Quarter Horse Bar & Arcade
108 South Mangum Street, Durham

An arcade with booze is Brandon Mise’s simple description of Durham’s new Quarter Horse Bar & Arcade, but that’s only the CliffsNotes version. Set to open within the next week, this may become your favorite hangout.

Mise has another, more ethereal explanation for the concept. “I want it to be a body experience: the music, the lights, the sounds.” Considering the new spot’s unexpected mix of rustic and tech, its eclectic music playlist, and the roughly three dozen games lining the walls, the target is surely within reach at Quarter Horse.

Mise co-owns Quarter Horse with Jon Williams and Murphy Turner. Turner is a carpenter and the primary creator of the venue’s fixtures, including the bar and d.j. station. Williams, a software developer, programs everything from pay-by-phone options to interactive lighting. Mise is an entrepreneur and occasional d.j. whose collection of games provided the venture’s spark.

The idea flickered to life in May 2015. “I had already decided that Brandon’s next business venture, unless it sounded just stupidand even if it sounded a little bit stupidI had decided the next thing he does, I want in,” Williams recalls. “I asked him what he was up to and he started talking about what he wanted to do. I was basically waiting for him to be quiet so I could say, I want a piece of that. I figured it would be something that, maybe two years later, we would start pushing that boulder.”

Wrong. By November 2015, Mise found a space to lease.

At the time, Mise and Turner had been managing a small underground arcade called Free Play, just for a group of friends. Over a year and a half, their covert arcade steadily grew and, after purchasing more and more games, the two began openly talking about starting a business. “We saw how fun it was. Then, when the Merge situation popped up, it seemed like something I couldn’t pass up.”

The “Merge situation” was the basement space in the Chapel Hill Street building that houses Merge Records. At first it seemed perfect but proved untenable, with sound traveling through the building at uncomfortably loud levels. Soundproofing was prohibitively expensive, so the project languished until the trio discovered 1,350 square feet of space available at the bottom of the Kress Building.

“It’s like the whole thing was a blessing in disguise,” Mise says. “We can fit four times as many people and have three times the size of a bar. It’s just a grander space with an option to expand.”

For now, the bar menu is a fluid concept, with game-themed specialty cocktails in the works. (Rumor has it that a Hadouken may appear, made potent by Fireball whiskey.)

Quarter Horse is starting with about fifteen pinball games, plus another twenty or so arcade games. There will also be a Steam room, but leave your towels at home; it’s not a sauna. Instead, a small room will house a screen and computer where patrons can visit the Steam gaming site, a popular online home for gamers.

Arcade games include Pole Position, Spy Hunter, and Dragon’s Lair. Pinball machines range from Jungle Lord to the Addams Family: “the first game I wanted to buy,” Mise says.

He only began collecting games about three years ago. “Space Shuttle is a family heirloom. I’d come home from college and play it in the basement and then it broke and it just sat there,” says Mise, now forty-one. His parents tried to sell it but eventually told him to take it.

Then he bought Addams Family, and from there things went exponential: “Within about six months I suddenly had like thirty games,” he says. Such a hobby isn’t cheap, but Mise had an epiphany while watching the John’s Arcade YouTube channel. The YouTuber bought a game that didn’t work for fifty dollars and set out to get it operational in an hour. “And he did. I was like, Oh my god, I could do the same thing, and so I started picking up games for between two and four hundred bucks. All of a sudden, my print shop was just wall-to-wall games.” (Mise owns the letterpress-printing greeting card company, Blue Barnhouse.)

“I kind of have an obsessive personality,” he says. “It’s just such a great feeling to find these games and make them work.”

Williams, who turned forty-one in early May, gets to flex his artistic and programming muscles at Quarter Horse. You can hear the excitement in his voice as he talks about his plans for a box of LEDs that just arrived. “They’re more expensive, but you can do a lot more with them,” he says. “There’s going to be a little bit of it everywhere.”

“Under-lighting, not in-your-face lighting,” adds Mise.

The d.j. booth equipment will be attached to the LED network, which will be synced to move in time with the music. “There’s also a chandelier concept that uses mason jars…We’ll be able to make these patterns that sort of sweep around,” he says.

All kinds of ideas are being tossed about, like a midnight madness event that essentially turns the arcade into a slot machine, with lights swirling and extra credits and prizes on offer at random games.

“It sounds crazy, but Jon can actually pull all of this stuff off. He’s got the mind to do it,” Mise says.

You may have seen proof of that on the side of a downtown Raleigh building a few years ago or at CAM during the 2013 SparkCon, when Williams and graphic designer Tim McCracken developed a project where viewers could tap a button on their phones to “fill” a projected screen with bubbles that produced silhouettes of famous faces, such as John Lennon or Biggie Smalls.

While each owner of Quarter Horse brings a specific expertise, they also want yours.

“The games are democratic, the music is democratic, we want people to choose what’s happening there,” Mise says.

Quarter Horse, Williams says, “is for Durham. We’ll create this magnet and see who gravitates to it, what particles are drawn to it.”

Quarter Horse Bar & Arcade is set to open in early June in the Kress Building, Mangum and Main streets, Durham. Visit www.quarterhorsearcade.com for updates.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Play It by Ear.”