PINBALL PHANATICS / Pinheads find Berkeley haven

Published 4:00 am, Friday, August 13, 1999

Clay Bennett plays a few rounds of pinball at Berkeley's For Amusement Only, which sells pinball machines and parts. Chronicle Photo by Susanna Frohman

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Judy Tolbert knows she has a sale seconds after a customer walks in the door.

He'll spy a pinball machine -- maybe Eight Ball Deluxe from 1978 or an old Kiss machine -- and his eyes will get big.

"He'll walk over to it like a zombie and say, 'I used to play that when I was in college,' " she says. Her husband, Jim, agrees.

"People get locked into the game they played when they were younger. They love the game they love, and they don't want anything else."

Nostalgia looms large inside the old wooden house on a side street in Berkeley's east side. More than a dozen vintage and new pinball machines stand side by side, ready to give free play after free play. In a world of souped-up video games and interactive graphics, For Amusement Only is a rest stop, a throwback, a place where the silver ball will always reign over the joystick.

Sure, the pinball business has been lousy ever since the 1970s, when Atari introduced an unassuming little electronic game called Pong. Arcades and bars aren't inclined to keep the bulky, high-maintenance machines around anymore -- they're too expensive to maintain and not popular enough. A whole generation that grew up on a sophisticated, video-only diet simply isn't interested in the simple challenge of a flipper and a drop target. That doesn't deter the Tolberts. Jim, 48, and Judy, 52, know people who love pinball are a particular sort of addict. They will always need machines, and they will always need the parts to fix them.

They know because they are just like their customers. Jim Tolbert got the bug early. His dad was in the business, maintaining a fleet of machines in bars and bowling alleys on the East Coast before World War II.

Tolbert traveled to California in the 1970s. When he couldn't find a job in publishing, he fell back on the family trade. He started selling and maintaining pinballs in 1976. He hooked up with Judy about 17 years ago. The night they met, they played an old-style Bingo machine and needed No. 22 to win. They got it, and that's been their lucky number ever since.

"People tell him how lucky he is I'm into pinballs," she says.

They moved into the house on Grayson Street six years ago, living upstairs in what they call the "Pinball Penthouse" with their dog, Toby the Pinball Pup, selling pinballs along with a few jukeboxes and foosball tables on the main floor.

They got into video machines for a while in the 1980s, maintaining a stable of them in local clubs and game rooms. Video games were easy to maintain and turned a profit -- "All you do is walk in with Windex and a money bag," Judy says.

But their hearts just weren't in it. "We're pinball people," she says.

As far as the Tolberts can tell, theirs is the only shop selling old and new pinballs in the Bay Area.

Workers from neighboring businesses stop in to play a few games on their lunch hour. The UPS guy, the postal carrier, Berkeley cops -- anyone who happens in usually can't resist a round or two. They try to discourage the kids, though. "We're not an arcade," Judy says.

It's not unusual to find pinball collectors from across the country in the shop, trying out Slick Chick or Gigi, both from 1963. Larry Dvorak, a collector from Olympia, Wash., stopped by recently. He knew about Jim Tolbert from a pinball show they both attended and because Tolbert wrote the definitive pinball manual, "Tilt," in 1978.

Dvorak collects old-style wood rails. The games, encased in wood rather than the modern metal cases, went out of production in 1961. The Tolberts didn't have any, but they sold him a piece of vintage backglass, the highly collectible artwork that decorated machines before modern plastic backs came into fashion.

"I'm single, and I need something to tinker with," explains Dvorak, who has about 100 machines in his collection. "They keep me out of trouble."