Story dated 1st April, 2003.
Many people will be familiar with The Pinball Heaven, or at least the company's web site.
But Pinball News went behind the site to find out about the company and the man responsible for it all. So we headed up the M40, M42, M6 and M58 to Liverpool Road in Southport.
Nestling between an interior decorators' and a launderette in a corner block of shops is an unobtrusively small store which is The Pinball Heaven's headquarters.
When you enter the shop you're greeted by a collection of upended games, boxes of parts and three beautifully clean games - TZ, MM & SPP - the latter only about 10 days out of its box, the Medieval Madness a lovingly refurbished game complete with 9ct gold wireforms.
The Twilight Zone has since departed to a new home but the other two remain.
In the corner sits an amazing sight - a big box of Addams Family ramps from Pinball Inc. The Pinball Heaven is the European distributor of Pinball Inc's replacement pinball products and if you've ever drooled over the chance to fix that broken plastic ramp, the sight of all these brand new ones will send you hospital suffering from dehydration.
On the other side of the shop are half a dozen games awaiting restoration.
Two Theatre of Magics, an Attack From Mars and a Star Trek amongst others are awaiting the Pinball Heaven treatment, while a colour chart and touch-up paint are on hand to fix any paintwork chips that may have occurred. Oh, and there's a new Addams Family cloud somewhere in there too.
It sounds chaotic, but it's an ordered chaos - everything is there for a reason.
Welcoming visitors to the shop is the man behind The Pinball Heaven - Phil Palmer.
Phil has been restoring games for twelve years now and he takes pride in the high quality of the work he produces. He chooses not to offer unrestored games as an option to buyers, but wants to keep The Pinball Heavens reputation for supplying pristine games. Consequently he rejects many of the games offered to him and won't touch older (pre-1990) games nor Gottlieb models either.
That is the front area of the shop, but in the centre workshop area two games are part way through the restoration process - a Flintstones and another ST-TNG.
The playfields are almost bare with the Flintstones the earlier in the restoration process which typically takes around a week.
Under the Star Trek is a pile of ramps, wireforms tunnels and plastics waiting to be cleaned, fixed or replaced.
Most of the spare parts are kept in this workshop part of the shop and as expected, there are plenty of them. Numerous small bins hold the generic and game specific small parts while the larger parts and cleaning materials are stacked up on shelving units.
Again, many of these bits and pieces would have a home collector reaching for their cheque book. There are coils a-plenty, bulbs by the bucket and all the Novus you could eat. And a big bag of frogs on sticks (Scared Stiff owners will appreciate these).
But the parts business wasn't how The Pinball Heaven started. I talked to Phil about the company and where it all began.
When he was still at school he got an old electromechanical game and set about repairing it and cleaning it up. The old EM started his interest in restoration and soon he had a custom-built shed at his parents' home where he could work on more games.
This led to larger buildings and in 1994 The Pinball Heaven was formed. But he's not standing still. Even now, Phil is hoping to purchase a disused barn near his country home and would like to transfer the company's operation there, giving more space to work in and more storage for games. It would also allow Phil to take on the much needed extra staff to assist himself and Arthur.
I asked him if he actually needs a shop. After all, not many customers are going to just walk in off the street and impulse-buy a pinball game. He agreed but said that the shop still acts as a showcase for the restoration work and is more accessible to customers than the barn would be.
But game sales are only one facet of the business. Parts sales wasn't a part of the original business but the number of customers requesting them and the price breaks resulting from the larger orders meant the parts side took off and now accounts for the majority of the turnover. Phil's assistant Arthur looks after parts sales and stock control leaving Phil to concentrate on the restoration work.
What caused the growth in the parts sales, I asked. Phil cited the disinterest from suppliers to the trade towards their retail customers. "They are only interested in large orders" he told me, so pinball owners contacted him as a well known pinball company and as he already had most parts for the refurbished games it was easy to meet these orders.
There is a clear synergy between the two sides of the business and this has led to the manufacturing of a number of custom parts required for restoration, but also available for customers to buy.
