I reached for the buttons on either side of the pinball machine, and the decades melted away as I was transported back to a game room at Nathan's restaurant in Yonkers, N.Y. Whenever my family went there for dinner, my brothers and I would beg for dimes (is it possible that we used dimes?) to play pinball after we ate.
Yestercades, a pinball parlor in Red Bank, N.J., will satisfy the pinball nostalgia of anyone who grew up in the 1960s and '70s, that idyllic time before personal devices and video games took over our lives. The only way to play these games was in large public rooms amid the flashing lights and the din.
But Red Bank is much more than pinball. This eclectic town, where William Count Basie grew up, has more than 70 hangouts and shops selling items both retro and fashion-forward. Even the many foods vary from nouvelle to throwback. Two theaters provide live entertainment, and other venues offer ways for adults and children both to play. Perhaps even with each other.
Hurricane Sandy hit Red Bank, but not as hard as other New Jersey towns, and the only lasting damage seems to be at the hotel we stayed at, which plans to reopen to guests in January. But my friend and I visited before the storm and ricocheted around town like one of those solid silver balls under glass, bouncing from a gourmet cheese shop to an upscale olive-oil tasting store to the 175-year-old house that's home to the Dublin House Restaurant and Pub, where Ben Affleck went to learn his lines for a film set in Red Bank. But more on that in a minute.
We arrived in town on a gray Sunday of a three-day weekend. We were cold and hungry and dismayed by the drizzle, so we took respite at Basil T's Brewery and Italian Grill, a block from our hotel. The vat-size bowls of soup and basket of hot rolls did wonders to warm us.
The rain had stopped by the time we left, and we spent several hours meandering around town, which continued to tap childhood memories for me of growing up in the Northeast. The hole-in-the-wall pizza parlor that sells pizza by the slice. The candy store that displays 16 varieties of Pez dispensers.
But it was a nondescript storefront on Riverside Street that unearthed the memory from longest ago. A brochure in the window said "Flipping Fun." Huh?
As I pressed my face against the window to see inside, someone opened the door and invited us in. I learned that the place makes flip books. Whoa.
My older brother used to make those as a kid. I thought they were magic. He would draw dozens of pictures on paper with slight changes in each, staple them together and then flip through them to create -- voila! -- animation.
Flipping Fun has modernized the art. A videographer shoots seven seconds of action and creates a stylized booklet of glossy photos, and you get yourself a pocket-size flip book, without the painstaking hours of work that my brother had to do. The folks there even made a book for a famous movie director.
"My assistant had the distinction of directing Martin Scorsese," said owner Meredith Barrett. On Saturday nights, Flipping Fun opens to the public.
The town is full of remarkable finds like this.
Comic books, more
For instance, Red Bank is a draw for comic book aficionados and fans of Kevin Smith, who made the movies "Clerks," "Clerks II" and "Chasing Amy," among others, and who created the characters of Jay and Silent Bob, who appear in most of his films. (Viewers might remember them in "Clerks," hanging outside the Quick Stop Groceries selling weed.)
Smith, a Red Bank resident, owns the store called Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash, which sells comic books and displays memorabilia from his movies. "It's the best comic book store there is in the United States," said Sunday Joe, the man behind the counter.
In our two days in town, we tasted olive oils from around Europe at the Carter & Cavero Old World Olive Oil Co.; authentic flaky Danish from the Danish cafe, whose expat owners import all the food directly; and stuffed cupcakes at the Cupcake Magician, including Boston cream pie and raspberry cheesecake flavors, for $2 apiece.
At the Cheese Cave, three separate blackboards list cheeses made from sheep's, cow's and goat's milk. On Friday nights, the store holds $5 tastings.
"People would come in and say, 'I don't know any of these cheeses,' so we help people learn about the cheese," said owner Stephen Catania.
But I was perhaps most enamored of Yestercades, the arcade stocked with 16 pinball machines and even more video games, including such blasts-from-the-past as Pac-Man, Galactica and Donkey Kong. We got there late and had only 45 minutes until closing time.
Not only did we not have to pay in dimes, but we didn't use coins at all. Yestercades charges by the hour, which changes the whole psychology of play. Instead of trying to make a stack of coins last, we ran around like crazy people, trying to play every last game that we remembered loving years ago. Separately.
Ken Kalada, the 31-year-old owner, is a calm presence behind the front counter. Since he was a kid, he's been into toys and games, the relics of which fill the glass case where the cash register sits. By the time he was 13, he said, he was buying, selling and trading them.
He opened Yestercades more than a year and a half ago. "Out of the gate, it's been a hit," he said. "People are yearning for the arcade feeling of yesteryear."
During the day, kids mill around without their parents or sit on a couch and play video games together or sit on a stool and play pinball. Parents will come in and play Xbox with their kids, Kalada said. The demographic changes from morning to night.
Kalada is pleased about the range of ages the arcade attracts. "There might be a 5-year-old's birthday party by day and a surprise 40th at night," he said. "The crowd gets older as the day goes on. You don't see that anywhere else."
What you do see in Red Bank is a new twist on the good old days. It's the kind of place where it's hard to bounce around downtown without hitting something fun. Or, in pinball parlance -- ding, ding, ding . . . score!