‘This is a nightmare around here’: As the high cost of living and redevelopment push blue-collar businesses out, Steve Squires seeks to preserve his craft by leaving Silicon Valley.
On a recent Thursday, 84-year-old Steve Squires shouted out directions at movers lugging wheelbarrows out of a storefront on San Mateo’s S Claremont Street. The city block that he stood on housed the long-standing Wing Fat Chinese Restaurant, the neon lights of a smoke shop and the lingerie-clad mannequins of an adult bookstore, all businesses that seemed out of place just two blocks away from San Mateo’s buzzy downtown.
Squires’ store window was occupied solely by his squawking 42-year-old cockatoo Maggie, for the showroom’s rows of “one-armed bandits,” mechanical slot machines with levers topped by black knobs, had mostly been wheeled away. However, some of the walls were still covered with award cards bearing the enduring images of lucky sevens and brightly colored fruits. And on top of Squires’ cluttered desk, a magazine cover bore an image of “The Million Dollar Machine,” an antique slot machine that Squires restored before it was plated with gold and encrusted with 818 gemstones and 183 diamonds.
Behind this museum of gambling history, movers disassembled the workshops of Squires & Corrie, one of the only places in the world where antique slot machines were repaired and restored. In one room, assistant manager Kimberley Arce meticulously recreated paintings of Liberty Bells and showgirls and imitated artistic styles spanning nearly a century. She dipped her brushes in unforgiving enamel paints that made even the most miniscule mistakes near-permanent. Other rooms contained endless shelves of rattling nuts and bolts and pneumatic tools, and some walls housed hundreds of the metal reels that spin inside slot machines, four or five rare antique spools hanging on each hook like bags of candy in a drugstore.
Squires & Corrie Antique Slot Machines is one of the few businesses still servicing mechanical slot machines, and if you ask Steve Squires what happened to his contemporaries, he’ll answer bluntly, “They’re dead!”
He started out in the industry 70 years ago, and he’s moving his company and home to Stockton because he’s being displaced by a new office building and apartment complex.
The city has lost a distinctive business in Squires & Corrie, yet its plight evokes the disappearance of other local craftsmen like cobblers and watchmakers. Only a small number of residents possess antique slot machines, but homeowners are likely familiar with waiting months for essential repairs as tradespeople find it increasingly difficult to afford living on the Peninsula.
At 84, Squires is still seeking a trainee to preserve his way of life, and rising rents and the devaluing of manual labor have cemented that he won’t find someone to preserve his craft here.
“I can get real people (in Stockton). And they can work for real wages. And they can find a place to live. This is a nightmare around here, with a capital N,” Squires says.
Most U.S. states allow individuals to possess slot machines if they’re classified as antiques (at least 25 years old in California), and even though the ringing speakers of video slots dominate smoky casino floors, antique slot machines can be found in many living rooms. A majority of Squires’ clients are everyday people who wouldn’t consider themselves collectors.
“Most of them are just people that like vice. Who doesn’t? They have a slot machine or two in their house, it’s the greatest babysitter known to man!” Squires says.
Mechanical machines might also be found in remote areas or on ships where electricity isn’t consistently available, and the satisfying click of their mechanical levers sometimes attracts players more effectively than flashing lights. Nevertheless, purely mechanical slot machines are mostly antiques. The 1963 electromechanical machine “Money Honey” gave owners the potential to lure in gamblers with larger automatic payouts, and in 1976, video slot machines hit the Las Vegas Strip and swapped gears for logic boards.
An adolescence spent in repair shops and illicit casinos
A native of Elmhurst, Illinois, Squires grew up around manufacturing companies Mills, Pace and Bally, which crafted coin-operated creations ranging from jukeboxes and vending machines to pinball and slot machines. He started working in the industry as a 13-year-old and soon gained an appreciation for the precision required in manufacturing and repairing mechanical slot machines.
“Everything is (to) a 1,000th of an inch … They’re like watches, but big ones,” Squires says.
Squires decided to pursue a career in manufacturing after failing a high school assignment. For a history class, Squires crafted an inset puzzle of the United States and carefully carved out each border with a wood-burning pen. The Oklahoma Panhandle slotted in neatly against the tip of Texas and after hundreds of hours in his basement, he was ready to turn in his project.
When Squires presented the puzzle, his teacher refused to accept his work and accused him of purchasing it. “I came back (from school) and said, ‘What do I need this shit for? … I’ll just stay in the slot machine business,'” Squires says. He dropped out of high school and never returned to the classroom.
At work, Squires started absorbing lessons from his superiors: that brand-new coins might act like gears and wear out a metal track or that an overly aggressive pull from a fortune-seeker could disrupt a machine’s delicate mechanics. When private clubs in the South (fraternal organizations and country clubs) requested on-site repairs for their clandestine slot machines, Squires’ mentors started suggesting him for the job. However, Squires was initially hesitant to incur the costs of driving across the country.
His manager replied, “Well, I talked to them about that, and they will not pay more than $1,000 a machine.”
Squires packed some parts into his car, drove to North Carolina and came back $5,000 richer one week later (approximately $50,000 today). After a couple more trips, he bought his girlfriend a brand-new, bright pink convertible.
Over the next couple of decades, Squires continued to service machines across the South and even set up five offices in South Carolina. He also met and married his late wife before moving to Tennessee in the early 1970s.
Seeing opportunity in San Mateo County
In 1976, the possession of antique slot machines was legalized in California, Oregon, Washington and Texas, and after a lifetime traversing the Midwest and South, Squires decided to visit other parts of the country. But Seattle was “too sanctified,” in Portland, “they never woke up,” and Texas “had landing strips for the mosquitoes.”
