Texas man stops in Roanoke on North American Pinball Tour

Published: Nov. 2, 2017 at 5:19 PM EDT
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A man from Texas is spending some time in Roanoke this week.

He's here to do a very specific "odd job" - if you will.

And Roanoke is just one of his many stops on his North American Pinball Tour.

If you venture up to the second floor of Center in the Square you can step back in time.

The Roanoke Pinball Museum hosts blinking, glowing, beeping beacons of the past. And it’s a past you can play with.

But that means these machines need a little TLC.

"Daily,” said manager Chris Rader. “For the amount of play that our machines get, it's a daily thing.

Rader said one pinball machine can contain hundreds of miles worth of wires. So when he heard about an opportunity to gain an extra helping hand temporarily, he took it.

"I was like, ‘huh, that's pretty cool,’” he said. “’We should see if he wants to come here.’"

The man he’s talking about is Nic Schell.

"My pinball skills grow with the length of my hair,” Schell said, yanking on his ponytail.

Schell, a Texas native, is also an enthusiast.

“My father actually bought three old electromechanical pinball machines when I was 6 years old which was in 1977,” he said, reluctantly.

Schell said the pinball machines made his home the envy of the neighborhood kids. This was before video games took the spotlight. The machines eventually went into storage. They didn’t emerge until a few years ago, when Schell’s group was laid off thanks to automation in financial services.

He said he figured he had time for a new hobby and took to repairing the relics from the past.

The Texas native had debated 10 more years in a corporate cubicle.

But instead he asked, "Does anyone need help with their pinball machines?"

That call was answered on Facebook and pinball enthusiast sites online and he said they far exceeded expectations.

"It was like America just lit up like a signboard and I thought, huh, maybe I'll just connect the dots and take this show on the road."

That road took him to pinball machines in need of maintenance all across the country, into homes and warehouses and businesses in at least 40 states. He did the repairs in exchange for a place to stay and some friendly companionship.

“It means more to me than anything, those social connections.”

Schell took a break from his original tour and is now making smaller circuits. He’s on the hunt for a new town to place roots in. He hopes to find a space to share his personal collection with the public and said he is constantly finding opportunities to learn and share pinball practices with others.

"He's very knowledgeable,” said Rader. “And he has some methods that I had not heard of before that have been very helpful and I'm going to incorporate in the future."

In a time where it seems things are constantly breaking, Schell cherishes a chance to put them back together.

"Pinball is a way that people of any stripes can get together,” he said, “and just enjoy being in the same space and having fun."