Expert on vintage games shares a nostalgic passion

Appalachian Pinball Museum owner John French lights up the machines. Photo by Karin Strickland

With one peek inside, it all comes back. The quarters. The hammering of plastic buttons. The electronic sounds. The flippers stopping the ball from sudden doom. The lights. The hours spent trying to break the high score.

It might have “museum” in the name, but nothing about Appalachian Pinball Museum suggests quiet exhibits in a stuffy room. Here, adults can relive childhood memories through pinball and old-school video games; if they’re parents, they can pass the innocent fun on to their kids.

“I’ve yet to have someone walk in without smiling or walk out without smiling,” says co-owner and operator John French. “Except for little kids, who are frowning because they don’t want to leave.”

Where movies were once shown at the former Skyland Arts Cinema space, now classic pinball machines — an original KISS game from 1979, a vintage Captain Fantastic machine, and two-dozen others — bring the drama. It’s not just a nostalgia trip, though: there’s even a pinball version of Game of Thrones, the epic fantasy series that’s dominated popular culture since 2011.

Photo by Karin Strickland

Also on site are 26 classic arcade games, ranging from Ms. Pac Man to Empire Strikes Back to cult favorite Tekken 3. The most modern innovation at Appalachian Pinball Museum, and its frontrunner the Asheville Pinball Museum, is how you pay: there’s no hustling for tokens or change; instead, one admission fee covers hours of playing.

T.C. DiBella started the Asheville museum five years ago and the Hendersonville location opened last November. French, who worked in robotics and automation, became DiBella’s go-to guy for servicing pinball machines and was later made a co-owner.

“I was fixing stuff when I was 12 or 14 years old for other people,” French notes. “I’ve always loved video games and pinball machines. My father owned an electronics company so I learned at a young age how to solder. Some people like sudoku or cross-word puzzles. The machines are my crossword puzzles. I love playing in them.”

After a busy holiday season, the winter has slowed walk-in traffic on Hendersonville’s main drag, but French says he anticipates more customers as the weather warms. He says there are already 20 or so regular customers whom the four-person staff knows by name. Eventually more games will populate the space’s front ballroom, currently filled with famous personalities in cardboard-cutout form who bide their time watching TV.

French says his favorite pinball game growing up was Black Hole, so naturally he has one in the Hendersonville venue. And he has to play his machines all the time — just “to make sure they work,” of course.

Appalachian Pinball Museum, 538 North Main St., Hendersonville. Open from 2-9pm Wednesday through Friday, noon-9pm on Saturday, and 1-6pm on Sunday and Monday. $10/all you can play. For more information, call 828-702-9277 or see Appalachian Pinball Museum on Facebook.

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