Getting over being a collector

As a pinball collector transitioning to a pinball operator I had to get over some things.

The customer’s opinion is more important

As a collector, I bought games that I liked. As an operator, you buy games your customers will like.  Sometimes those things overlap, sometimes not.

I bought a 2002 Stern Rollercoaster Tycoon because I thought it would do well, and it has.  I like the game and consider it under-appreciated but I never would have bought it as a collector.  And you know what?  It’s been a great earner.

Same with a 1994 Bally World Cup Soccer ’94, which has done so well I just bought a second one last week for $2,250.  I actually really like that game, but it wouldn’t have been my first choice as a collector, either, but boy can that thing earn.

Pinball machines are not princesses

But the biggest thing was getting over thinking of my pinball machines as special princesses to be treated delicately.  When you route your pinball machines, people are going to beat on them. It’s what people do. You can’t stop it.

When I first put my pinball machines on route I remember sitting nearby having lunch and some children came up. They didn’t play, but they banged on the glass and left greasy smudges all over the glass. I could have gotten mad, or shooed them away, or worried about the game getting damaged.

But instead I just ignored it and enjoyed my lunch, happy that they got some free entertainment. After they left I cleaned the glass.

That’s how you have to be.

Of course there are locations where pinball machines will get vandalized or stolen, but this should be obvious. I’m talking about a clean, well-lit, attended location.

What you can look forward to

Young kids are going to button mash the flippers, bang on the glass, dry fire the plunger over and over again, and leave greasy smears behind. Adults will slam the plunger with their open palm, kick, lift, drop, and jerk the machine, leave food bits on the glass, spill beer, and everything else kids do too. It’s okay. They can take it.  Pinball machines are built to withstand the rigors of daily public punishment. It’s baked into the design over decades and decades.

Sometimes I do have to remind myself of that.

I have asked children who were really banging the glass hard, or climbing on top of the machines to please not do that.

Sometimes you have to deal with spilled beer or soft drinks, but this seems to clean up pretty well. Putting cup holders on each machine cuts down on spills and makes people more likely to stay.

There’s not much you can do about this. Keeping the machines clean, well lit and in good repair cuts down a lot of abuse.

Wear is inevitable

Make no mistake though, your machine will begin to show signs of wear. Keeping it clean and well maintained will help, but there are differences between a home use only pinball machine with 300 plays on it and a routed machine with 10,000 plays on it.  And I have a couple of machines in my private collection that I may never route for this reason. I used to say ‘never’ but I may change my mind about that. I’ve routed an effectively new Simpson’s Pinball Party and it now has well over 10,000 plays on it. It looks pretty darn good. I’m certain I could sell it for more than the $3,000 I paid for it.

Pinball machines were meant to be played, and played often. I think it’s a shame to hoard them in a basement somewhere.

Next time I’ll talk about my maintenance routines.

Brian Jamison

Portland Oregon

My biggest mistake as a pinball operator

When first started as a pinball operator I had no idea how to fix pinball machines. The inner workings of pinball machines were a total mystery to me.

I laugh about it now, but back then I didn’t even know how to replace a burnt out bulb.  I was even afraid of damaging the machine if I even tried to clean the playfield!

Instead I relied on a great pinball repair guy I’d known for ten years.  He was great, often making repairs the same day. The problem of course was the cost of labor.

After a few months it became clear the machines were modestly successful.  I realized that I was running a real business, and I had to start treating it like one.  That meant not using contractors unless it was a last resort.

Learning to repair pinball machines

I couldn’t support an employee, so I had to learn how to do pinball repair and maintenance myself. I started slow, taking on the common, basic things.  Clearing coin jams and cleaning the playfields helped me get comfortable. Every time a problem came up, I tried to figure it out myself.

I found the process quite fun, and it took up most of my free time in the evenings reading up on pinball tech. Before long I was correctly identifying problems.  After a few months I was able to handle most of the repairs myself. Because I had spent so much time learning about other people’s mistakes, I made less of them myself.

I learned almost everything from two places: Pinside and YouTube.

Pinside is an incredible resource. Often just searching the forum turns up the exact solution to your problem. If not, posting to the forum gets quick answers from great people. The community is great.  They helped me diagnose problems, pointed me at resources on the web, and have been just hugely supportive.

