For as long as I can remember I've had the need to tinker with, break, fix, "improve" anything electrical or mechanical that I could get my hands on. Starting with my moms VCR at age 8 through stereo systems, transistor radios, build it yourself circuit kits, anything RC. To computers, servers, and networks.
20 of my 42 years on this earth had been spent working in the IT industry. Starting as an entry level tech and finishing as a manager of a large IT department. When the day finally came (and I knew it was coming for a year or two) that I got burned out and fed up with the endless politics and BS that go along with a management position. I knew it was time to take a long hard look at what it was I was going to do with whatever remaining time I had left on this planet.
I’d always loved pinball and arcade games and growing up in England I’d spend any money I had on it. I did paper routes, worked a Saturday job to support my habit. When I moved to the US in my early twenties, my then girlfriend now wife of 18 years (that poor women) and I would track down any pinball machine in the wild that we could and play it. That was always our date night.
We bought one machine. It broke…. it’s pinball. I thought, “Sure I can fix that.” I did and it was fun. So, I bought another, this one was already broken…Fixed that …it was more fun! Slowly I was spending more of my free time buying and fixing arcade games and pinball machines. I loved it. Our garage was filling up, our house was filling up and that storage locker that I thought was way too big, was filling up.
So now here I am, on a career break wondering what to do with myself. Should I go back in to IT, I had some offers, decent offers. Sure, why not. I’ll go do that interview Monday…. I’ll just go to this arcade expo thing in Banning, CA and see what this is all about.
I’d only found out about the expo on the Friday night, so I’d missed that day. No worries I’ll just go Saturday, one day should be enough. Bought two tickets for the next day, told the Mrs what we were going to be doing. “that sounds awesome, but I don’t think we will be there all day.”
Next morning, in the truck no idea what to expect. Pull up to this weird warehouse complex that google maps had trouble finding and in we went. When I walked on to the pinball floor for the first time it briefly occurred to me, at some point I must have crashed the truck on the 10 freeway, died horribly and now - somehow - I’d reached nirvana / heaven whatever you choose to call it. Pinball machines….lots of pinball machines…all kinds of pinball machines, stuff I’d only heard about. I spent the first two hours just walking around, probably with my mouth wide open. The rest of the day was spent playing, endlessly which was awesome. But what was more awesome was the people. Pin heads. We met, talked to a whole bunch of people that were into what we were into! It was amazing.
Sure enough we went back Sunday. All day, the same thing awesome machines, awesome people, just fun. The same topics kept coming up. We’d love somewhere to play all the time. We just want to play, there are places but we need more places. Driving home that night I said to my wife casually, ”we should open a place, do you think we could open a pinball spot?” Without batting an eyelid she looked at me and said “let’s do it!”
Monday morning came. I forgot about the interview I was meant to be going to until they called me and asked if I would be attending. “No, sorry I’m opening up an arcade.” I said….long silence……. “A what? An arcade?”, “where?”. “No Idea” I replied. “OK, good luck with that.”
Here I was, I did have a few (ten) machines. An idea, some money and very understanding wife. It took me 2 months just to find a spot where we could work on all the machines I was collecting at once. In the meantime I was shuffling between my garage and three storage lockers and fixing everything I could. Buying pins and video games, meeting new people, lurking on pin side, learning everything and anything I could. Working ungodly hours and loving every minute of it.
I found a spot where we could have our arcade. It was in a crazy location, it was derelict. It was cheap. I roped my lifelong friend into helping me. He flew in from England and we smashed down walls, moved machines, did drywall, painted the walls, fixed machines, fitted AC units, bought machines, ripped up tiles, fixed more machines…argued with each other...broke machines…built a website, dealt with city councils, permits…you name it. My buddy who was used to Northern English weather, where if it gets above 75 degrees it’s considered a heatwave, got heatstroke twice in the SoCal heat. We decided it was best to start work at 2am and finish at 11am at least until we got the AC working. Eventually, we finished. So now we have this arcade, that no one knows about. What do we do? I guess we open it.
On January 21st we opened our doors for the first time, we were due to open at 6pm. I got a call at 5.30pm and someone asked, ”hey are you guys opening tonight? Are there people outside waiting?” I told them yes and I had no idea if people were waiting, because I’d been so busy I’d not even looked outside. When I put the phone down I went outside, there was no one waiting.
Ok, I’ve made a massive mistake. This is stupid, what have I done? It’s 5.40 no one is here. Wait…we don’t open till 6. Ok…breath…breath…it’s ok. Just then I see a car, driving slowly…the window rolls down. “you that arcade place?”….”yeah I’m that arcade place.”, “you open?”. “yes….come on in.” A guy and his two kids come in. The dad pays and off he goes into our arcade. I tell my front desk guy Bobby…”err hey man I’m just going in the back..I gotta go err get that thing.” I go in my tech room and close the door. I’m not ashamed to admit I burst into tears like a little baby. All the stress of the last few months all the late nights, long hours, and someone had showed up, placed down their money, and was now playing our games.
Over a 6 hour period we had 207 people, stop by and play. One guy arranged his 40th birthday party to be at our arcade the following Tuesday. Since then we have opened twice more to the public. The last time was just this Saturday (11th February.) Just after 10pm John Weeks from the Pinball Museum in Banning showed up. John of course runs the expo I had been to just the year before. So to me this was a big deal…He said over and over again…”this place is amazing.” To me I had come full circle, I couldn’t imagine that my place with its 26 pinball machines and 40 arcade machines would impress a guy whose collection to me is the most amazing thing in the world. But he seemed to like it.
It’s been an adventure, it’s been a long process…like reading this long ass post….but here I am. I know I’ll always do something pinball related. I know I’ll do my best to make Retrovolt the best spot it can be. I cannot thank enough the people I have met along the way and I cannot thank enough the people here on pinside who have posted tech questions and answers that I have read endlessly. Your advice, and your knowledge – although I never added to the conversation up to now, has been invaluable. So is this a mid life crisis or am I living the dream? I can tell you whole heartedly that it started off as a crisis and has turned into a dream.
If you are ever in the Redlands / Mentone area stop by and check us out. We plan to be open every weekend starting in April. Until then we are open every other weekend. Check our site for details.
For those that are interested there is a 1 min montage I put together which shows some pics of us at the begining and where we are at now. You can find that by clicking here