Jukebox Hero

MAYFIELD – John Papa has a passion for jukeboxes and penny-arcade games that borders on obsession.

When he describes how he first encountered a collectible vintage jukebox, he calls it the “episode that changed my life.” He was in New?York City selling leather for his family’s company, and that’s when he saw it, a restored 1946 Wurlitzer jukebox, a glowing iconic machine, compete with a “bubbler cabinet.”

“They were built after World War II ended.?It’s a happy jukebox, the bubbles are like champaign bubbles,” he said.

From that moment on, Papa was “completely enamored” with the vintage machines.

“When you talk about getting bit by something and having almost a disease, that’s how it’s been. I would look at pictures and I’d be like, ‘I’ve got to have one of those,'”?he said. “I am a little obsessive-compulsive. When I was a kid, I had a lot of obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I wouldn’t step on a crack when I walked to school, and I really think that’s how my obsessive-compulsive nature manifested itself into this collecting thing, whatever it is, because I’ve noticed a lot of other dealers are also a little obsessive-compulsive. They have the same reaction to these machines that I do.”

After his first encounter with a jukebox, Papa said he placed a classified add in The Leader-Herald looking for antique jukeboxes and included his phone number. He said he quickly realized there were thousands of broken antique jukeboxes out there that could be purchased cheaply and then resold to collectors for thousands of dollars.

But when he started, he had no idea what he was doing. He had to learn how to rebuild the machines.

This was an accidental career for Papa. He had been groomed from a young age to take over his family’s leather business, Mario Papa and Sons. He had earned an accounting degree from Alfred University and then a master of business administration from New Hampshire University. He said he ran his family’s company for about 10 years before they sold it.

Papa said after the sale, he had some money, but no career.

“I didn’t have to worry about my next meal, but [the leather business] was done. I had to find a vocation. I had three kids and a wife and I needed a source of income,” he said.

Papa said most people doubted he could succeed in the jukebox-restoration business, a niche with few successful businesses.

“There were a lot of naysayers, and we proved them wrong,” he said.

Papa said one person who didn’t doubt him was his father, who told him “to go for it” and even helped him buy some of his first jukeboxes to restore.

Papa said it took him about five years, but eventually, he established his company,?National Jukebox Exchange, as a serious player in the coin-operated collectible antiques world.

He said his company, which is also a dealer for modern computer hard-drive jukeboxes manufactured by Rock-Ola, sells several hundred jukeboxes a year, the cheapest of them going for about $4,000. He also has 12 major restoration customers who send him large collections of jukeboxes and penny-arcade games that he restores at various levels of cost, depending on the jobs. He has two full-time employees and one part-timer. As a unit, they do very complex restoration and reproduction work.

National Jukebox Exchange operates out of Papa’s home on Lakeside Drive in Mayfield. The operation has taken over a huge portion of his property, including a 5,000-square-foot barn full of his restoration inventory.

He said he’s had some good business years and some bad ones, particulary since the economy crashed in 2008, but he said he’s always been able to make payroll and keep the operation going.

One aspect of his business that he’s stopped, for now, is the reproduction of vintage penny-arcade games. He said about 10 years ago, he decided to reproduce 12 “Mills Submarine Lung Testers,” a penny-arcade game he calls “the holy grail” of such games because no known examples still exist.

“If somebody found one of those, they could sell it for a million dollars,” he said.

Papa’s company built 12 reproductions of the machine, and they sold at a trade show for $25,000 each.

“They are in museums all over the world now. David Copperfield has one; it’s his favorite machine,” Papa said.

After his success with that machine, Papa reproduced other rare penny-arcade games and had great success selling them until the recession hit.

He re-created a machine he wasn’t able to sell every reproduction of.?He said an ethical reproduction company has to hold on to excess inventory instead of discounting it to maintain the value of the piece for the customers who did buy it.

Doug Cain, president of the Coin Operated Collectors Association, said Papa is known as an “extremely honest” dealer in the coin-operated collectors market.

“He is certainly one of the top restorer-dealers in the United States,” Cain said.

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