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Arcade games that blink and beep light up their lives // "PIN HEADS'

Published Jul. 6, 2006

Soon there will be little reason to leave home.

Movies are available on big-screen televisions via satellite. Kung Pao Chicken can be delivered to the front door. Friends and family can chat via the Internet. And some people work from computers in spare bedrooms.

Now comes the latest addition for well-heeled cocooners _ home arcades stocked with pinball machines, vintage video games, slot machines, pool tables and juke boxes.

Baby boomers are buying these expensive toys to relive their own youths, to keep their teenagers off the streets, and as an investment. Slot-machine addicts are buying old one-armed bandits to provide quick fixes in between cruises or bus trips to Biloxi's casinos.

The trend has given amusement game sellers, such as Tampa's A.S.K. Distributors, a new market for their old equipment. Machines that were passe in bars and pizza parlors have become chic in upscale homes around the world.

Customers from Canada to Mexico call A.S.K. to order goods. In December, A.S.K. sold $60,000 worth of its machines for home use. Some business comes from ads in such high-brow magazines as Robb Report. The company also rents the machines for parties.

The new market came at a good time for distributors. Profits from machines installed in bars and restaurants have been off lately. Games have gotten so elaborate and expensive that it takes much longer before they make a profit. And some of the video games can be easily duplicated on home computers.

For some, there's no substitute for the noisy pinball machines they tilted and cursed as teens. "We call them pin heads," said Pete Movsesian, publisher of Coin-Op classics magazine. "To them, that's the only game in town."

New life for an old business

Andy Kline decided there was a home market for used amusement machines after people kept showing up at his warehouse to forage for old pinball machines and video games. So he set up a showroom on North Armenia Avenue in Tampa and filled it full of blinking, ringing, neon-trimmed "amusement equipment" _ everything from pinball machines and vintage video games like Pac-Man to slot machines and juke boxes. Then he developed a catalog of some of his used game inventory.

Kline reconditions and offers warranties for the machines. That's a plus for buyers who used to buy them as is at flea markets. Besides, when buyers get tired of their games, they bring them back. "I am like a car dealer, I like trade-ins," he said.

Tom Gorsky, who owns Games International in Pompano Beach, used to sell slot machines just to cruise ships. Then customers started asking if they could buy them for their homes. He checked Florida law and found that machines 20-years old or older are allowed for home use. Now sales of slot machines, as well as pinball machines, have become an integral part of Gorsky's business.

His customers buy the machines and treat them like a home change bank.

"Then, when you lose, you can still open up the machine and get your money back out," Gorsky said.

If people are buying slot machines to satisfy an addiction, they are often buying pinball machines and old video games for a sentimental link to their youths.

While some people buy enough games to fill an entire game room, others buy just one that has special meaning to them, Kline said.

Some of the first video games, like Pac-Man, Asteroid, and Centipede, are good examples of games that have become recently popular for homeowners, because they bring back good memories of the '70s to baby-boomers who were playing them in college and high school.

"People in their 40s are the ones who buy the old classic video games," Kline said. "Now that they have the money, they want to remember that" time in their lives.

Other customers tend to be younger men in search of pinball machines to help beat stress.

"You spend eight hours at the office getting beat up on the phone and you go home and you start beating up on the pinball machine," Gorsky said.

About 80 percent of Kline's pinball and arcade game customers are men. But most slot machine buyers are women.

Off the streets, in the rec room

Many game buyers are also parents.

In addition to getting to wallow in a little nostalgia of their own, many think of the machines as a good way to keep their teenagers off the streets and out of expensive arcades.

"The baby boomers' kids are teenagers now," said Kay Green, owner of Kay Green Design in Winter Park. Green has a set of 15-year-old twins. "And I don't want them down the street."

Green installs the machines in model homes she decorates across the South. She thinks it helps boost sales because it taps into the the desire of Americans to cocoon.

"People are spending more time at home," said Green. "They are trying to bring into their home all the functions of the outside world."

Longtime Tampa Bay Buccaneer Paul Gruber doesn't get out as much anymore. For starters, it's tough to find a good babysitter.

So Gruber finds having a home game room is a good alternative. It entertains him, his two small children and guests.

Gruber had seen pinball machines and other arcade games in the homes of friends and decided he wanted some too.

It took him some telephone calls, but he eventually found Kline's business. He bought a hard-to-get Corvette pinball machine, a video poker machine and a golf game.

Entertainment wasn't the only thing on his mind. "When I did it I wanted stuff that would hold its value," Gruber said. "Most of that stuff depreciates."

The games can be good investments, if you buy the right ones. Slot machines from the '30s are hot items now, said Gorsky of Games International. So are the first video games from the '70s. Pinball machines that feature movie and television themes, such as Star Trek and the Addams Family, are popular. Kline has a hard time finding enough Corvette and Harley-Davidson pinball machines to meet demands among those who favor those cars and motorcycles.

Investing in collectibles can be risky business. What collectors want today might not be appealing in a few years. For instance, the old video games that were as passe as polyester a few years ago have nearly doubled in value, thanks to a wave of '70s nostalgia.

No cheap hobby

While people decide to buy arcade-style games for a multitude of reasons, they all have one thing in common _ disposable income.

Gorsky sells slot machines from $500 for a plain, newer model to $2,000 for some of the fancy and rarer antiques.

The average pinball machine goes for about $1,200, Kline said. And some of the most desirable machines, such as the Corvette or Harley-Davidson pinball machines can fetch prices as high as $5,000, If he can find one.

"But I can find just about anything," he said. "It might take a week, but I will get it."

Demand for slot machines has created some shortages. Gorsky gets his used slot machines from Nevada casinos. He only shops there, rather than Atlantic City, because the low desert humidity is less likely to have gummed up the guts of a machine.

Because of the boom in home sales, he's having trouble finding older slot machines. Instead of buying them right off casino floors, now he has to go to casino warehouses to find them.

Demand among some customers grows, as they look for new toys to complete their own home arcades.

Larry SanTangelo of New Port Richey goes straight to Kline when he craves a new game for the '50s-style diner he and his wife have built on the lower floor of their stilt home.

The owner of several landscaping businesses has two large video games, a pinball machine, and a variety of other games in his home.

SanTangelo is expanding his space and has a few more items in mind, including a video game the 35-year-old played in junior high. "It's an airplane that flies through all these mazes and shoots at military stations. At the end you shoot a monster," he said.

Diane Vaughn figures she and her husband, Larry, will add more games in their three-story home in Tarpon Springs. They already have two slot machines and a poker table on their third floor. Down by the pool, there's a pool table, dart machine and a pinball machine. "We are pretty game-intense," she said. "We are not through collecting, by no means."

Whatever they get next will have to be small, though, "because we are running out of room," she said.

The couple is a bit competitive with each other. Pinball is Diane's game. "I was really good at pinball when I was in college. ... And I still beat my husband more than he beats me."

Some popular games and their prices

Corvette pinball machine _ $3,600

Harley-Davidson _ $5,000

Addams Family _ $2,500

Pac-Man _ $600

Asteroid _ $600

Air hockey _ $995

Reproduction Bubbler Rockola jukebox _ $6,000