|Posted by Rob Maerz on November 10, 2014 at 1:20 PM|
High Scores Arcade
Originally published in Retrocade Magazine Volume 1 Issue 1
In the spring of 2010, Meg and Shawn Livernoche purchased an early 18th century building located at 348 High Street in Burlington, NJ. In August of that same year, the husband and wife team opened the doors of High Scores Interactive Arcade Museum in the city's historic district.
Meg works in the pharmaceutical industry while Shawn is an 8th grade Language Arts teacher and musician under the name ShawnLov. They live upstairs and the arcade, which is located downstairs, is open to the public on weekends.
I first met Meg and Shawn in March of 2011 at the Classic Arcade Gaming (dot com) Donald Hayes Challenge, a tournament organized by Mark Alpiger and hosted at High Scores Arcade with Meg and Shawn officiating. Their hospitality was outstanding and the tournament was a huge success.
On the eve of the arcade’s first anniversary, I ventured back down to High Scores to not only play some more Star Castle, but to also catch up with Meg and Shawn on their first twelve months in the arcade business.
Shawn, some may not be aware that you once appeared on the Jenny Jones show.
Shawn: That was a period of time between 1997 and 2000 when I was desperate to gain some exposure. So, I called the Jenny Jones show and fabricated this story about being picked on when I was little. I had my buddy Sean say that he hadn’t seen me in a couple of years and when they called him on stage he said “yeah this guy’s a dork” and this and that.
But that was a period of time where I would go barge in on record labels in New York and do anything I could: guerilla tactics just so I could get some exposure music-wise.
What got you interested in classic arcade games in the first place?
Shawn: I’ve been a classic gamer my whole life. And Meg, too - she had an Odyssey2 when she was little. I wanted to get an arcade cabinet and I hate to say this because it’s such a cliché answer: but, when I watched King of Kong it reignited the passion I had when I was a kid and it made me want to realize that again.
Meg: I’m a really competitive person so I think that’s what really bit me. We got the first cabinet, then the second cabinet and I can be egged on pretty easily.
Shawn: When the first machine came in, which was Donkey Kong, Meg wasn’t into it since she didn’t like Donkey Kong. But, when I got a Centipede cabinet that’s when Meg started getting excited.
Meg: Donkey Kong Junior was the second cabinet and I started to catch onto that. But, once we got Centipede…We tried to fit that in the back of a Toyota Camry.
Shawn: I brought Donkey Kong Junior home in a Volkswagen Golf!
Meg: Ill advised!
Shawn: Even when we had Donkey Kong with that one machine I felt like I owned an entire arcade. I was like ”Holy Crap! I got this machine.” I’d go to sleep at night and I would know that the machine was there almost like it had this presence. I’d be at work and teaching these kids is not a picnic. They’re busting my chops at 7:30 in the morning while in the back of my head I know that the machine’s at home and I can’t wait to get home and play it.
Meg: We got introduced into the world of auctions - most of time in South Jersey at the Cherry Hill Armory. That gets addictive because you see these games that are pretty cheap in working condition.
So, it started with showing up with my Toyota Camry and buying a game and saying “Oh - we got to get this home.” But, the next time we got hip to it and showed up with a cargo van.
Shawn: So when you rent money for a truck you’re like “screw it, I’m here I’m going to buy four games.“ “This game here is $90 nobody else wants it – mine.” Then there’s another “I could fix this” and then before you know it your whole house is filled with games.
Meg: I think the last auction we went to was at the Cow Palace auction down in Baltimore and we got about six games. We got Joust there, Spanish Eyes and then we got home and we were like “wait a minute we have to sell our dining room table!”
Shawn: We actually sold our dining room table. But, you know a lot of people will hear this and think it’s financially reckless to do this kind of stuff but these machines have determined value. When you see a particular game and the condition that it’s in you have a ballpark of what you can sell it for. If I buy a Donkey Kong machine for $400, I can sell it for $500 and all the quarters getting pumped into it in the meantime is like earning interest on that investment. So, we didn’t buy these machines before being ready for it. Our next mortgage payment isn’t absolutely dependent on our next quarter.
Was the purchase of the house in any way based on opening an arcade or housing the collection?
Meg: It started out house hunting. We’d see these cute, first timer kind of houses and we would look at the basements first to see what would fit because at the time we had about 12 or 14 games in the apartment. We’d sit down and try to bargain with each other and I’d say “what if we got rid of this game,” and he’d say “no.” Then he’d say “what about this game” and I’d say “no.” So, it became apparent that we weren’t willing to part with any games in our collection. We tried not to buy this building as it was one of the first we saw on Craigslist
Shawn: By having this arcade open we’ve not only instantaneously become part of the community but overnight become a pillar of the community. All the businesses surrounding us, with the exception of three or four on this street, are failing or not attracting anyone new. On Fridays and Saturdays we can hang out casually with our friends or acquaintances just by opening our doors. In the meantime, we have people throw a couple of quarters at our investment.
