Heather Seevers’ income depends partly on unsticky flippers, bumpers with fresh rubber and coin slots that don’t jam.
She owns and maintains pinball machines parked in Bellingham hangouts. If their parts don’t work, Seevers, a self-described nerd with a strong opinion on the best comic book shop in town, doesn’t collect her paycheck from their coin slots.
Revenue rolls in 25 cents at a time for Seevers and her business partner Collin Topolski, who formed the Bellingham Pinball Collective in 2014. In June, the collective got much busier and started collecting a lot more quarters, which they split 60/40 with venue owners, when the owners of The Shakedown opened an attached bar and pinball lounge at 1220 N. State St.
The 14 pinball machines that light up the dark second floor of the new bar, called The Racket, more than tripled the number of machines the collective has around town, as well as its earning potential. So far, pinball is popular at The Racket, Seevers said.
“I’m not planning any tropical vacations yet but I think I’m going to be able to pay my dental bill,” she said.
The Bellingham Pinball Collective also has machines at The Shakedown, McKay’s Taphouse and The Swillery Whiskey Bar.
Seevers put her first public pinball machine in the second floor of The Shakedown in 2012. It was a hit with the venue’s owners, which includes Seevers’ husband, Marty Watson.
The Shakedown is known for being a rock concert venue. The addition of pinball tables to the bar gave the space another dimension.
“The number of people who were in The Shakedown when there wasn’t a show increased.” Seevers said. “Suddenly, people were hanging out upstairs”
The Shakedown’s owners Hollie Huthman, Spencer Willows and Watson opened The Racket to give concertgoers an escape from the music and give other customers an admission-free place to go during concerts.
When the owners first toured the space, which is next door to The Shakedown, and saw the narrow room upstairs they thought it would be perfect for more pinball machines and a permanent home for the Bellingham Pinball Collective, Seevers said.
Seevers visits The Racket daily. After cleaning the glass on all the pinball machines she pulls out her repair kit, which includes a hydraulic pump, a soldering kit, and a toolbox packed with cotton swabs, Allen wrenches, sockets and other tools.
Donning a headlamp, she slides the glass off a machine based off of the 1994 film “The Shadow,” puts its four steel balls in a plastic tube for safekeeping and raises the machine’s playing field to reveal a web of wires and circuitry underneath.
The machine’s diverter, a wedge at the top of a ramp that can move back and forth to send the ball one way or another, is broken. The diverter and the extra set of buttons that control it make “The Shadow” one of the more needy machines.
“I love it so much but it breaks my heart because it is so finicky,” Seevers said about “The Shadow.”
The problem is a faulty screw. Many pinball parts need to be ordered online, but Seevers hoped to find the screw at Hardware Sales.
Seevers bought her first pinball machine four years ago. She gradually got into the business of operating pinball machines in bars and restaurants because she needed an excuse to keep buying machines, she said.
Seevers buys most of her machines from collectors, who form a tight community. The story of Seevers first machine exemplifies the way collectors go about getting the machines they seek, she said.
Seevers traded her first game, “Jurassic Park,” for a machine with a “Terminator 2” theme. She then sold “Terminator 2” to a friend after deciding the game didn’t have enough depth. She later bought the machine back, only to trade it for one based on the 1995 film “Congo.” (“There’s a long history of bad movies becoming cool games,” she said). The collective has since acquired a different “Jurassic Park” machine.
Pinball is growing more popular and Seevers hopes its resurgence will allow her to quit one or two of the other jobs she’s juggling: She teaches a knitting class, works at Artwood Gallery in Fairhaven and NW Handspun Yarns downtown, designs jewelry and hosts a monthly geek trivia night at The Shakedown.
Her work experience transfers well to repairing pinball machines.
“All of my past skills have kind of led up to it — my metal fabrication skills, my soldering skills, my woodworking skills, those five years of sculpture in art school,” Seevers said. “It’s kind of a weird thing but it’s a really good fit.”
But mostly she learned by taking machines apart and putting them back together.
The first time she did this, she found herself overwhelmed by the size of the project—machines can have up to half a mile of wire connecting the circuitry underneath their slanted playing fields.
Because pinball machines are finicky, people who can repair them are important to the game. Stern Pinball, the biggest manufacturer of pinball tables, has a network of people who can repair machines in most major cities, said the company’s marketing director, Jody Dankberg.
“People with knowledge of how to keep pinball machines going is really imperative,” he said.
Pinball’s popularity peaked in about 1993 and by the late ‘90s, the game was fading, Dankberg said. Stern became the last pinball manufacturer in 1999 when WMS Industries closed its pinball division. The game took another hit during the recession, he said.
“I’ve been involved with the company since 2009 and when I came in pinball was on its last leg,” Dankberg said. “In the past six years we’ve seen a huge resurgence.”
Since 2009, Stern has increased production by 300 percent and moved to a 110,000-square-foot building that roughly doubles the size of the facility it moved from. And Stern is no longer the only company making pinball machines; a few boutique companies got into the market.
Pinball’s popularity isn’t confined to the United States. Stern exports 50 percent of its machines, mostly to Western Europe, Australia and South America, Dankberg said.
Why is the game getting more popular?
“It’s unique from other entertainment forms,” Dankberg said, “It’s a really cool, unique experience. No two games are alike.”
Seevers’ theory about pinball’s popularity is that video games have become something that people do at home but pinball is harder to do at home, and therefore, more social. Another factor is that it’s addicting, she said, because players can get better or beat someone else’s score, but they can’t win—there’s no end goal and players can always score higher.
Repairing pinball machines is similar. It’s also never over. Seevers found the screw that she needed to temporarily fix “The Shadow” and ordered the rest of the parts online. A week later, the electronic cannon on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was misfiring.
Oliver Lazenby, associate editor of The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or firstname.lastname@example.org.