Phil shows me the wiring looms for Star Trek - The Next Generation. They're just a bit longer than the Williams original parts so they can be wrapped around the motor shaft and avoid the breakages which plague the game's owners. There are also Scared Stiff ramp kits, ramp protectors for Tales of the Arabian Nights and Fish Tales ramp decals together with the aforementioned frogs on sticks. In fact The Pinball Heaven is responsible for the manufacture of over 50 previously unavailable parts.
There's been some discussion recently about some suppliers' unhappiness with customers ordering small quantities. How, I asked, does Phil see small orders? He replied that he has no problem with them, but he does prefer larger orders and so has a minimum order of £10. He explains that the £10 figure covers most small orders and most people won't just order one or two bulbs, but get some spares for themselves at the same time bringing the order above the minimum.
Internet sales clearly play a major part in the business, so I asked about The Pinball Heaven's web site. "A lot of people think we're based in the US" he said. That's not entirely unexpected since the web site is split in two - a ".co.uk" domain for UK sales and a ".com" domain for overseas sales which includes the Stars & Stripes with the logo and prices in US$ except for the parts section which redirects you to the UK version.
Phil also recently bought the domain "www.pinball.co.uk" which points to the same UK version of the web site . He told me the purchase has increased traffic to the site by 25% and he promotes the new domain name wherever he can.
So given the impact of Internet sales, I asked, how about the adverts he places on eBay for both games and parts? He tells me that eBay is not especially effective as a selling medium but it's still a good way to let people know about custom made products and spread the word about The Pinball Heaven and the web sites.
With only himself and Arthur running the company, Phil says he cannot afford the time to exhibit at pinball shows. The return from game and parts sales doesn't justify the time away from the core business back in Southport. He is also disillusioned with the UK's Pinball Owners Association after bad experiences at the Birmingham NIA convention in 1997 and hasn't attended any since.
We left the shop for Phil home where we were joined by Les who owns over 30 late Williams & Bally games and Peter who lives above the shop and looks after a solitary, if extremely heavy, Roadshow pinball game.
Phil has two games at home - a Tales of the Arabian Nights and a Shadow. The TOTAN seemed unusually easy to me, but the Shadow proved the total opposite - fast and mean. Both are, naturally, in beautiful condition.
I asked Phil about the future for The Pinball Heaven. He took me to the barn he hopes to buy and it would doubtless fit the bill. But he's currently looking at increasing the number of new game sales. The Simpsons Pinball Party was a big seller and it was frustrating to Phil that he couldn't get the supplies he needed.
The UK's distributor for Stern Pinball Inc. is Electrocoin and they are very cautious about buying new games. Phil told me that they only order one container at a time and wait until that is sold until they order another. Stern has finite production capabilities and UK games have to be specially made to include the UK All Skill extra posts, so lead times are quite long. Consequently, when Phil, as a sub-distributor had orders for 10 SPP games and the game sold very well, Electrocoin only allocated five to The Pinball Heaven, with the other five coming from the next container, whenever that arrived. Consequently, some customers had to wait for their games.
Phil is determined not to be in the same situation with the next game and contacted Stern directly to buy a container of thirty-three Terminator 3 games, but Stern insisted he go through their appointed distributor who will deal with T3 in the same way as SPP.
However, it looks like Stern's success will be reflected in an increase in new game sales by The Pinball Heaven to both operators and the home market. Certainly, they got my order for a Simpsons Pinball Party and happily I got one from the first batch of five.
Parts sales look set to hold steady or increase as games become older and the supply of NOS parts dries up.
While a batch of great new games from Stern could impact in restoration needs, classic games in top condition will become rarer and specialist restoration of these high demand games will command higher prices.
Whatever the outcome, The Pinball Heaven is in a good position to benefit.
Finally many thanks to Phil for taking time out from work and to Arthur, Les and Peter for their hospitality throughout the day and apologies to Phil for that TOTAN score - the backup batteries did look a bit weak though. :-)
© Pinball News 2003