People often walk into John Lewis' shop and get this lightning-struck look on their faces.
"I had a woman come in, hand me a bill and say, 'Give me $5 worth of nickels,' " Lewis said. "I said, 'It doesn't work that way.' "
The way it works is that those gleaming chrome- and nickel-plated machines with the little windows displaying fruits and bells are antique slot machines. The Robert Du Rose Coin Slot Machines store on San Gabriel Boulevard in Pasadena isn't a gambling parlor. It's a retail establishment.
"Sometimes they start to shaking all over," Lewis said with a look of long-
suffering indulgence. "They just want to rush in and get that money in the bank."
Lewis, who bought the store from its namesake seven years ago, has been repairing and selling old slot machines for 14 years now, ever since he bought one at a garage sale in Glendale. His shop is unique in the San Gabriel Valley, according to an official of the Automatic Coin Machine Collectors Assn.
An admitted tinkerer, Lewis has rebuilt cars, repaired locks and salvaged antique guns. "It's a gift," he said modestly. But the old slot machines, with their elaborate clocklike inner workings, got him hooked.
"The people who invented them were geniuses," said Lewis, 55, a bulky man with a bushy mustache whose open-necked work shirt shows a glimpse of an old tattoo on his chest. "One guy would take another guy's idea, then go off on his own tangent. I just try to figure out how the machines work, but those guys invented them."
The slot machine, originated by Gustav Schultze and Charles Fey around the time Edison was making his light bulb and Bell his telephone, is usually a compact, armor-plated box with a handle like a car's stick shift, whirling reels and an opening that can disgorge torrents of coins.
Lewis has a collection of several dozen in his showroom on San Gabriel Boulevard, one or two of them dating back to the last century. There are old "3 Jack" machines, which direct tossed pennies through a field of pins to possible payoffs in little pockets at the bottom. There are spinning wheel devices, push-pin Bingo games and a wooden Indian with a torso consisting of a golden one-armed bandit.
There are more, in various stages of disarray, in his workroom in the back.
"The principle of the machine is to give the pretext that, if you play it, you'll get money back," Lewis said. "You do, of course. But a percentage goes right back to the house."
Back when there were slot machines in every saloon or speakeasy, companies such as Bally Manufacturing, F.W. Mills and Watling Manufacturing were putting out thousands of variations on the theme. The Ballyhoo, the Mills Silent Gooseneck, the Watling Checkerboard and dozens more were as much a part of masculine American recreational life in the early 20th Century as were spittoons and cigar smoke.
The idea was to offer a machine that was eye-catching and full of seductive promise, Lewis said. "Each one tried to outdo the other."
Of course, gambling machines have always lingered just beyond the edge of respectability. Politicians and prosecutors have made reputations with anti-slot campaigns, and much of Lewis' merchandise arrives at his shop with dents from sledgehammer blows inflicted by reformers and their deputies.
"A lot of this stuff is salvageable," Lewis said, poking through a box of broken metal parts. "A lot of stuff comes out of the dumps. You can sandblast it and paint it back up."
Nowadays, attitudes are a little more tolerant. Organizations such as the Automatic Coin Machine Collectors Assn. are lobbying for changes in laws concerning slot machines, and their members are Lewis' customers.
Most of the organization's 50 or so members have machines in their basements or recreation rooms, said Tom Hopkins, a board member.
"It's becoming more and more popular," he said. "We run a fun fair once a year, where people come through and sell a lot of machines. It's an interesting hobby but not real cheap. For a decent machine, the average price can run between $1,500 and $3,000."
It's legal in California to own slot machines, provided that they're not used for gambling and that they were made before 1956, according to a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney. There are lobbying efforts afoot to liberalize the law, said Hopkins, a retired cookware distributor from Arcadia.
But 11 states still prohibit the possession of slot machines, and laws in other states vary widely.
The Los Angeles-born Lewis is, by trade, a construction plumber. But he was attracted to mechanical things from childhood. "I built hot rods, stuff like that," he said. "I had a '48 Ford with a supercharged '55 Buick engine, with a racing clutch that could burn rubber for a quarter of a mile if it had to."
People often come into his shop to ask him to fix their pinball machines and jukeboxes, Lewis said. He declines: "It's a whole different trade."
Others come in wanting to know how to beat the slots in Las Vegas.
There were beatable machines in the old days, Lewis concedes. "You could glue a string or a wire to your coin so it wouldn't drop," he said. "Or you could drill holes in the sides of the machines and wire the wheels. But nowadays, the machines (in Nevada) are armor-plated."
Lewis' advice to those who would beat the slots nowadays: "Don't play."