How the evolution of entertainment is helping pinball culture endure in SC

If you’re thinking about putting coins in a machine, you’re probably thinking about paying a parking meter.

But at the Bang Back Pinball Lounge at Columbia’s Five Points, you spend your quarters playing pinball. If that sounds odd, it’s probably because it’s the only pinball arcade in the state.

Pinball was most popular in the 90s, but you can walk through the doors of Bang Back just about anytime and hear the same beeps, buzzes, and bumps from the many machines inside. Fred Richardson owns the pinball parlor and has been competing in national pinball championships for 30 years.

“We could have opened in Portland, we could have opened in Seattle, we could have opened in Texas,” Richardson said.

So, that begs the question, why bring pinball to Colombia – or South Carolina, for that matter?

“Columbia was untapped, they had almost no pinball when we opened,” says Richardson, “It was ripe for that kind of entertainment.”

Since there weren’t many places to play pinball, Richardson adds that as a new business in Columbia’s Five Points neighborhood, there was less to lose if something went wrong. Since Bang Back opened during the height of the COVID pandemic, it’s a perk that Richardson says has been much needed.

It also doesn’t hurt to have a pinball supplier right next door. Richardson tells me that if something goes wrong with a machine, all he has to do is drive 12 minutes from home to get new parts. This pinball supplier, Marco’s Specialties in Lexington County, was instrumental in turning Bang Back into a business.

Marco’s Specialties is also one of two pinball machine suppliers in the Carolinas. It’s a decent sized warehouse, stacked to the top with everything from bolts to bullet shooters. Marco’s mainly buys and sells pinball parts – their operations manager says there are around 40,000 different types of parts in the warehouse.

For context, the operations officer added that there are approximately 2,000 different components in a typical pinball machine. Marco’s simply holds many variations of these coins, which they sell to around 2,000 vendors. However, these parts are not cheap or easy to obtain.

“Gold and marble pinball machines can sometimes cost upwards of $150, and much of what we have is probably the latest you’ll find anywhere in the world,” Marco’s operations officer said.

With the supply so low and the cost so high, it’s hard not to wonder why anyone would invest in pinball. Marco’s Specialties CEO Paul Mandeltort, however, says pinball is an evolving form of entertainment.

“When video games and the internet came out, pinball was a big hit, but then it came back,” says Mandeltort.

Why would he keep coming back? Well that’s because is, literally, different from video games and the Internet. More than a memory of the past, it creates a personal experience for people in the present.

“People get burned out from screens and need a break, that’s where the magic of pinball lies,” says Mandeltort.

This in-person fun is now helping businesses like Bang Back grow.

“To me, pinball is like a social experience,” says Richardson, “It’s really about meeting people and making friends, and I think you’re going to keep seeing more of them.”

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