Sunset Bowl in the Ballard neighborhood has closed after 51 years in business. While some talk of a new bowling alley to be part of the development replacing it, others mourn the loss of a community institution that can’t be easily replaced.
At Sunset Bowl, they’re getting ready for the auction.
There’s music playing—a boom box is tuned to an easy listening station—but the familiar, raucous sound of balls and pins colliding is eerily absent. There’s no lively conversation or laughter, no bursts of heckling, communal groans, applause, cheers. It’s an unsettling scene: The lanes are cluttered with wooden crates, boxes filled with shoes, stacks of sound equipment, ladders. The overhead scoreboards are unlit. The restaurant is empty. There’s not a soul in sight.
Only two weeks ago, on a Wednesday around lunchtime, it was business as usual, with the Sunset nearly full of league bowlers, mostly women. I sat down with a cup of coffee and watched, waited. Eventually the ladies took notice; at the Sunset, everybody knows everybody, so an unfamiliar face is easy to spot.
When I explained my presence, everyone I spoke to gestured toward a woman with a day-glo pink bowling ball who was wearing a sweatshirt decorated with pictures of frolicking kittens and mice. “Talk to Mary,” I was told. “She’s been here the longest. She knows the most.”
At 86, retired elementary schoolteacher Mary Pelan was one of the senior members of this league, which ranged in age from 38 to 88. Her team, the Leilani Ladies, was one of many displaced when the Leilani Lanes closed two years ago. Mary related her life history by reciting a list of all the places she’s bowled, beginning back in 1929 with Seattle Rec. Mary is the league manager—a responsibility she takes seriously, and one which requires a great deal of paperwork. She explained that this league used to have sixteen teams; now it has seven.
It’s not about being a great bowler, the women agreed; it’s about the recreation, the companionship. “If you wanna just sit home and not do anything,” one woman remarked, “you’re gonna get old real quick.”
They all expressed sorrow over the closure. “It’s so sad,” another bowler says. “How are little kids gonna get any exercise once this place is gone? What are they gonna do for fun?”
Teresa Lewis, one of the younger bowlers, started bowling in this league in 1994, after her divorce. She remarried, was recently widowed, and keeps coming because she’s inspired by the company.
“These women,” she said, gesturing toward her teammates, “they’re my heroes.”
When I return on April 16 to interview manager Verl Lowry, there are relocation notices posted on the bulletin board: The Leilani Seniors will move to Spin Alley in Shoreline; Viva Las Vegas will go to Kenmore Lanes; the 2-4-1 Lousy Bowlers have a new home at Lynwood Majestic.
Verl and I sit on a long wood bench in the now-dark video arcade. Verl’s personal relationship with this place dates back to the 1960s, when he was featured on a local kids’ TV show called The Pin-busters on Channel 13. “You bowled three or four games,” says Verl, “and if you won six weeks in a row, you were the champion. In the two years that show was on the air, there were only a couple of champions, and I was one of them. I won that championship here, at the Sunset.”
Verl talks about the way the Sunset evolved into a true community center because of its central location. “People drove by and walked by and got off the bus right in front of our door. Here was a spot where you could pull in for a pop, or if it was pouring down rain, instead of going to the Locks you could say, ‘Let’s go bowling.'” He talks about the fellow who lives in his car and came in every day to use the free wi-fi to check e-mail, about the lonely, the disenfranchised, the folks who simply needed a place to go. “After awhile—because over 25 percent of our staff has worked here for 20 years or more—everybody knew them by name.”
An older gentleman comes in. “Pretty quiet in here,” he says, loudly. “Quiet enough you could hear a pin drop.” His delivery is so deadpan that it’s hard to tell if he’s making a joke. “One of the guys sent me an e-mail that we had one more lunch here today, but obviously he goofed up. It looks like it’s done.”
Verl informs me that a group of men—”They’re all retired railroad”—come into the restaurant every week. “How many years have you guys been eating lunch here on Wednesday?” he asks.
