A Real-Life Pinball Wizard
SoCal’s Gene Lewin Knows Games Inside and Out
By Matt Harding
Vintage Arcade Superstore in Glendale, Calif., is something of a treasure trove for pinball collectors, arcade game aficionados and basically anyone curious about coin-op history. Its proprietor Gene Lewin could be categorized as all of the above and then some.
He and his team restore classic machines to a “newer” condition. “It’s fun working on these old games and bringing them back to life,” he said.
When pinball became legal in Los Angeles in 1972, young Gene (now 67) said he started playing and was hooked. “Arcades started springing up everywhere, so it became my dream to own my own pinball machine.”
He made that dream happen in 1976, explaining that an arcade was going out of business and all of their games were for sale.
“I was working at Jack in the Box and saved up money to buy speakers for my stereo, and the pinball was about the same price, so I put a deposit on that instead,” he said. (Coincidentally, that game was Jumping Jack, of no relation to the fast-food burger maker Mr. in the Box.) With the help of some new friends at Ron’s Arcade of North Hollywood, Lewin said he was able to fix it up and decided to put it on location at a place called College Billiards.
“They already had a Jumping Jack but my game out-earned all of them because it played so well,” Lewin said. He ended up putting a Bow & Arrow at that location as well, which was his personal favorite machine (one of which, of course, he has in the warehouse at Vintage Arcade Superstore).
As his route business grew in the ’70s, he opened the arcade Pinball Plus, which operated from 1980-1998. Throughout the ’90s, he had an “oldies but goodies” section in his arcade featuring the likes of Tron, Centipede, Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga. “I had customers who would come in just for those games,” he said.
Those 10 to 20-year-old games at that point were already classics – they weren’t on location anymore. Lewin had started collecting such games years before, long before anyone knew they’d be worth anything. He started selling cabinets here and there starting in the mid-1990s.
That brings us to today, when vintage pinball and arcade games for the home market seem to command all-time high prices. The demand is huge and skyrocketed during the pandemic with more and more people investing in their at-home hobbies.
And if they’re looking for it, chances are Vintage Arcade Superstore either has it or can get it and can restore it to its yesteryear glory.
RePlay recently took a look around the Superstore’s main warehouse and showroom, which boasts more than 12,000 sq. ft., jam-packed with games, components, monitors and other arcade equipment. (Lewin has another 7,500-sq.-ft. warehouse down the street, making Vintage Arcade Superstore’s space roughly 20,000 sq. ft.
There are 50-plus games in the showroom and more spread throughout the warehouse being repaired or waiting for the magic touch. It’s not just oldies, either. He has a whole lot of new Stern Pinball games as well. In fact, Vintage Arcade Superstore is now officially a Stern Pinball distributor and already had their first order.
The oldest game they have dates all the way back to a 1948 pin called Screwball. NBA Jam was among the games on the current docket being fixed up for an arcade bar customer.
Lewin noted that 10% of his customers are commercial. But mostly, he added, “A lot of my customers are buying a piece of their childhood.” More than half of his business comes from outside California. He’s even shipped games as far as England, Japan and Australia. Closer to home, he ships via North American Van Lines, a full-service logistics company with a dedicated arcade game shipping service.
Restoration takes between 3-6 months from start to finish, depending on the difficulty of the task at hand.
“I know the inside of all the games,” Lewin explained. A real-life games wizard, he remembers fixing some of these games 30-40 years ago when they were fresh off the line. He can even identify boards and certain components from simply looking at them. The warehouse appears messy at first glance, but it’s quickly apparent that everything has its specific nook and cranny. Where everything’s at is either in Gene’s head, on a spreadsheet or one of his longtime employees would know.
One of those people is Rick Berger, who was working on a Star Wars Episode 1 pinball on our visit to the warehouse. “We have stuff you wouldn’t find anywhere else,” he said, citing the inventory of monitors, CRTs, wiring harnesses and more.
Having grown up in Sherman Oaks, Lewin is firmly embedded in Los Angeles pinball culture. In a full circle moment, his machines were used in the filming of Licorice Pizza, the 2021 Paul Thomas Anderson movie that has scenes depicting L.A.’s pinball legalization.
“I was actually there,” he remarked. “I remember when it became legal.” (A longtime RePlay reader, he also recalled the first game he remembers seeing in the magazine – Bally’s 1969 pinball Op-Pop-Pop.)
It should also come as no surprise that Lewin is a pinball player as well and goes to tournaments like It Never Drains in Southern California. He took first place in the B division at a tourney 10 years ago and placed sixth at a recent classics event. “I’m playing against guys who weren’t even born when I started playing these games when they were new.”
As engaged as ever with pinball, Gene’s not thinking of retiring anytime soon. So, why don’t you visit www.vintagearcade.net or stop by the showroom to see what he has to offer?