LANGLEY — Soon, the streets of Langley will be a little less colorful and a lot more quiet.
Tim Leonard, owner of the Machine Shop, recently decided he’ll call it quits this fall for the cherished family-friendly arcade where a quarter can go a long way. Come Nov. 1, there will be no more pinging or ringing of the pinball machines, nor sounds of any of the other games that have called the Machine Shop home since its opening in 2016.
For Leonard, who grew up in the heyday of arcades, owning the Machine Shop has simultaneously been a dream come true and an expensive hobby. At the age of eight, he built his first model rocket and has been mechanically gifted ever since. He’s poured countless hours and dollars into maintaining the machines, which currently number 112.
“We’re like the biggest arcade in the entire region right now, in little old Langley,” Leonard said.
Pinball machines, table top and video games populate the space. Coupled with Leonard’s retro neon signs decorating the place, it’s easy to imagine the Machine Shop existing in 1972 rather than 2022.
Though he enjoyed the classic pastime in his youth, Leonard hasn’t always been a collector of pinball machines.
After surviving a tragic accident in 2011 in which his young daughter, Zippy, was killed, Leonard sought some new hobbies while recovering from a serious injury and the ensuing grief from the loss.
By reading seven books and watching several YouTube videos, he taught himself how to work with neon. Shortly after, it was like a lightbulb went off in his head – he also wanted to start accumulating arcade games. His first pinball machine was a Craigslist purchase located in Hanford, Washington.
He began stashing his machines around South Whidbey businesses before eventually opening the Machine Shop. From the start, the arcade has operated on a somewhat unconventional business model.
“We kept our prices low. We still have machines that cost a quarter,” Leonard said. “About half of the machines here cost 25 cents. That’s 1970s pricing.”
The antiquated cash-based system has had its ups and downs, with coins regularly jamming the machines being the biggest problem.
And yet, Leonard wouldn’t have it any other way.
Many modern arcades choose to employ an automated card system or charge a flat rate at the door that lets people play games an unlimited number of times without inserting coins, referred to as free play.
But by spending quarters, the player has something to lose, and “skin in the game,” Leonard said.
“I thought maybe we’d be different out here, because we do things differently out here,” he said. “It’s more grassroots, it’s more homebrew. That’s what I was hoping for.”
James Smith, a regular at the Machine Shop, swings by the arcade a couple of times per week to try and beat the high score, which will earn the player a free game.
“I like the old-school aspect of putting actual quarters in the machine and trying to win a game,” he said. “That’s the whole idea, to get the high score.”
In an effort to keep things inclusive for all ages, the Machine Shop doesn’t serve liquor, beer or wine. It’s also been a safe haven for recovering alcoholics looking to socialize.
Sean Cruz and his 14-year-old son discovered the Langley arcade when it reopened in 2021, after being closed for some time during the COVID-19 pandemic. As newer residents of South Whidbey, it provided them with a vital social outlet.
A dedicated group of volunteers have kept the cogs of the business turning, stepping in to help when needed.
“Tim’s done a lot to help a lot of people,” Cruz said. “It wasn’t uncommon to see them come in and help him in return.”
Cruz himself has helped customers unstick quarters, swept floors and cleaned the machines.
Another volunteer, Asa Bodner, spoke fondly of helping with the aesthetic refurbishment of the machines in the arcade.
“I’ve always just kind of liked helping Tim out with it, because it always seemed like such a manifestation of his passion,” Bodner said. “It’s never been much of a business, it’s been a weird physical representation of how much this one guy likes arcade games and tries to make people feel better. I’ve always really enjoyed it.”
Over the years the arcade has become a hotspot for musicians, both young and old, to perform.
“I’ve had people come to me and say, ‘I’m going to go practice my guitar because I want to play the Machine Shop someday.’ It was inspiring,” Leonard said.
Jason Rodger, the vocalist for Whidbey-based punk rock band Potbelly, has helped coordinate a number of shows for other bands at the eclectic venue.
“It’s always nice to see an all-ages place that’s homegrown,” Rodger said. “It always gave everybody involved something to do.”
He described the Langley arcade as “a little cultural hub” where new generations have had the opportunity to learn about the island’s music scene.
“It’s a really cool place to bring in younger people who are just learning these things for the first time, seeing music for the first time,” he said.
Rodger has been tasked with booking the talent for the Machine Shop’s last hurrah in October. As many as 10 bands could be playing in an all-day show.
“They’ll be at peace when we’re gone,” Leonard joked of the citizens of Langley.
Although a fundraiser helped the arcade stay afloat during the earlier days of the pandemic, the profit margin has grown too narrow to continue. With rent, utilities and maintenance of the machines to pay for, the Machine Shop is costing Leonard money to keep running.
About half of the machines are owned by his friends and will be returned to their homes. The other half of the collection will be up for sale, with the exception of a few machines Leonard plans to keep for himself. He will also sell some of his signs, including the large light-up ones in the arcade.
Leonard plans to invest his time into Heavy Light Works, his lighting business. Although he’s closing up shop at the arcade, his influence can be found all around Langley in the form of various neon signs he’s designed for other local businesses.
In 2014, Leonard told a Record reporter that he wanted South Whidbey to be a “pinball mecca” someday.
Along the way, he cultivated a garden bed of creativity, where musical performances, swap meets, comic conventions and other events could coexist in addition to a good old-fashioned game of pinball.
“Tim literally lost money providing an opportunity for people to hang out and musicians to play. I thought it was awesome,” Cruz said. “I loved the fact that he did it. I thought it was kind of a community service.”
This story originally appeared in the South Whidbey Record, a sister publication to The Herald.