By Mollie Davis
Crowded with fine pool and Ping-Pong tables, retro slot machines, and embellished lamps and light fixtures, Poolsharks and Mermaids definitely lives up to the quirkiness of its name. The walls are covered in vintage tin signs and neon lights, touting the classic brand name gaming equipment regularly stocked. One of the few Olhausen retailers in Georgia, owner Lee Martin is proud to carry the historic American-made tables and supplies, as well as his impressive collection of mermaid memorabilia. But the real treasure here is Martin himself, a third generation business owner, Macon native and College Hill Corridor entrepreneur.
The people of Macon have turned to the Martin family for their entertainment needs for almost a century. In the early 1900s, his grandfather C.I. Martin got his start as a travelling salesman supplying downtown watering-holes with slot machines and coin-operated games. Today, four generations of gaming specialists, master tinkerers, and collectors have passed along the family practice, and now Lee Martin and his son are carrying on their legacy with their business located in the heart of the College Hill Corridor.
While attending college at Mercer University in the 1960s, Martin and Phil Walden, music industry legend and Macon native, were roommates and good friends. With excited remembrance, Martin described their above-garage apartment and the flat black painted walls. The two windows at the top and bottom of the landing stairs Walden painted like stained glass, Martin recalled, so that a myriad of colors and shapes outlined in thick black paint shown in the sun. “Phil was a truly talented artist in so many ways,” he reminisced. From the outside, desk lamps placed on the handrail illuminated the glass at night and poured color into their apartment, giving their humble man-cave the ambience of a cathedral.
The “Sin Den Inn,” as they dubbed it, often also housed their friend and Walden’s business partner, Otis Redding, who would crash on the sofa after a night playing at fraternity parties or local venues downtown. Martin’s father owned a vacant farmhouse in Monroe County where the three friends would throw house parties with Johnny Jenkins & the Pine Toppers. Martin recalled that Redding and Walden were inseparable. “Otis was a very special talent, who just can’t be replaced,” recalled Martin, looking into the distance. “He and Phil were the closest friends.”
After finishing his education at Mercer, Lee Martin went to work with his dad, eventually purchasing their Hardeman Avenue building in 1976. Then called Martin Amusement, the building was filled with coin-operated arcade machines until 1998 when they transitioned into a retail business specializing in pool tables and supplies. Since then Martin has welcomed gaming enthusiasts from all over the Southeast who seek out his wide selection of Olhousen pool tables or his expert restoration skills with vintage and collectible machines. The back storeroom of his one-story building is stocked full of miscellaneous coils, plugs, caps and other bits of equipment as well as projects in the process of restoration. Here faded paints return to their original luster and rusted parts are made like new, and each historic piece finds new life in Martin’s workshop.
Like the machines that he brings back to life, Martin has worked with equal diligence to improve the Macon community his family has called home for so many generations. From his tucked away spot on one of Macon’s main roadways, he often grimaced watching vehicle pile-ups at the intersection of Hardeman and Monroe Street. The busy intersection was once one of the most dangerous in Macon, and Martin took it upon himself to find a way to fix the problem. “Macon has the highest pedestrian death rate in the state of Georgia, higher than Atlanta, per capita, and people need to know,” he states bleakly.
Martin has always been attached to Macon, and has taken a personal stake in community efforts to increase safety by attending community forums and meetings and corresponding regularly with state and local officials. A transportation activist for 15 years and co-founder of CAUTION Macon (Citizens Against Unnecessary Thoroughfares in Our Neighborhoods) Martin has a vision of a safer, more walkable Corridor and downtown. As drivers whiz by his storefront at speeds over 50 MPH, just outside downtown Macon, Martin recognizes dangers to people walking from home, school, or around town. “Our streets are built for speed, not for pedestrians.”
In the early 2000s Martin seized an opportunity to improve the safety near his business by lobbying for the traffic light at Hardeman and Monroe, going as far as to offer to pay for its installation himself. Since it was installed, he’s noticed dramatically fewer accidents and more efficient traffic flow in the area and is optimistic about new ideas for increasing pedestrian safety throughout the Corridor.
Delighted about the new Lofts at College project coming in behind the post office, Martin is especially hoping to see more people walking out and about in the area. In addition, he’s sure the retail and housing options will force traffic to slow down on Forsyth, making the area safer to those who walk to work or school. Until then, you can probably find him emailing and meeting with city leaders to improve the walkability of the Corridor or buried away in the back room tinkering on a pinball machine or a rare jukebox. He seems content to share his story when asked, or just to pick persimmons in the parking lot and continue his family’s work with gaming machines. So whether you’re in the market for a new pool table or just hungry for a good story, it’s worth slowing by on Hardeman and pulling in at Pool Sharks & Mermaids, a proud longtime business in the College Hill Corridor.