wonder if it is my place to do that. Even as I write this, I'm still unsure.
"Look," McMillian says, as we step out of his cramped storage closet after an hour and a half of chatting. It's 5pm on a Friday, and the tenor of the arcade has changed accordingly. Perhaps two dozen patrons crowd around the fighting game cabinets, shouting and shrieking, enraptured by the pulse of the action.
They range wildly in appearance and age--some are high schoolers sporting witty t-shirts, others are middle-agers still in their office clothes--but they all share an obvious love for games. One of them bounds up to McMillian and gives him an ebullient handshake before returning to his match. He's wearing a Lost Ark tee emblazoned with the characters from Earthbound, the underground SNES classic admired by so-called "true gamers" the world over.
An enormous smile lights up McMillian's face. "See? It's like it's '92 again. You know?" I smile back, but I don't say anything. I don't have the heart to tell him I was born in 1993.
Steven T. Wright is a freelance writer living in and around the Southeastern United States. He enjoys reheating yesterday's coffee, complaining about wrestling, and listening to rap music from before he was born. He's still in the market for an OutRun 2 machine.
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