Meg: Ultimately, by deciding to make a business out of it we’ve met so many cool people just in the last year. We meet people that travel to play the games and we meet people that live around the corner. It’s really got a social vibe about it.
You opened the arcade in August of 2010. When was the decision made prior that you would open an arcade?
Shawn: We started working on the arcade as soon as we moved in April of 2010. We really had it in mind ever since we came here and saw the store front. We were searching for a reason not to do it and we couldn’t find one.
Meg: The house has a lot of charm and technically we could say America’s oldest arcade (laughs). The whole property just has a vibe about it – it’s asking for something fun.
What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome in getting this arcade off the ground?
Meg: Perception: the historic district and the perception of an arcade. We submitted our business application in April (of 2010) and it just kind of dragged. It was originally zoned as a gallery so we had to go for a land use zoning change. Man, they made that as hard as possible because people were saying “we don’t want an arcade here,” the whole “drug dealer on the corner” and “what kind of riffraff is an arcade going to bring in.” So, we had to educate the whole town that the people that love these games are generally the older crowd and not the 12 or 13 year olds that are going to be causing trouble. We had to get a waiver signed by every land owner within 200 feet of us and basically we had to make our case to every single one of them that we weren’t going to bring trouble in.
Shawn: That was our biggest obstacle in getting people to accept us. And by scrutinizing our business idea they also began to scrutinize us. In a tightly knit community like this it gets annoying - especially for me teaching kids everyday and I got these guys looking at me like I’m a thug. They were frowning on us so much but throughout the course of this one year the highlight of High Street has been our shop. After all that negativity we actually did give this community a shot in the arm.
And then their perceptions changed?
Shawn: Absolutely. They started observing us, seeing that we’re not drugged out “20-somethings,” seeing me getting up at 7 o’clock in the morning with my tie on and that their whole perception about us when we moved in was wrong. I’m glad that we’ve been publicized on such a level that the community has to recognize.
Meg: We have Mark Alpiger of Classic Arcade Gaming (dot com) to thank along with Donald Hayes, you and everyone that came down for the competition. That put us on the front page of the Burlington County Times and that brought a lot of people in because of that. As a result, WPVI (channel 6 out of Philly) did a feature on us for the morning news so that opened us up to a whole new group of people.
Shawn: We really have Mark Alpiger to thank for that. He did us a favor in the sense that he put hours and hours of time into the competition he had here. It’s only someone like Mark that could do something like that for us because his passion and dedication forms a lot of the events that are necessary to keep some lifeblood flowing in the culture.
Would the use of swipe cards or charging a flat fee into the arcade make it more profitable?
Meg: We talked all about that: per person cover, swipe cards and that kind of stuff. Yes, it could be more profitable but at the end of the day it also takes the charm away.
Shawn: We would never do that – that just takes it all away. The quarters are part of the experience. It would be more convenient and more profitable but we’re going to go against the grain and keep quarters.
Why would anyone want to start an arcade?
Meg: Easy question for us: we don’t pay commercial rent – it’s all a part of our mortgage. So, we have the safety of our low mortgage and our full-time jobs and this is very much a labor of love. We have that luxury where we can stay open and not dependent on the economy or on how many people come in.
Shawn: We’re humble in the sense that we’re not great with the machines and we don’t have all the money in the world. But, we also know that we have a lot of power in the sense that we’re never going to close and that we’re always going to be here.
For the uninitiated why should anyone care about these old cabinets?
Meg: What we see is that these kids come in here and there all cocky - “these graphics suck.” But, once they start a game of Donkey Kong, Shawn has this game he likes to play where he’s got this stopwatch and he bets any kid that comes in here that’s never played Donkey Kong that they won’t last a minute. Then they realize that there’s more to it than 2D graphics and it’s about pattern recognition, memorization and real skill. That’s the angle and what’s interesting about these games. It may not be the same as sitting in front of your HDTV but it’s a lot harder.
Shawn: I can see everything 3D perfect pixilated – it’s wonderful. You get everything but you lose the imagination, the idea and the excitement that comes with not having everything like in these old games: the idea of a construction site in Donkey Kong and the maze idea in Pac-Man. With the new games everything is going to be rendered in perfect graphics but the imagination disappears. The kids that grow up on these new games don’t develop the imagination that you or I might have when we were kids and I think that cripples them in a sense. The imagination has disappeared from gaming. Some kids can play one of these machines and fill in the gaps and other kids can’t. I’ve seen a 12 year old kid come up to one of these machines and get it.
Meg: When I was growing up and I only had an Odyssey and shit you’re talking about imagination - the race car games were just squares.
What I like about the arcade cabinet is the competitive and fun element of the whole machine. You’re playing Star Wars, you got the blinders on, you’re in the game and it’s a totally different experience.
Classic arcade games are not just about the games. When people walk into our place and see Garbage Pail Kids hanging up, the black lights and the 80s music it’s more than just the games - it’s about the environment. People come in and there like “oh man it’s bringing me back!” whereas playing a PS3 in a buddy’s living room isn’t going to be nostalgic. The classic games are part of a larger scene.