Then he arrived in San Francisco, a city where bars offered the thrills of bingo. After locating a map, he spotted San Mateo, its bridge to the East Bay and its convenient location in between San Francisco and San Jose. He also learned that the county was one of the wealthiest and most well-educated in the country.
However, it was an unassuming landmark that still stands today, the tennis courts paved on top of a parking garage on 5th Avenue, that cemented his decision to settle down in this land of luxury.
“In Tennessee, they’d put (the guy with the idea for building those tennis courts) in the loony house for suggesting something like that. I said this was the place for me, because if there’s anything somebody doesn’t need to make it through life, it’s their own slot machine. You’ve got to have money on the side,” Squires says.
In 1977, Squires opened the eponymous Squires & Corrie Slot Machines in San Mateo, though his partner Glenn Corrie left the business soon after its opening to return to Chicago.
Even then the shop was an oddity, for Bally had taken over the slot machine industry after introducing the first fully electromechanical machine. The region that once housed the manufacturing powerhouses of Squires’ childhood was earning a new nickname, the Rust Belt.
Building a home for handiwork
Within the walls of Squires & Corrie, however, reverence for craftsmanship persevered. “(Squires) asks from those in his employ only that they produce the best possible jobs; there is no time limit,” the company’s website reads.
A blue-collar business with an open door, Squires & Corrie has trained young workers if they’re willing to mimic Squires’ attention to detail. One employee quit on three separate occasions, but Squires welcomed him back each time.
One of the longest-tenured members of Squires’ team was graphic arts manager Ed Mahon, a graduate of New York’s Phoenix School of Design (now part of the Pratt Institute) who was unable to find employment elsewhere. Cancer had ravaged his face and neck, and even though the disease didn’t affect his work, interviewers balked at his appearance.
Squires was stunned by Mahon’s portfolio, and the painter’s abilities complemented his mechanical expertise. Mahon started at Squires & Corrie the day after his interview and repainted machines for 36 years before his death. A chandelier from New York’s Paramount Theatre that Mahon restored still hangs from the showroom ceiling. “He told me before he died, ‘I’ll be with you until the end,'” Squires says tearfully.
Squires & Corrie’s intentional approach to its work has led to the creation of art like the aforementioned “Million Dollar Machine,” a collaboration with noted San Francisco jeweler Sidney Mobell (who once created a diamond-studded mouse trap for McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc). A 1920s Caille nude front machine, named for the lithe figure stretching overhead on its front panel, was plated in gold and set with every imaginable gemstone. Another partnership with Mobell produced a $2 million Monopoly board with hand-painted chance and community chest cards and diamond-studded golden dice.
Squires also purchased an East Bay company named 4-S Casino Party Suppliers in the mid-1980s that allowed him to lease out his slot machines for private events. At one time, 200 machines across the Bay Area paid out piles of Squires & Corrie tokens beside dice rolling across handmade craps tables.
Despite Little League fundraisers hosting hundreds of card-slinging dealers and exceptional projects, including retrofitting the entire antiques section of a museum in Munich to accept the pre-Euro currency of Deustche Marks, Squires & Corrie is a simple business.
Customers lug or ship in their machines, some wood-paneled and caked in tenaciously adhesive grime, others housing light-up decals advertising $5,000 payouts. Then, Squires & Corrie transforms them into seemingly brand-new machines (although some customers like to preserve certain signs of wear or age). Squires & Corrie provides a service, not unlike an auto mechanic or even a plumbing company.
“You turn (the machines) around, you clean them, you get them working like a watch. And then people are so happy,” Squires says. “It’s like painting a picture. But it’s a mechanical picture.”
Squires enjoys replacing metal casing dented by a thief and swapping a spinning lemon for a cherry, and he expects customers to treasure their machines like they’re works of art. When customers request an appointment for regular maintenance, Squires replies with a rapid-fire string of no’s and instructions on how to oil a one-armed bandit. “As long as you maintain your machine, it will outlast you and your children,” he says.
Searching for a successor in Stockton
However, as Squires carefully sandblasted slot machines and his workshop filled with the palpable vibrations of a milling machine, the city around him turned to designing the invisible — the software and systems underlying the modern world. This month, Squires & Corrie was forced to make way for a new development, one of several longtime San Mateo businesses displaced. The city block that housed Squires & Corrie for 45 years will likely be filled with dual-monitor setups, but Squires is headed to an expansive warehouse in Stockton crammed so tightly with parts that it will resemble a metallic maze.
Although Squires laments the loss of his longtime home, he’s enthusiastic about the move after years of frustration with the increasingly expensive Peninsula. Squires accuses the region of thinking that Lexuses hatch out of eggs and that airplanes fall from heaven.
He points out the irony of how locals have replaced woodshops with coding classrooms and steered their children away from trades, yet complain about the impossibility of finding an affordable auto repair shop. In a region struggling with housing and homelessness, Squires & Corrie will no longer be there to offer apprenticeships for job-seekers entering the store. “Stockton is like Chicago. People work, and they do all kinds of things. That’s not San Mateo anymore,” he says.
When Squires opens his doors in Stockton, he’ll discover whether he’s found a new home that shares his passion for craftsmanship and mechanical engineering, but he’ll have to recruit a new team. The pandemic forced Squires to lay off his staff, and assistant manager Kimberley Arce, the sole employee he rehired, won’t be making the move. Still, Squires says he has a whole list of interested candidates.
His 42-year-old grandson has just flown in to spend some time among the clanging discs and buzzing angle grinders of Squires & Corrie in Stockton, but it’s unknown whether he’ll want to take over the shop.
“I’ve spent 71 years in this business learning it. You can’t go to a school to learn it … I don’t want to spend 71 years, have all this knowledge in my mind, and then it goes down the tube,” Squires says.