By Jessica Mullins
“Video” Bob Albritton is about to have a lot of homeless video games.
First, the Santa Venetia resident, who turned 60 this month, has to find a place for the 20 arcade games he owns in Pinky’s Pizza, which will close at the end of this month.
But worse, due to the end of his lease and plans to drastically raise rent, he will have to permanently shut the doors to Starbase Arcade, a nearly 32-year-old West End fixture, at the end of August. Starbase, which the San Francisco Chronicle called “gloriously authentic” in a review last month, has roughly 40 arcade games inside it — some that were custom made by Albritton.
“Just Pinky’s closing was hard enough, and I’ve known about that for a while,” Albritton said.
He said retirement isn’t an option, as he has a daughter who just finished her first year of college and a son with one more year of high school left.
“I’m definitely freaking out a little bit,” he said.
While there are a slew of reasons for the back-to-back San Rafael arcade-venue closings, there’s one common denominator — the rent is too high.
Albritton said his West End landlords had been good to him over the years, letting him pay below market value for his rent, but that’s about to change now that his lease is nearly up. “I guess they want to double their rent. I can’t run a cheap family business — with 50 cent games and prizes — and pay more for rent.”
Albritton, who grew up in Kentfield, said Starbase’s impending demise appears to be part of a trend of family businesses that can’t afford to stay in Marin.
“All these family businesses are going by the wayside because rent has gone up so high in Marin and that kind of business can’t survive anymore,” he told Patch. “The pure gamers are going to lose and the families are going to lose. Cheap entertainment in San Rafael is gone now. The real estate has gone up so much you have to go somewhere else for it.”
Albritton admits the arcade business model is a “dinosaur” model and said he’d love to open an arcade museum, where attendants pay an entry fee at the door and all the games are free. It’d also provide him with a place to put some of the video game paraphernalia he has amassed over the years.
He said he will continue to operate a few of his games out of Extreme Pizza in downtown San Rafael and at McNear’s Beach.
Starbase was opened by another Bob — Bob and Marline Suttles — in 1982 on April Fool’s Day. Albritton, who had previously worked for Musée Mécanique in San Francisco and the Cliffhouse Arcade, was the regular game repairman at Starbase until he bought it in 1996.
Albritton opened the Fun Junction in Mill Valley’s Tam Junction in 1985, around the time the county was working to not allow arcades, he said. He closed Fun Junction within a year of purchasing Starbase.
No More ‘Loch Ness’
In the Chronicle review, pop culture critic Peter Hartlaub called Starbase the “Loch Ness Monster of the Bay Area retail businesses.”
“Until you see it with your own eyes, it seems impossible for a stand-alone arcade to have survived for the past 30 years in the same spot,” he wrote. “A music store that only sells disco on vinyl would have had a better chance.”
Twin Galaxies, which organizers call “the official scorekeeper for the world of video game playing,” will be honoring Starbase Arcade next month at a special art exhibit in Fairfield, Iowa, focusing on the history of video game culture. Albritton was going to attend the opening ceremony, highlighting video game trading cards and posters, until he realized he would have to close the arcade.
Starbase was featured on a video game trading card in 2011. According to a Twin Galaxies release, “individuals who appear in the Twin Galaxies Video Game Trading Card Set are recognized for their important contributions to the worldwide video game industry as competitive gamers or industry celebrities.”
After hearing the news of Starbase’s closing, Walter Day of the Twin Galaxies wrote an e-mail to Albritton the shuttering meant “one of the world’s last remaining arcades from the 1980s is closing its doors for the last time.”
Day told Albritton he has planned a ceremony in Iowa on Aug. 10 to honor Starbase's "huge legacy." Albritton said he won't have time to attend the ceremony.
Albritton and Starbase were featured in a 2009 College Humor Bleep Bloop video as part of a series on saving the arcade. Click here to see the video.
Albritton said he will keep and update his Starbase Arcade website after the arcade closes.
What’s your reaction to Starbase closing? Do you have a Starbase memory? Share it with us in the comments!