LEXINGTON — While in Columbia last month opening for Hootie & the Blowfish, Barenaked Ladies lead singer Ed Robertson ran a few errands.
He got his hair cut — and he bought spare parts for his extensive collection of vintage pinball machines at one of the few places that still sells them.
The Columbia metro area is something of a mecca for the vintage pinball industry, but unless you move in those circles, you wouldn’t know it.
“When I need a part for my broken down pinball machine, do you know where I order it from? Right here in Columbia, South Carolina,” Robertson announced to concert-goers that first night. “For years I've been ordering from a place called Marco Specialties.”
Opened in 1985, Marco Specialties said it has become the largest online seller of pinball machine parts with 100,000 customers. On average, the company fills 1,000 orders a week, Marco Specialties founder Marc Mandletort said. Nostalgia about pinball and the spike in arcade bars has pushed sales up by 15 to 20 percent in recent years.
“Columbia is the pinball capital of the world,” said Mandletort, who runs the business with his wife and son. “At least that’s what we tell everybody.”
Walking down the aisles at Marco Specialities, there is one small box after another filled with various widgets, like solenoid coils that ricochet the steel ball off using electro-magnetic force and plastic targets of varying shapes and colors that fall down when they're hit.
Everything the ball hits breaks eventually, Mandletort said.
"We try to have it all. This is a library, it’s not a warehouse. We try to keep archival copies of everything we can get our hands on," Mandletort said. "It’s either the original parts, if we can get them. If we can’t get them, we’ll go out and make them."
In a second building on site sits roughly a dozen old games in varying states of disassembly. The Mandletorts call it their lab. It’s here that they test the replicas of defunct parts, like older display screens and circuit boards, they’ve reproduced. On each machine lies a notebook, tracking their progress.
"If we can get original documentation, like drawings, that’s great, but if it’s 50 years old we’re kind of reverse engineering everything," Mandletort said.
Marco Specialties keeps roughly 50,000 different parts on hand.
"All day long, he’s ordering parts," said Mandletort's wife, Nancy.
Especially as the industry has seen a resurgence. Stern Pinball, the leading pinball machine manufacturer in the United States, moved from a 40,000-square-foot factory in Melrose Park to a 110,000-square-foot building in Elk Grove in 2015, according to Chicago Reader.
And the company's CEO George Gomez told Fast Company that roughly half of its business comes from bar arcades. International Flipper Pinball Association tracks tournaments, which have expanded from 50 tournaments and 500 players worldwide in 2007 to 5,000 tournaments a year in 23 countries and nearly 60,000 players in 2018.
IFPA President Josh Sharpe said Marco has helped the industry reach a larger audience, partnering with Stern to bring large numbers of both vintage and the latest games to regional shows for pinball enthusiasts. Before, those events maybe had a handful of older machines available for play.
In pinball's heyday, Mandletort estimates manufacturers built about 2 million machines. He expects maybe half of those vintage machines are still in circulation.
Keeping these games out of the landfill, that’s what got Mandletort into the business.
Marco Specialties' customer Rolodex includes corporate executives, athletes and Hollywood elite. Some are attracted the company's trade shows held nationwide.
“Bill Gates came to one of our shows,” Mandletort said.
None of the other customers have made the pilgrimage to the nondescript warehouse in Red Bank, an unincorporated community in Lexington County located out past the Columbia airport.
“Only Ed,” Mandletort said.
Robertson, the Barenaked Ladies frontman, said as a hobby, pinballing has regrown and created this niche of people looking for old parts.
“One of first things you learn is that Marco Specialties is the place to get the things you need,” Robertson said. “For years there were parts you couldn’t get anywhere else. It’s transformed what you can do in the hobby."
He and Sharpe said there are other places to order parts from but Marco is known for its depth and variety.
Robertson owns about 30 machines, traveling with several that he repairs while on tour, and visited Marco Specialties during the band's three-day stay in Columbia.
Usually, the company is rush-shipping parts to whatever hotel the band is staying in.
“He calls me every once in a while to get parts from us,” Cale Hernandez, Marco's customer sales representative, said casually.
But when Robertson came to Red Bank, he and Hernandez logged into the Marco Specialties inventory system to look up the parts he needed.
“He actually sat at my desk,” Hernandez said with a bit of excitement.
Then Robertson gave the staff of Marco Specialties tickets to see the show.
That night, Hernandez and a dozen or so others hand-delivered the parts to Colonial Life Arena and then took their seats in the crowd, where they received a shoutout from Robertson on stage.
“In the pinball world, we’re kind of a big deal,” Hernandez said.