published Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

Chattanooga Pinball Co. opens new shop after Christmas Eve fire

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    Chattanooga Pinball Co. owner Dale Levin shows off his 1983 Frogger game inside his showroom Monday afternoon. Levin has more than 5,000 arcade gaming machines. Levin specializes in restoring the machines that he finds in various places back to their original glory. However, on Christmas Eve he lost 93 machines when his warehouse caught on fire.
    Photo by Connor Choate.
    enlarge photo

Chattanooga Pinball Co. update:

Where: 5919 Lee Highway, moved after fire destroyed former office on Rossville Blvd.

Website: Changed from ChattanoogaPinball.com to ChooChooArcades.com

Owner: Dale Levin

Key statistics:

• 5,000 -- number of arcade cabinets and pinball machines owned by Dale Levin, founder of Chattanooga Pinball Co.,

• 80,000 -- square feet at Peerless Mill that Levin uses to store his supply of vintage games

• 2005 -- The year Levin founded his company, leaving his carpet cleaning business to run it full time

• $1195 -- price of a Space Invaders Deluxe arcade game

• $7995 -- cost of a Pirates of the Caribbean pinball machine

Source: Chattanooga Pinball Co.

All it takes to destroy a vintage collection of more than 5,000 arcade cabinets and pinball machines is a leaky roof or a structure fire.

Water rots decades-old wood, inviting termites to come in for a quick snack. Fire chars the original analog cathode-ray tubes, burns the wood and clouds the glass. Dale Levin discovered these things in the worst way possible.

Levin, owner of Chattanooga Pinball Co., has fought both fire and water over the last few months, losing his showroom to a Christmas Eve blaze even as he worked to combat leaks in his Rossville. warehouse. Levin claims to be the largest purvyer of old arcade cabinets and pinball machines in the U.S., and likely the world. But the Christmas conflagration almost ruined him.

"It was devastating," he said of the fire that consumed 93 of his prized machines.

It wasn't just the loss of expensive Pac-Man, Galaga and Star Wars cabinets that hurt his business. The destruction of a vast array of spare joysticks, buttons and motherboards broke his heart and wallet. Those precious chunks of silicon, glass and wood from companies like Atari, Nintendo and Sega aren't manufacturered anymore, and each burned or rotted cabinet is irreplaceable.

It's now been three months since the fire put his business on hold.

"We thought we'd have to shut the place down," he said.

But his insurer eventually cut him a check, which he promptly used to pay for a new location on Lee Highway. Now, he's working again, surrounded by a bevy of nostalgic artifacts dating back decades.

Along with his five employees, he's working to repair not just his own cabinets, but a growing horde of old, improperly stored cabinets from across the country. He tears them down completely, a process that often includes clearing out rat nests and cockroach infestations, before hosing them down and rebuilding them from the ground up with new lights and refinished graphics and circuit boards.

Once he repairs them -- a two-week process -- he puts them up for sale on eBay or at his website, ChooChooArcades.com. Last year, he sold about 300 machines out of his total stash of 5,000, good for roughly $700,000 in sales, he said. He's also starting to sell more machines internationally.

"We just shipped our first game to Moscow," he said. "They're so hungry for these games that they'll spend $1,000 just on shipping."

The only challenge he sees on his horizon, aside from the lengthy task of refurbishing the machines, is finding the perfect place to store them.

"They're large, there's no way around that," he said, surveying his 80,000-square-foot storage space in the Peerless Mill in Rossville, Ga.

The Peerless Mill, where he's kept the bulk of his games since founding the company in 2005, is a leaky mess. He's been forced to shuffle his machines from floor to floor to avoid losing thousands of dollars in potential sales. Once water gets into the machines, it's all over.

Ironically, the storage conundrum is often how he discovers new games. Pinball and arcade collectors tend to be hoarders, filling giant warehouses with everything from rare cars to possum-infested Mortal Kombat machines. When collectors die or go into debt and their children discover their warehouses, Levin will send a tractor trailer truck to buy everything he can.

While he makes plenty of money refurbishing old machines with new lights, hardware and software, there's something about physically collecting the games that Levin, a father of 11 children, finds addictive.

"I have a disorder," Levin said. "It's a compulsion."

He knows how to get 25 free lives in Donkey Kong, a game designed to be unbeatable. He can perform a trick in Asteroids that allows him to quickly destroy everything on the screen. He's able to explain the history of nearly every cabinet he owns.

"The arcade cabinet was the Facebook of the 80s and 90s," he said. "People used to play pinball without the flippers, and they'd just dance."

His greatest triumph, a restored pinball game autographed by the band Kiss that he sold for $20,000, is also one of his greatest regrets. He wishes he hadn't sold it. He sees his warehouses as time capsules, and himself as sort of a modern-day archeologist.

"Pinball goes back to the 18th century," Levin said. "I'm not really selling these as games, I'm selling nostalgia."

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6315.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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