For those of us of a certain age who proudly call ourselves Gamers there is a dream, one that is sadly impossible to achieve for most of us in this day and age…the dream of working at an 80s arcade. For myself I can say that particular dream started in my youth back when I first stepped into the hustle and bustle of our local Showbiz Pizza for the first time. The neon lights combining with the heat from so many people and machines, the sounds of yelling and laughing merged with the already staggering electronic din from the machines themselves. It was simply wonderland.
But then the Showbiz Pizza in my neck of the woods became a Chuck E. Cheese and the machines were carted away to be replaced with more ticket games and a large inside playground for toddlers. It had ceased to be an arcade. I could still plop in a quarter in a machine at a convenient store or shopping mall…but it really wasn’t the same was it? Where could I find the thrill of gaming with like-minded Players now? How would I ever be able to become an employee of an arcade that matched my memories from the 1980’s?
Those answers wouldn’t come to me until nearly 28 years later.
I would like to share my personal story, a diary of an arcade employee of sorts of not only what it is like to work at the Arkadia Retrocade but to shine a light on some of the behind the scenes of what it took to bring the dream to life and what it takes to maintain it.
But an arcade obviously doesn’t spring into existence, it has to start with a prime location and a person who has the vision to see an empty store like this…
…and the willpower and drive to transform it into this…
The Arkadia Retrocade is the dream made reality by one Shea Mathis. A friend of mine that quite frankly decided without spilling the secret to anyone that he was ready to be a business owner and wanted to bring to our town something that he felt had been missing for many years. An arcade, one that catered to the family element but focused on the arcade titles of the 80s and early 90s of his youth. For over a year as he researched and got sage advice from other arcade owners he began going to arcade auctions and scouring the likes of Craigslist and eBay for affordable machines that matched his criteria and honestly his budget.
After obtaining over 50 machines, hiding them away in a storage unit in town so the beans weren’t spilled to any of his friends he went about finding the perfect location. While he knew the arcade needed to be near the local university he kept an open mind in scouting the locations where he felt the business would thrive. Should it be opened in a nearby Mall? Next to a comic shop?
The answer turned out to be in the Evelyn Hills shopping center, which just so happens to be the very same center where Showbiz Pizza and then Chuck E. Cheese used to be in operation. Sadly the building that housed those places was far too big and naturally expensive to fit Shea’s budget. But a slightly smaller shop about five stores down had been vacant for near six years and it had a proud history to it as well, worthy to house an 80s arcade! Before it closed in the 90s it was THE place to get music in this town and was known as Sound Warehouse, in fact I picked up my first 45 record there in my youth, Cyndi Lauper’s “The Goonies ‘r’ Good Enough”.
The next thing facing Shea was the logistics and daunting task of getting the necessary contractors to take a shop that was built in the 1950’s and possessed one bathroom and sink and bringing it up to Code, building two bathrooms, a snack bar, a deck for the cocktail cabinets, and making sure that there was plenty of grounded outlets installed for all of the many arcade machines as well as for future growth.
This is about the time that Shea brought his friends in on what he was planning. He called me up one evening and asked if I was able to meet him at Evelyn Hills, he told me that a friend of his brother had vacated a store there and left something behind that I would be greatly interested in. I drove up and met him and his brother there and they led me to the backroom of this darkened vacant shop, they opened the door and inside was a group of arcade cabinets! They had Pengo, Street Fighter II, GORF, Centipede, Millipede, Dig Dug, Track and Field, Willow, Thunder Blade, and Double Dragon II. I was speechless. These friends of Shea’s brother had just left these machines back there? The first thing that popped into my head is if they had abandoned these machines could I legally lay claim to them?! Then Shea with an impish grin told me that these machines were indeed owned…by him and he was going to open an arcade.
My mind went blank and I couldn’t stop a smile spreading across my face…the dream of working at an arcade was within my grasp. The problem would occur with the contractors and that is where I learned just how much backbreaking labor was involved with starting your own arcade.
That all begins with the second part of the Arcade Diary though!