People sometimes ask me why I started collecting old vending machines, or what my first machine was, or what my most expensive machine is, or which is my favorite. I know other collectors get the same questions, because they've told me so. Sometimes they tell me that after I've asked them these questions, but I know others asked before I did.
I seldom answer the "most expensive machine" question because, firstly, it's none of their business, and secondly, the cost of some machines would floor a person inexperienced in collecting some kind of expensive antique. An experienced collector of, say, vintage electric fans or rare vintage telephones will understand that the good rare stuff is expensive, but one's next door neighbor is unlikely to know about market values for quality antiques and is not going to have any context to which to compare the number you give them. I remember the time that a babysitter looked at 5 machines that I had lined up on a buffet and asked if they were expensive. This happened around 1995. The only specific machine I can remember from that line-up was a Stewart & McGuire, but the others were of similar value. I started to answer, but then said, "What do you consider expensive?" She thought for about 5 seconds and then said, "Do they cost more than $30?" I said, "Yes," and she said, "Oh." That was the end of that conversation. Price and cost are relative; what's expensive to you may not be expensive to me, and what would be completely out of reach for me may be pocket change to you or someone else.
I don't know exactly why I started collecting old vending, but I was probably trying to recapture an element of my youth. I remember going to the barber shop with my dad every few weeks, and there was a gumball machine there on a stand by the door. My dad would give me 2 pennies, and I'd walk over to the machine and buy 2 gumballs. Twenty years later I was in graduate school and was developing an appreciation for antiques, and decided that I wanted one of those machines. However, at the time I was mired in poverty and didn't know where I'd go to get one even if I did have some money, so I didn't pursue it.
In 1991 I finished graduate school and moved to California with my wife, and I started going to antique stores and swap meets on a somewhat regular basis. There was (and probably still is) a swap meet every Saturday at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, and at that swap meet was a retired vendor named Del Turk who sold gum and candy for vending machines and also had on hand a few restored machines. I'd been looking for the gumball machine of my childhood but hadn't seen it, and became smitten with one that Del had. It was a Blue Regal and it didn't look anything like the one I had in mind other than they both had glass globes, but I liked it nonetheless. It also had the advantage of being blue. That's my wife's favorite color, so I thought that fact would dampen the ferocity with which she'd pummel me when she found out I'd paid $125 for an old gumball machine. So I bought it, and I remember thinking explicitly that it's not the model I had in mind, but it's a gumball machine and that was good enough.
I'm still waiting for the market value of that machine to catch up to what I paid for it in 1991. It's getting closer, but it's not there yet. By the way, Del had a copy of Silent Salesmen, and that was my first exposure to Bill's book and my first realization that not all gumball machines sit on countertops and have globes.
To her credit, my wife didn't pummel me, she merely said, "Well, that's a lot of money, but I know you've been wanting one. Just don't make a habit of it." I said I wouldn't, which at the time I thought was true.
Now fast forward a few months. It's the spring of 1992 and my wife and I had taken a long weekend off and were driving up Highway 1 along the California coast. Road-tripping that route, by the way, is one of the few things I miss about California, and I recommend it highly to anyone. The section of PCH north of San Simeon is among the most scenic sights I've ever seen. But back to the story: We got to Cambria and discovered that Highway 1 had been blocked by landslides caused by recent storms, and we wouldn't be able to get through. We could have gone over to Highway 101 and continued north around the blockage, but that's a busy highway and we weren't in the mood for interstate-type driving. We wanted the charm, pace, and beauty of PCH, not the "race to destination" of an interstate, so we turned around and headed back. We got as far as Ventura that Saturday and grabbed a hotel room for the night.
Somehow I found out that the next morning there was an antique swap meet nearby, so we went to it. As I was walking along I saw the machine of my dreams sitting on the ground in a booth. It was a Victor Topper. I inspected it, told Sharon that this was the machine I'd been wanting, and would it be okay to buy it? Pleasepleaseplease?!? In those days I asked before spending our money---I've sinced learned better. She said "Where would you put it?" I said, "On the TV, right next to the other one. I'd put candy in one and gumballs in the other, and they look different, so they'd complement each other. Come on pleeeeeeze?" Sharon said okay---said I looked too pitiful to say no---so I paid the dealer the bargain price of $60 and took the machine home. I now realize that the machine was in good original condition when I bought it, but I didn't want good original condition, I wanted new. I completely disassembled it, stripped off the old paint, repainted it, and (I'm not joking about this) cleaned the internal hardware, including springs, so that I'd know all was Clean and Pristine. I put it back together and thought it was perfect. In fact, it was perfect; I'd done an outstanding job, and the machine had the exact look I'd intended it to have.
Both of these machines now reside in a box in my garage. I'm keeping them for sentimental reasons, but I have no interest in displacing any of my current machines for either one of them. I have 2 kids and 2 "first machines," and someday maybe something will come of that ratio. Maybe by then the Blue Regal will be worth what I paid for it.
My third machine was a Columbus 46 that I found in an antique mall in Nicholasville, KY, during a trip to Lexington in the fall of 1992. By then I thought I knew something about old gumball machines (although I now can't remember why I thought that or how I'd learned about them), so when I came across this machine I knew it was Something Special. It had original gray/silver hammertone paint on the body and lid, original black paint on the midsection, an original Columbus #8 "no star" globe with a partial original decal, and barrel locks. I negotiated a good price on it---which I can't remember now, but even in retrospect I think it was a bargain---and then carted it home to California. Once there I proceeded to destroy it. I repainted over that hideous gray/silver paint with a lovely royal blue (my wife likes blue, remember?), and scraped off the partial decal and bought a Brand New Bright Shiny decal from Phil Cunningham at the next Pasadena Coin-op show. That was where I first met Phil and Dan Davids, who shared a booth that had more machines than I'd ever thought possible to have in one space! I was giddy.
Anyway, I applied the decal to the globe of my newly degraded (a.k.a. "restored") machine, and proudly set it on a table somewhere. Over the next few years I came to realize the gravity of my actions, and my remorse was so extreme that I could no longer live with the machine in its altered state---so I sold it.
I don't remember my fourth machine, so the chronology ends there.
As far as the other questions I'm asked, I don't have crisp answers. I don't have "a favorite machine," I have many favorites. I couldn't narrow it down to one favorite favorite, and never will. If I ever did narrow my collection down to one machine (and I'm speaking way hypothetically here), I think I'd keep either the Blue Regal or the Victor Topper....probably the Topper if I really think about it. I'd keep it merely for sentimental reasons, not because it's my favorite and obviously not because it's the rarest or most valuable. These machines represent both the starting point and ending point of a journey. As far as actual favorites go, though, I imagine I could narrow it down to a couple of dozen, but that's as thin as I could slice it. Also, if you asked me on 7 consecutive days which 24 I'd have on that list, the 24 would not be the same all 7 days. Some days I like some machines more than others, so I'm playing it safe and keeping as many as I can for now. It's unfortunate that can't be all of them.
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