YouTube was also very helpful on tutorials.  Being able to watch someone taking flippers apart makes learning easy.

The process of learning how to repair and maintain pinball machines has taken more than a year.  At this point I can fix nearly everything that can go wrong with a pinball machine. I haven’t yet learned how to repair bad transistors or do other board repairs, mostly because I don’t have a good enough soldering station. I’m sure I’ll learn that soon!

How much time does it take?

Of course, doing my own pinball repair and maintenance takes time.  I think right now it is about an hour per week per machine. But I’ve found that I really like working on pinball machines. The non-pinball ‘normal’ work I do is very challenging. Working on a pinball machine is relaxing and helps me recharge. It’s quite nice to take an extra 15 minutes at lunch and clean up a pinball machine, or do a couple of hours of work in the evening to keep a machine tuned up.

And I think that’s the biggest gain – spending more time on maintenance.  The machines are breaking less than they used to, despite being used more.

I find that I quite like being a pinball operator. While you are working with the playfield up it’s like a magic people magnet.  Folks rarely see the underside of a pinball machine and they stare in wonder at all the wires. Even with just the glass off or the coin door open people come up to you and ask questions.  I love hearing that enthusiasm for pinball. Many times I’ve been thanked for keeping my machines working and clean (just today in fact!), and that’s a great feeling.

Have I saved money doing it myself?

Yes, but it took quite a while to realize the savings.

At first all the savings I made in contractor labor was offset by the tools, tool cases, storage boxes, and spare parts I’ve had to buy.

But at this point most of that investment is behind me. I go on site, I have the right tools, I generally know how to fix a problem, and I often have the spare part I need to fix it.

This year have I only had to call in a repair expert a couple of times. And twice I’ve had to have boards sent out for repair. I still have significant ongoing expenses with parts, which I’ll also write about another time, but I’ve been able to channel a lot more money to buying pinball machines!

I can see a time when it makes sense as a pinball operator to have someone help with maintenance and repairs as I add more machines.  When I open my own barcade/pinball museum that will be a priority.

Looking back, I should have learned to do the work from the start instead of relying on a contractor.

Next I’ll write about some of the things I’ve had to overcome on my path to being a great pinball operator.

How it all began

I’m Brian Jamison. I live in the pinball capital of the world, Portland Oregon. This blog is a compilation of my lessons learned as a small time, part time pinball operator. If you love pinball, I hope you will think about doing what I’ve done, too.

Long ago I made the decision that I was going to run a pinball arcade. With the many other responsiblities I have I knew it was going to take years, so I began casually collecting machines. By 2014 I had eight pins in my collection and it felt like the time was right to take things up a level.

I started doing a lot of research. I spent hundreds of hours reading about running a pinball business, listening to podcasts, and talking to people.

A lot of what I heard didn’t sound good. It seemed that there were fewer and fewer pinball operators. People who operate them often talked about how much work it was and how little money was in it. A friend of mine with close to 40 years of experience as an operator and pinball repair guy liked to joke “I’m the only guy in Oregon who makes money on pinball. Because I get paid to fix them!”

But I also saw success. In Portland we have Ground Kontrol, possibly one of the first barcades after the first wave of arcades from the 70s and 80s died off. I saw them grow and thrive even through awful economic downturns.

In late 2014 I started talking with a friend of mine who owns a local chain of excellent family restaurants, and after some discussions we agreed to try out a couple of my pinball machines in one of his new locations.

I was psyched, and also nervous. Would my precious machines be destroyed? Would it turn out to be a money pit?

It took a few months to iron out the details, but by January of 2015 I put two machines on location – a 1995 Bally Theatre of Magic — the first pinball machine I ever bought back in 1999 for $3,000 — and a 2002 Stern Rollercoaster Tycoon I had just bought for $3,000. The machines did well enough in the first month that I invested in a 1991 Bally The Addams Family for $4,000.

Fast forward to August 2017 and I now have 24 pinball machines. I haven’t been able to buy all those machines with the profits from the pinball business. I’ve invested a fair amount of my own money to build up the collection, and made some very good deals along the way.

In my next post I’ll talk about my biggest mistake (so far!) as a pinball operator.