There's more to it than you might think.
Since opening in mid-2017, Gar Nelson’s Garcade – which also refers to the garage and basement arcade he disbanded to found the public one – has grown from fledgling Menomonee Falls strip mall inhabitant to new-landmark-status in about year. Here are some key lessons picked up along the way.
1) Arcade machines require constant maintenance, and it’s not easy.
Nelson is an electrical engineer and sets aside (closed) Mondays to tinker, fix and maintain his machines, along with the hours before the arcade opens. He pushes a little cart with tools hanging off of it around the arcade, fighting the ravages of time. One issue is that no company in the world manufactures cathode ray tube (CRT) screens anymore, the big bubbled ones that preceded flat panels, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. The only CRTs available to replace screens in vintage Ms. Pac-Man or Raiden machines, if needed, are used.
2) Arcades (those not located in loud bars) produce a soup of sound effects and music that can be analyzed by the trained ear.
Nothing marks a large arcade quite like the cacophonous pings, dings and alien rattles it produces. “It’s like white noise to me,” Nelson says, until something goes wrong – perhaps someone has walked away from a pinball machine without playing out the last ball. His attention snaps into focus, and the unconscious becomes conscious.
3) Heat is the enemy of an old school arcade.
CRT screens and other electronics on pinball and video machines are like always-on space heaters, helping in the winter but not during the summer.
4) Pinball machines have more in common with basketball courts than video arcade machines.
Pinball surfaces have to be waxed, polished and coddled to keep them in top form. And that’s not getting into the electronics hiding underneath. Nelson has a handful of retro “solid state” machines that were among the first digital cabinets.
5) The We Energies bill is not to be trifled with.
“They love us,” says Nelson, who used to work for the power company.
6) It’s cheaper to buy broken machines and fix them yourself – if you can.
Broken arcade and pinball machines can be picked up for hundreds of dollars, as opposed to thousands for fully functioning ones. About half of the Garcade machines were non-functioning when Nelson bought them.
7) For $15 admission, people expect a large number of machines.
Prior to opening, Nelson had 40 machines, including 20 in his basement and 20 in his garage, and by the time Garcade threw open its doors in 2017, the total had grown to 60. Still, people didn’t feel they were getting their money’s worth. “We listened,” says Nelson, who aggressively expanded to about 150 machines during the first year. Despite the growing pains, enough people came that “We never had to worry about how would we pay our bills,” he says.
8) You gotta get people to the door.
Nelson went to see Doc Mack, owner of the humongous Galloping Ghost Arcade in the Chicago, for advice and learned you need friendly staff, good word of mouth and specials or events or whatever it takes to get people to the door. Nelson has run pinball, air hockey and other tourneys to generate buzz and draw in new and old blood.