Verl repeats his question.
“Oh, God! Helluva long time! Well over 10 years, maybe closer to 20. I don’t know if you’re blaming us that you’re dying, but before we started coming here we killed off at least three other restaurants in Ballard.”
It’s obvious that places like Sunset Bowl are much more than business ventures; they contribute to the narrative of so many lives and represent a community’s heart and soul. However, bowling alleys take up a lot of real estate, and eventually the monetary value of the land they occupy outstrips the less-easily quantifiable value of the communities they create.
Referencing Ray Oldenburg’s landmark book, The Great Good Place, visionary developer, civic activist, and Third Place bookstore owner Ron Sher says, “Bowling alleys are definitely ‘third places.’ They become a center for people, a place you can go where you know everybody. As it stands, there’s no legal obligation to preserve these places. There’s a moral one, but until we find a way to incentive these builders, create things like tax abatements, offer bonuses for developing the area in a certain way, it’s not going to happen.”
The impending closure of the Sunset has ignited an especially vigorous outcry from the community, resulting in a “Save the Sunset” petition which, according to The Seattle Times, gathered 3,400 signatures. What is it about bowling alleys that engender such strong feelings?
Sher notes that “some folks need an activity of some kind in order to forge friendships. I used to have a friend who was a little odd, a bit difficult to engage in conversation, but whenever I suggested that we go clear out the barn together, we could finally talk! It’s the old ‘stand and kick gravel’ approach. Some people need activity in order to connect.”
Echoing this idea, Verl says, “You can’t take a group of people to a movie and socialize, or to a golf course, but when you’re here, you can have a beer, you can have a milkshake, you can have a cup of coffee, you can play pull tabs, you can play video games, you can bowl. It’s about the fun, and making fun of each other. People enjoy doing that. You have all these options, but you’re still together. You’re still with your group.”
I mention the petition and ask Verl what he thinks about the idea of building another bowling alley on this site as part of a condo development. Will the same people come? Will they have the same experience?
His answer is emphatic. “No. No. You could never get the combination of employees that we had, the people. It will turn into a cocktail lounge with a bowling center. There are no leagues in those kinds of places—and very few families and kids, because they’re very expensive.”
Verl reminisces about watching folks bowl during the last week of the Sunset’s operation: “Down here, you got a family bowling. You got some little kids down here with their dad. Over there you have a bunch of teenage kids. And so on. And this kind of thing was going on every day. It was amazing. To see it, the people.” It strikes me that, without every using that modern buzzword, diversity¸ Verl has just described a social utopia realized, an experience that most of us are actively seeking—for our families in our communities, for our children in our schools—but rarely experience.
As if on cue, an unshaven man wanders in and stands a few feet away, watching us, unspeaking.
“That’s Eddy,” Verl says quietly. “Eddy was one of our employees.” Raising his voice, Verl asks, “How long were you working here Eddy?”
Eddy’s response is difficult to understand; Verl translates. “Eleven years, that’s right. Eddy started comin’ here 30 years ago. How old were you 30 years ago, Eddy?”
“That’s right; he was 14 when I came to work here. He lives up the street and he walks here. He was a real good customer, and then he lost his job at the UW and we hired him. How many hours a week did you work for us, Eddy?”
“Forty, yeah. So he had a 401K, he had medical, he had vacation. I guess he’s gonna work over at Ballard Market. They’re gonna try to teach him to be a bagger. Something in the neighborhood so he can walk, ’cause he has problems taking the bus.”
Before leaving, I shared the fact that, as a resident of North Seattle, I frequently drive by the former site of Leilani lanes, where the sign that reads “GOODBYE” stands in front of a huge tract of vacant land which is once again up for sale. I asked Verl how he’ll feel when he drives by the Sunset and sees a similar sight.
Verl shakes his head. “You know what?” he says quietly. “I live up in Woodinville. I won’t be driving by.”
[ article first published april 23, 2008 on crosscut seattle, “news of the great nearby;” reprinted with permission. ]