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How evolving entertainment is helping pinball culture endure in SC

A view inside Bang Back Pinball Lounge in Columbia, SC.
Finn Carlin
South Carolina Public Radio
A view inside Bang Back Pinball Lounge in Columbia, SC.

If you think about putting quarters in a machine, you likely think of paying for a parking meter.

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

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

“We could have opened up in Portland, we could have opened up in Seattle, we could have done it in Texas,” Richardson says.

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

“Columbia was untapped, they had almost no pinball at the time we opened,” says Richardson, “It was ripe for this kind of entertainment.”

Since there weren’t many places for 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, that’s a benefit that Richardson adds was sorely needed.

It also doesn’t hurt to have a pinball supplier right up the road. Richardson tells me that, if something’s wrong with a machine, all he has to do is drive 12 minutes from his house to get new parts. That pinball supplier, Marco’s Specialties in Lexington County, played a large role in Bang Back becoming a business.

Marco’s Specialities is also one of two pinball suppliers in the Carolinas. It’s a decently-sized warehouse, stacked to the top with everything from bolts to ball shooters. Marco’s mainly buys and sells pinball parts – their operations officer says there’s around 40,000 different kinds of parts held in the warehouse.

For context, the operations officer added that there’s about 2,000 different components in a typical pinball machine. Marco’s simply holds many variations of those parts, which they sell to roughly 2,000 vendors. Those parts aren’t cheap, or easy to get, however.

“Gold and marble pinballs can go for up to $150 sometimes, and a lot of what we have is probably the last you’ll find in the world,” Marco’s operations officer mentioned.

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

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

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

“People are getting exhausted from screens and need a break, that’s where the magic of pinball is,” says Mandeltort.

That in-person enjoyment is now helping businesses like Bang Back grow.

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

Finn Carlin was an 2022 ETV Endowment intern working with SC Public Radio to produce news content. He is now an occasional news contributor.