If you know the name of Joe Grisaffi then it’s probably for his popular series of locally-produced independent films. Seriously, you should see Lars the Emo Kid. It’s really good and dirt cheap on Amazon. When he’s not making movies, he spends his time rescuing turtles and collecting pinball tables. I, who have always dreamed of owning my own pinball table, thought I’d call him up to see how one goes about getting into that hobby.
“It was 1986 and I got started with video games and pinball,” says Grisaffi. “I picked up two machines for $100 and was hooked. I would have stayed hooked if I knew there were places in town that repaired them. I thought I was the only person in the hobby in Houston.”
The mid-‘80s was a good time to become a game and pinball collector. The industry had suffered a dramatic crash in 1984 that virtually killed it, and everything from Ataris to arcade cabinets were dirt cheap. An ad in the Houston Chronicle got his attention: video games - $200. Grisaffi went to look, assuming the seller meant $200 apiece. Nope, it was for all ten cabinets. Grisaffi had scored titles like Astro Blaster for less than the price of your average Nintendo DS cartridge.
“I had to borrow my dad’s SUV and make ten trips,” says Grisaffi. “By the summer I had filled my parents’ garage with 45 machines.”
Grisaffi dropped out of collecting for a while, but returned in the mid-‘90s. By then, the gaming industry had recovered and thrived. The prices had skyrocketed. The days of triple-digit prices were gone. These days, your average entry-level pinball table will run you around $3,000, and Grisaffi has seen some tables as high as $35,000.
“Popularity is the main factor,” says Grisaffi. “Rarity is No. 2. Take The Addams Family. Everyone loves that table. It’s the single most popular in the history of the industry. Even though it’s very common it still runs as much as $8,000.”
EBay gets a lot of the blame for the price increases. As the hobby got more popular and access to others interested increased, so did the chance to make money. Luckily, there is a dedicated community of people both in Houston and around the country that make collecting tables easier, cheaper and friendlier.
Here in town we have Houston Game Repair and the Game Preserve when you need a hand repairing broken tables, and there’s a network of professionals that will make house calls. Online guides for simple procedures are available and very detailed, often enabling hobbyists like Grisaffi to do minor repairs themselves. Parts are available online, and there are freight companies that specialize in safely shipping whole tables. They even do the packing for you, though the service can cost more than $400.
All this, according to Grisaffi, represents a major turnaround for the arcade and pinball industries.
“In 2000 they only made two new tables: Star Wars Episode 1 and Revenge from Mars,” says Grisaffi. “After that, they simply didn’t make any more. Now, whole new companies are popping up. Collectors will buy a table right out of the box and set it up with it never even having been played. It’s absolutely exploded.”
It’s an expensive hobby, but one that is rewarding for the dedicated fan. Grisaffi owns some of the most popular tables such as Twilight Zone, Revenge from Mars and The Addams Family. One of his Holy Grail acquisitions is Q’Bert’s Quest, which he’d never seen for sale ever and only once saw in person at a museum. It’s currently non-functional, but by now he has the resources to get it running sooner or later. His other dream acquisitions are Creature from the Black Lagoon and Comet.
His advice was for someone who wanted to get into collecting?
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“Buy what you like,” says Grisaffi. “Don’t go chasing rarities to make money. That way if the price goes down, you still have a table you enjoy. Go to the Houston Arcade Expo and try out the one you think you want. You don’t want to find out it’s boring after you drop $5,000.”
Grisaffi also cautioned people to stay off Craigslist as scams are common. People will put up a table, then ask for the money upfront only to disappear. Never pay without putting your hands on the machine.
Instead he recommends sticking with eBay or Pinside.com. The latter is a hub for pinball enthusiasts and a good place to check the references of sellers.
It’s charming that in a world where gaming, even a lot pinball gaming, has gone fully digital that the elegant, mechanical craftsmanship of the pinball table continues to thrive and even grow. A lot of that is thanks to people like Grisaffi, who have been able to build an appreciation for the niche art form over the last three decades even as attitudes waxed and waned.