Tucked down a small marble hallway on Main Street in Hendersonville is the Appalachian Pinball Museum. Formerly a ballroom and a theater, the picturesque building is now home to dozens upon dozens of rare and vintage pinball machines.
“Not many people can repair both electronic and mechanical pinball machines, but I can,” smiled John French. “We started out with 30 games here. Now we’re up to over 60. I love repairing the machines as much as I love playing them.”
Standing in the main room of the museum, French is literally surrounded by his passion: repairing and playing pinball machines and old video games.
“I’ve always been around pinball machines and video games,” French said, “I started when I was very young, and I’ve always had a knack for electronics and fixing things. By the time I was eight years old, I was soldering.”
As a youngster growing up in Colorado, French would get picked up after school by his father. They’d end driving to his father’s place of work, where French would watch others solder circuit boards. Eventually, the workers taught French how to solder, a skillset that would serve him well.
“I learned basic electronics at a very early age. And there was The Milky Way arcade on Pearl Street in Boulder that I used to go to all the time,” French said. “The games there were starting to deteriorate, and I told the owner I could fix the games. I was 12.
He finally let me do it, and by the end of the week, I had the keys to the door. I would fix the games and he’d let me play them as much as I wanted.”
French parlayed those experiences into a career in electronics. After getting a degree in the field, French found himself in robotic automation, and in a position with a national company that led him to relocate to Western North Carolina.
“With that company, I’d go out on a job for a month, setting up these businesses,” French said. “I wasn’t much of a bar guy. So, while on the road, I would find a pinball or video game on Craigslist and repair it in my hotel room to pass the time.”
Eventually, one of the customers French would continually sell the restored games to asked him if he’d be interested in launching a pinball business. That person was T.C. DiBella, a local educator.
“T.C. set it up, retired from teaching, and now he runs our sister company, the Asheville Pinball Museum, which opened in 2013,” French said. “Finally, I quit my day job and dedicated my life to the Appalachian Pinball Museum.”
Walking around the extensive game rooms, one is captivated by all the lights, noises, and images strewn across the machines. If you played pinball as a kid, you soon realize just how much you not only loved it, but also missed it. If it’s your first time playing pinball, you find yourself enamored with something so rare to experience in the modern world.
“We have a lot of older people that come through. Then, they come back with their children or grandchildren, and they’ll be here playing all day. That means so much to me to see that.”