John Russo is a bit of a pinball entrepreneur, maybe even a wizard.
Against the back wall of his new Gameroom Superstores in DeSoto Square is a chronological collection of pinball machines, ranging from KISS and Mustang to Terminator 2 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
"They are truly works of art," Russo said inside his store. And it's art that can be played with, too.
Russo, who operates Saturn 5 Family Entertainment Center in DeSoto Square mall, is making a return with his Gameroom Superstores when the mall location opens Sept. 1. A grand opening is scheduled for Oct. 1.
The shop carries retired, new and used arcade games, pinball machines, billiards tables, slot machines and card tables. The store warranties the machines they sell and provides in-home and in-store repair service.
"We do fun for a living," he said.
Russo first started his Gameroom Superstores as Apollo Amusements in 1987 and at its peak had locations in Bradenton, Brandon and Ft. Lauderdale. Hurricane Wilma destroyed his Ft. Lauderdale store and the Great Recession put a halt to spending for arcade and pinball consoles in the home.
"We carry everything you can clearly live without in a time of dire need," Russo deadpanned. "No one ever loses their job in 2006, 2007 and says, 'Holy crap, we better go buy a pinball machine, honey."
Now that the economy is rebounding and Manatee County's housing market has stabilized, folks are looking for a little something extra in their homes again. It's al
lowed Russo -- who saw "game over" -- to pop in a few quarters to start his shop up again.
"Now we're recovered and the place is bigger and better than ever," Russo said.
The machines can fetch about $2,000, but if you're short on pocket change, Russo has the Saturn 5 arcade down the hall.
The pinball machines, especially the older ones, are works of art. Determining the age of these machines is all in the scoreboard.
"The old machines have the numbers that roll over," Russo said, pointing to the Gottlieb's Mustang machine. "The early solid states had numbers that simply lit up."
That gave way to alpha-numeric boards, then dot matrix machines that grew in size. In another corner he has a refurbished Ms. Pac-Man and in another one, an arcade cabinet refurbished that could be programmed to hold up to 60 arcade games in a single machine.
Steven Panitch, chief financial officer for Gameroom, pointed out how the depth of the machines increased from the glass to the playing field and how the pitch of the cabinet increased.
"Then they tried different ways to shoot the ball," Panitch said, pointing to the pistols acting as triggers.
Russo's love for games started as a child's passion for arcades, first seeing a game room at a friend's basement in New York. That turned into a hobby and led to a business.
"I bought one game, sold it and used the money to buy two more," Russo said, starting out with an ad in the Bradenton Herald in 1987, getting calls from all over the state.
He kept collecting until his house -- from the dining room to the living room and his son's bedroom -- were overtaken by arcade games.
"When you're a collector, it's like selling one of your kids," Russo said.
So he started buying games that didn't mean as much to him and had sold those, and the collection of new and used games and billiards tables turned into a store.
"It's like selling crack cocaine," he joked. "As soon as someone gets one, that's the threshold you gotta cross. You'll spend on an Xbox and games as much as you would on one of these."
Russo's introduction to DeSoto Square started eight years ago when he was brought in to liquidate the Fun-N-Games arcade in 2006 and took the business over. In 2008, he auctioned off his own arcade games at the Apollo Amusements on 14th Street West, but ended up taking it over as Apollo Amusements.
In 2009, Simon Properties, the mall operators, made an attractive offer for him to relocate his arcade into the former Old Navy space. The led to the launch of Saturn 5 in the 20,000-square-foot space, featuring party rooms, laser tag, mini-golf and other games. The space is the largest glass front in the mall.
"Both Simon and Mason Asset have done everything they could do to make it comfortable for me to be here," Russo said. "Now, they have done nothing to the building, obviously. But they've done everything they could do to prop me up financially and make it comfortable for me to invest heavily in this building."
His timing for opening will be a bit awkward because Macy's announced Thursday it will leave DeSoto Square in late September in favor of its new store at the Mall at University Town Center set to open Oct. 16. Hours later that same day, the mall was auctioned off for $33.75 million setting the stage for a deal to be completed with a new owner that would likely redevelop or reposition the mall in the Bradenton market.
He hopes the new owners don't turn the mall into an outdoor lifestyle center. He had an offer once to open in the Gulf Coast Town Center in Ft. Myers but turned it down because it didn't suit his business.
"I like the fact that customers are constricted to three or four main entrances. If I'm in here and somebody wants to go to Macy's, they have to walk by me and happen upon me," Russo said. "That's advertising dollars, is what that becomes, being aware of my place."
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.