Up until August of last year, Eric Wells worked as a bartender at Bay View Bowl in Milwaukee. “I’ve worked at so many bars around the country and it was the greatest job I’ve ever had. I love that place so much,” he says, adding that he made more there than any other prior service industry postings. In addition to pouring standard well drinks, bartenders at Bay View are in charge of manning the fryer for items like corn dogs and chicken strips; needless to say, it was a busy job. Wells had many regulars who came just for the bar and for what he describes as its cast of characters.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Bay View Bowl temporarily closed. But by June, Wells had gone back to work: “It was a nightmare.” At first, he comforted himself with the fact that his bar was sequestered from the lanes, allowing him to (mostly) keep six feet away from the action. But he soon found that the responsibility to get people to wear masks fell on the employees. “No hate on Wisconsin — I love it — but in my experience, Wisconsinites don’t want to wear masks,” he says. Asking customers to wear theirs not only dramatically affected Wells’s tips, but, he says, had the potential to escalate into a dangerous situation. By the end of the summer, the anxiety had become insurmountable and he left his job. Still, he hopes that when COVID-19 is no longer a threat, he’ll return to Bay View Bowl. “Neighborhood bowling alleys have a total lack of pretension in the best way. It’s just a dive bar,” he says. “Though we got a lot of serious bowlers who came all time, a lot of people were there to just have fun.”
Bowling alleys were already in a precarious position before the pandemic hit. And unlike other recreational sports venues or even other types of bars, the interior nature of bowling alleys is less adaptable to the constraints of COVID-19. Nevertheless, some business owners are trying to make it work in this new landscape.
Some bowling alleys have closed off every other lane, added HEPA filters, used capacity limits, assigned bowling balls, and required masks unless one is drinking or eating in their individual section; some have even tried adding outdoor patios. In June 2020, Highland Park Bowl — Los Angeles’s oldest bowling alley — began to offer its drinks menu and pizza for pickup, and launched a new merch collaboration with Gudetama, the Japanese egg cartoon. While the music venue, bar, and bowling alley Brooklyn Bowl — and its locations in Nashville, Las Vegas, and, yes, Brooklyn — remain closed, the team has kept entertainment alive through the pandemic via concert live streams. Even for successful operators like Brooklyn Bowl co-owner Charley Ryan, streamlined food and drink menus are likely on deck after reopening. “We serve a menu by Blue Ribbon, which isn’t your typical bowling alley food. It requires a lot of prep work,” he says, adding that there may be fewer menu items available, albeit temporarily.
Meanwhile, for those that are currently open, it appears the best hope bowling alleys have to last the winter is to either offer indoor bowling — and potentially put bowlers and employees at risk — or bank on customers dropping by to eat in some kind of socially distanced manner with lanes closed. Operators who choose to close for the winter, on the other hand, stand to lose what is often considered to be the most lucrative season for bowling — some, but not all, will be able to last by hibernating. What happens to communities if the bowling alleys that still exist go under?
In a 1995 essay called “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” political scientist Robert D. Putnam documented the decline in the country’s bowling leagues, which he connects to diminishing social engagement (in addition to the decline in beer and pizza sales for the alleys themselves). While much has changed since the essay was written, communal outings continue to be central to the bowling experience — whether or not people are part of official leagues. And to expand that business, many newer alleys tried to attract a certain kind of consumer: ones who don’t necessarily have a deep, abiding love of the sport.
Bowling alleys are now multidisciplinary spaces in ways they haven’t been before. Some have bars and dining rooms that stray from familiar bowling-alley fare, such as the Bay Area’s Castro Valley Bowl, with its casual Thai and Laotian stand, Lucky Lane 33 Cafe. Others have Chuck E. Cheese-esque game centers outfitted with pinball and arcade games. The mini-chain Uncle Buck’s Fishbowl + Grill features gimmicky aquarium-themed lanes to match a seafood menu. Some bowling alleys zeroed in on fancy menus and pricey cocktails; a 2019 Bloomberg article documented new-wave bowling chains such as Pinstripes, based in the Chicago suburbs, which at the time offered a $32 espresso-crusted filet mignon.
