GIRARD, Ohio – Rob Berk has loved pinball ever since he was a child and has collected the machines for most of his adult life.
The Warren-based businessman has more than 1,200 vintage games in his collection – many of them quite rare. He also operates a pinball trade show and fan convention in the Chicago area each year.
But the crowning touch of the pinball kingpin’s efforts will come next year when he opens a massive retro pinball arcade and museum in Girard.
Past Times Arcade is slated to open in the first quarter at 419 N. State St. Berk bought the 30,000-square-foot structure, a former Santisi IGA supermarket, last year and has been transforming it for its new life.
“It’s a passion that got out of control,” says Berk, who has spent roughly $1 million on the purchase of the building and its renovation.
The arcade will have 400 pinball machines on its floor. Patrons will pay a flat fee – probably in the $20 to $25 range – and can play any and all machines as much as they want. They will not have to insert quarters, as the machines will be set to free play, according to Mike Hale, director of the arcade.
The lineup will include modern day joystick video games, target shooting games and pinball machines from all eras.
One section will be reserved for a museum of rare and antique machines that guests will not be permitted to play.
Berk envisions Past Times Arcade becoming a tourism attraction that will attract pinball aficionados from far and wide. He will erect a marquee across the front of the building with its name in lights.
Past Times will showcase Berk’s private collection, which is constantly growing.
“A lot of places have pinball games, but I don’t know of any that has the breadth of games that we have – especially foreign machines,” Berk says. “Pinball was strong in Spain and Italy, and they had factories in those countries that made machines for their domestic market, but not export. There are very few in the United States today, but I have a lot of them, 65 or 70. For a pinball enthusiast, that is interesting.”
The arcade will be a people magnet for visitors to the area and those already here, says Beth Carmichael, executive director of Trumbull County Tourism.
“We can’t wait for this to open,” she says. “The location is fantastic, right off Interstate 80.”
Carmichael says the target market for the arcade would be out-of-towners visiting friends and family here, golf groups and the many business travelers in the Mahoning Valley generated by the industrial development in Lordstown.
“It’s a unique specialty attraction,” she says.
Girard Mayor James Melfi says the city is very fortunate to have Berk, whom he describes as a white knight for putting the large vacant building in the middle of downtown back into use.
“There was great disappointment when Santisi’s announced it was closing,” he says. The city was hoping another grocer would take its place, and thought it had one for a while, but the deal fell through.
Then Berk purchased the building.
“To have someone like Rob Berk in your community is quite a blessing,” Melfi says. “Everything he does is big and is done well. His investment in that property is overwhelming.”
The mayor believes the arcade-museum could spur more growth in the city.
“It’s a unique business, and I envision some spinoff,” he says.
A LOOK INSIDE
The Past Times building has already been given a much-needed interior renovation, including painting, electrical and HVAC work.
A second floor has been added to a portion of the warehouse section of the building that will provide additional space for storage and repairs, says Berk, who is the founder and owner of Berk Enterprises, based in Warren. The company distributes packaging and other products to the restaurant industry nationwide.
Berk’s pinball machine collection is currently housed in warehouses in Warren and Lordstown but will be consolidated at the Girard building.
He says he has “been on a buying spree” for pinball machines and employs “a small staff of experts” to get the games in working order and perform regular maintenance on them.
A reception desk and office space will be located near the entrance of Past Times. A concession area and bar that will serve beer and liquor is under construction at the rear.
There will also be a gift shop that will sell souvenirs, T-shirts and other merchandise.
Museum director Hale says some of the machines date from as early as the 1930s – before the advent of flippers.
“The first pinball game with flippers came out in 1947,” he says. “It was titled ‘Humpty Dumpty,’ and we have one of them.”
Pinball machines transitioned from electromechanical to solid state electronics operation in 1977, Hale notes, adding there are many examples of both types at the arcade.
Many of the machines built in the 1940s carry the disclaimer “for amusement only,” because pinball games were seen as a gambling device at that time.
The newest machines at Past Times hit the market as recently as a few months ago.
Hale, who lives in Cambridge Springs, Pa., is also a pinball collector and repairman who specializes in the older electromechanical machines.
He met Berk through their mutual contacts in the field and was hired by him three years ago. In April, Berk tapped Hale to be the lead of the museum-arcade.
While the Girard attraction will be a rarity, there are a handful of similar places scattered across the country, including the popular Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas.
Closer to home is Pinball PA, near Aliquippa, Pa. It’s similar to Past Times but is more of an arcade, Hale says.
Interest in pinball is enjoying an upswing, largely fueled by brewpubs that have added game rooms and started leagues.
Hale says Past Times will likely be open Thursday through Sunday, with plans to have a league night
on Wednesdays that is not open to the public.
A LIFELONG APPRECIATION
Launching Past Times Arcade is a labor of love for Berk, whose fascination with pinball started when he was a child.
“I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, and we had to make our own fun back then,” he says. “We played with baseball cards, marbles, anything to occupy our time. During the holidays, we would take a family vacation to Florida every year to visit relatives. I would go to these massive game rooms there with my dad, who was a pinball junkie, and that is where the passion started.”
Berk, who has been collecting pinball machines since the mid-’70s, says prices vary and depend on many factors. Every transaction starts with a collector who sees something he wants.
“Value is in the eye of the beholder,” Berk says. The sale price also depends on the condition of the cabinet, playing field, back glass and scoreboard.
“A seller might ask $5,000 for a game, but you have to ask yourself, ‘Is it as nice as the one I saw on eBay? Has it been rebuilt from top to bottom?’”
Berk keeps his fingers on the flippers of the pinball marketplace.
He launched the Pinball Expo in Schaumburg, Ill., in 1984, and continues to own and operate it. The national event features pinball games and vendors, as well as displays from pinball game makers, some of whom unveil their newest products there each year.
Berk is always on the hunt to buy machines for his collection, and says he often finds what he is looking for at the convention.
Pictured at top: Rob Berk will share his massive pinball machine collection at his soon-to-open Past Times Arcade.