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Shoot again: pinball is back in New York City

On an unassuming awning at 362 Third Avenue between 26th and 27th streets in New York City, Modern Pinball NYC advertises itself as a “sales and interactive showroom,” but inside, it feels a lot like an arcade. It opened just a few weeks ago with owners Steve Epstein — the near-legendary owner of the now-defunct Broadway Arcade, a Times Square fixture for decades — and Steve Zahler, a champion pinball player himself.

Modern Pinball is actually a retail showroom, selling new and vintage pinball machines. New machines retail for around $5,000 to $6,000, while a vintage one in pristine condition can run up to $15,000. But the store also offers unlimited play on its 32 machines for a time-based fee ($7.50 for half an hour, $10 per hour and $20 for an all-day pass), and that feature of the store has been drawing crowds of players, young and old, and causing some to herald the return of pinball to New York City. Most of the arcades in the city — and much of America, in fact — have shuttered over the past 30 years in the face of economic hardship, cultural pushback, and the rise of home gaming.

The city’s relationship with pinball in particular has always been fraught with controversy. It was banned in 1942 by Mayor LaGuardia, who believed the game to be a front for organized crime and detrimental to young people. That ban stayed in effect until 1976 — right when the arcade renaissance for video gaming began in earnest. Epstein’s Broadway Arcade, which closed finally in 1997, became the go-to spot for pinball wizards, and it was even the site of Lou Reed’s wedding reception. By 2011 New York City, once arguably the world capital of pinball, held less than a dozen arcades.

Modern Pinball is actually a retail showroom

The past few years have shown a few signs of that changing, with small arcades opening or reopening all over the city. Modern Pinball is another sign of that resurgence. Of the major pinball manufacturers only the Chicago-based Stern still makes new machines, but a new kid on the block — Jersey Jack — has also recently appeared. Pinball machines, which are largely handmade, are quite expensive to both manufacture and sell. It’s an uphill battle for an industry which, even when booming, was always somewhat of a niche sell. Many new establishments are seeing some success by bringing back arcade games while making most of their money elsewhere: Barcade in Brooklyn with liquor and food, Reciprocal Skate Shop in the East Village with skateboards, and Modern Pinball by selling the machines themselves.

"Steve and I believe in pinball."

"Most people don’t realize what it takes to maintain these games," Zahler says, "so [the proprietors] are really doing the public a service. As far as Modern Pinball NYC is concerned, Steve and I believe in pinball and will do whatever it takes to make it work."

Of their clientele, Zahler says they’re seeing a mix of foot traffic. "Parents bring their kids," he says, and of course there are the "competitive players, collectors, and leisure players." Modern Pinball has already hosted a few birthday parties. What they all have in common, Zahler says, is "pure bliss when they enter our place and most actually say to us, ‘Thank you for doing this.’ We are grateful to them for joining us."

Photography by Dante D'Orazio

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