Location: 508 Maynard Ave S., Seattle, WA 98104, USA.
The heart of Chinatown in Seattle's International District is not the first place you'd consider when setting up a pinball museum. But thanks to the city's Storefront Seattle Program - an initiative designed to reduce the number of vacant shops in the area - that's where you'll find Charlie and Cindy Martin surrounded by their collection of more than fifty pinball machines.
The storefront is nondescript with the signage minimalist and low-key, but double-takes from passers-by abound as they catch a glimpse of what's inside and then stop to examine the rows of brightly lit amusement machines from yesteryear and today.
On the day of our visit the Museum was closed to the public, but that gave us a chance to talk to Charlie and Cindy about how they got their venture off the ground.
Their original plan was to rent a warehouse with fellow collectors as a place to store their surplus machines, but as discussions continued, the idea of using their combined pool of machines to create a business began to take shape.
They said the Storefront Seattle scheme was designed to reduce the number of vacant stores by putting them to use to allow artists and craft groups to display their work or create rehearsal spaces.
The initiative proved very popular and 152 applications were received for the 10 stores available. Charlie said their pitch showed how pinball was both an interactive and collaborative artwork which would be a perfect fit with the scheme's aims. The judges agreed, and awarded them one of the stores with the incentive of a three month rent-free period. They then had just seven days to open to the public.
Most of the scheme's projects were expected to be short-term, but Charlie and Cindy are resolute that the Museum is here to stay. In fact they love it here, and it's not hard to see why. The whole area was undergoing regeneration during our visit, with the street being resurfaced and new trees and flower beds being installed.
But nice as the outside probably is by the time you read this review, it's what's inside that really counts.
Forget video games, forget redemption, this is pure pinball, with the only exception being the service counter at the end and the lone shooter game sitting next to it.
When they started, Charlie asked Tim Arnold at the Pinball Hall of Fame and Michael Schiess at the Pacific Pinball Museum how he should charge visitors. Tim was clear - pay-per-play. Michael was equally certain - charge for admission and have the games on free play.
In fact initially they began with a dozen machines on free play and just requested donations, but it wasn't long before they changed to charging for admission.
Charlie told us the deciding factor was the licensing cost. If games are pay-to-play, a licence is required for each machine at a cost of 100x the cost of play. So a 50c game would need a $50 licence. If you have 20 games, that's $1,000 in licence fees alone - all paid in advance before any game earns even a cent.
By contrast, a paid admission model requires no machine licences, while the tax owed is related to the income and paid in arrears. The entry fee model also keeps out undesirables and makes cash handling much simpler, without the need for working coin mechanisms.
So what does your $10 get you at the Seattle Pinball Museum?
On the day of our visit there were 31 playable pinballs. All appeared to be in very good condition and those we played had no mechanical or electrical issues.
Since our visit, the area devoted to playable machines has expanded and the number of pinballs has increased to 50.
Most of the machines have information cards on their backboxes giving details of the important features, the game's historical significance and the production run. They also feature QR codes on the lock bar which link to the Internet Pinball Database entry for that machine.
When the Museum first began, the machines on the floor were a combination of Charlie and Cindy's personal collection mixed with games from friends and local collectors. Now though, the duo own more than enough machines to stock the Museum themselves.
The games at the Museum change regularly and a visit upstairs to the restoration area shows some of those waiting in the wings for their turn on the floor.
This area has since been converted to provide more space for free play machines, allowing the number to increase to that half century.
Heading back downstairs, we pass the sales desk where pinball staples such as beers, sodas and snacks can be purchased.
The selection of beers and sodas available is shown in a display case behind the desk, and includes Mexican varieties of cola drinks which are made from real cane sugar rather than the high-fructose corn syrup used in the US-made versions. Below the drinks are the different colours of SPM T-shirts also available for $20 + tax.
The beer selection is impressive and reasonably priced at $3 or $4 for the craft beers. Soft drinks are $2 and the snacks just $1. There are tables and bar stools down the centre of the Museum, giving you somewhere to sit or rest your drink while playing.
The premise of the Seattle Pinball Museum is a simple one. Come in and play as much pinball as you want for one price. At 50c a game, the $10 fee is the equivalent of just 20 games, and unless you're very tight for time or a fabulous player, you'll burn through those in short order. Better still, by paying in advance you're free to explore game you might not normally choose to play such as the older electro-mechanicals.
Their motto is 'Preserving Pinball for Future Generations', and they're looking ahead themselves with the imminent arrival at the Museum of Jersey Jack Pinball's The Wizard of Oz. JJP's The Hobbit and the boutique games from John Popadiuk are also planned to follow over the coming months.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about the Museum is the number of non-players who are introduced (or re-introduced) to the game. The location in the International District means it reaches beyond the bar and arcade crowd, who are already well catered for in central Seattle.
Charlie and Cindy have tuned the slightly seedy and grubby notion of a pinball arcade as understood and indeed expected by many, into a clean, friendly, well-lit and well-maintained collection of machines. Whether it can strictly be called a museum yet is debatable, but there's no doubt the Seattle Pinball Museum is putting out the 'welcome' mat and raising pinball's profile even further in what is already one of the most pinball-friendly cities in the world.
The Seattle Pinball Museum is open Thursday to Monday inclusive as follows:
More details are on their Facebook page at facebook.com/pages/Seattle-Pinball-Museum/131237786915560.
© Pinball News 2013