But while U.S. bowling alleys have become as much about grabbing a bite and drink as they are about knocking down pins, mom-and-pop bowling alleys — enjoyable, in part, because they are largely trend-averse — are becoming harder to find. For young people, and for people who can’t or don’t want to spend a lot of money, these bowling alleys are rare all-age-friendly spaces that foster fun without requiring visitors to spend a lot. They are the “third spaces” that provide a place to go outside the workplace or home for birthday parties, dates, after-work drinks, or simply when there is nothing else on deck that night. Whether at newer upscale alleys or the tried-and-true classic alleys, the pandemic discourages going bowling with a big group. And many casual bowling fans likely won’t come at all.
In November, Jim Decker, the president of the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America, told Inside Hook that 90 percent of the nation’s bowling centers were able to reopen in late summer or early fall of 2020. But this winter’s COVID-19 surge may well prompt more operators to call it quits. Real estate developers have long had their eyes on bowling alleys for their sprawling square footage, and, unfortunately, the financial toll of COVID-19 may tempt some owners to sell or vacate their lease.
In Chicago, the historic Southport Lanes & Billiards closed in September 2020 after a 98-year run. At the time, owner Steve Soble told Eater Chicago that “Southport Lanes is really about the community getting together, and when you take away these communal spaces and you’re not able to do that safely, it’s really hard to make it work.” Also in September, a Pittsfield, Massachusetts, bowling alley, Ken’s Bowl, closed; now, a company plans to demolish the site and build a weed cultivation facility. Just like that, the community lost one of its main nightlife venues. Alexa Green, a Pittsfield local, describes Ken’s Bowl as a form of “security.” As her friends and family ventured out into the world and returned home over the years, Ken’s was the place that brought them back together. “Sure, there’s the nostalgia, but the real value was the rare, healthy escape from the complications of life,” she says.
There’s more at stake than the livelihoods of business owners and their employees, as communities have long seen when local alleys shutter. In August 2019, a Bethesda, Maryland, bowling alley considered to be an “anchor” for veterans shut its doors, citing money-related pressures and a decrease in customers. Veterans of all stripes gathered at the bowling alley, which opened in 1979, to say their goodbyes: For them, the business was a way to re-enter civilian life, offering a therapeutic release. “I know that this bowling alley has saved multiple lives, including my own,” Michael Marquette, a retired Navy corpsman medic, told a local news outlet. Marquette suffered from PTSD; the bowling alley was one of the few places he frequented outside of his home.
For Simone Leitner, not being able to bowl has put one of her most treasured ways of socializing on hold. Before the pandemic, she co-hosted the Brooklyn-based queer comedy night Open Flame and had found a home away from home at Sunset Park’s Melody Lanes, where she loved to take dates and friends. “I love bowling for a first date because you can tell a lot about a person from it,” she says. “If it’s a miserable experience, it’s probably going to be a miserable match.” As America’s lack of lesbian bars left queer women with few dedicated spaces to have fun and relax, Leitner hoped to start a queer bowling league. “Bowling presents an unpretentious and goofy atmosphere to meet people over a drink,” she says.
Professional bowlers, too, are wondering how to keep the spirit of togetherness that bowling can foster alive for their own communities. Gazmine “GG” Mason, a three-time Team USA gold medalist, lives in Rhode Island, where, she says, she has been lucky to still get in some practice at her local lanes during the pandemic. But tournaments have been called off, and, in the meantime, she’s focusing on Black Girls Can Bowl 2, the organization that she launched in 2017 to bring more representation to the sport. She’s been keeping in touch with her group via social media and Zoom, remaining a mentor to the young Black women in the program. “I wanted people to feel they could reach out … ask for advice, or talk about anything else in their lives,” she says. “We’re going to have their back no matter what. We’re not alone.”
It’s just one more way COVID-19 has threatened old-school bowling alleys. The feeling of connection and stability that bowling alleys provide — the camaraderie inherent in bowling itself — will be sorely needed after we emerge from our collective isolation. In spite of the challenges, new bowling alleys have opened during the pandemic, and with the vaccine already being administered, a glimmer of hope is on the horizon. Whether they’re places to bowl or drink or eat, America’s bowling alleys could play an integral part in bringing us back together. If they can’t make it through this winter, if federal and local aid doesn’t come through, or if it comes through too late, many communities will lose what Alexa Green lost when Ken’s Bowl closed: a place to go where “you could get a reprieve from that foreboding rent bill for an hour.”
Emma Orlow is a writer for Eater, Grub Street, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, and Bon Appétit (among others), where she covers the intersection of the food and design worlds.