How A Group Of Hartford Residents Bought A Bowling Alley And Became Stewards Of A Community Experience
May 28, 2006
Commentary By Christine Palm
The New York Times recently reported that the fastest-growing high school varsity sport is not soccer, football or basketball - it's bowling. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, the number of schools with varsity bowling teams doubled in the past five years. Today, nearly 40,000 high schoolers compete regularly on teams. And in our popular culture, retro-chic images of bowling abound - happy bowlers are featured in ads for everything from cellphones to sodas.
How to explain, then, that The Alley is closing?
Six years ago, I was among a group of city residents who got together to save this landmark in Hartford's West End (formerly known as Farmington Avenue Duckpin and Mark Twain Lanes). Three dozen families chipped in money, ideas and elbow grease. We bought, and then renovated, the 60-year-old duckpin bowling alley where we'd seen so many of our kids grow up.
We planned to sell it after a couple of years to a younger entrepreneur with ideas, energy and some investment capital.
This spring, all the signs seemed right: strong housing sales, several new restaurants in the neighborhood, a plan for improving Farmington Avenue and citywide momentum. Despite this optimism, we can't find a buyer.
We Alley partners are a strange amalgam: several lawyers, stockbrokers, a school nurse, a few doctors, teachers, architects, some artists, a writer and a dedicated gadfly or two. Despite our professional accomplishments, we've learned there's nothing quite like adding, "Oh, yeah, I also own a bowling alley," to stop cocktail partygoers dead in their tracks. (Unless it's a West End cocktail party, in which case chances are pretty good the person you're talking to owns one, too.)
Were we dilettantes? Sure. A bit naive? Maybe. Am I ashamed of it? Not a bit.
Truth is, none of us was cut out to run a bowling alley once we got it off the ground. But we knew this going into the deal, and to borrow a line from the Peace Corps, it's been the hardest job we've ever loved. We've loved doing it because we love our community.
We learned, often the hard way, about running a retail establishment. One of the first things we did when we took over the joint was to rip out the video and pinball machines. Turned out to be a mistake and, two years later, we put them back in. We bought an expensive cappuccino maker, but our diehard league members missed their old joe, and so we hauled the 20-year-old Mr. Coffee out of the closet. We started out selling healthful muffins and ended up giving folks what they really wanted - french fries. We took turns running down to The Alley in our pajamas every time a raccoon set off the burglar alarm.
But we did lots of things right, too. We enlisted the enthusiasm of a cooperative landlord who understood the vagaries of our cash flow. We trained our staff to act as though the customer is always right - even when he isn't.
We retained John Gorman, a national duckpin champion, to be our resident pro and mechanical troubleshooter. We hired a hardworking young woman to be our manager, and when she became pregnant, we accommodated her schedule so she could continue to work toward her college degree. Baby in tow, she helped us build a loyal clientele who not only like what we stand for, but like to bowl.
We decided not to install a computerized scorekeeping system, and so instead of staring into a screen, kids are using stubby pencils to do their own math.
We've catered to children who skipped in one day in party hats and then shuffled back in a few years later as teenagers on a first date.
We've garnered lots of notice: The Alley was featured in the national news. It inspired cartoonist Bill Griffith to feature us in a "Zippy" comic strip. Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone," came to visit, wrote about us, and uses The Alley as an example in his lectures.
We've partnered with such groups as Hartford Children's Theatre, West End youth sports leagues, Immanuel Congregational Church and the Department of Children and Families to give city kids something inexpensive and fun to do. (When the city told us it could no longer afford the $3,000 mini-grant to run our summer youth program, we kept the doors open and ran it out of our own pockets.)
We've held dances, concerts, poetry slams and political shindigs. We've created a place where it's not unusual to see Trinity College students bowl next to truckers, or to hear an awkward, tender exchange between a corporate executive and a kid from a foster home when the balls they're using hop onto each other's lanes.
We've watched, amused, as customer after customer acknowledged that yes, getting a high score with the little balls is much, much harder than doing well on a 10-pin lane.
Most of us remain convinced that bowling could be one of the things this cash-strapped city needs. No one is claiming that bowling is a strenuous workout, but it is a way to get sedentary kids moving. Many new magnet schools have no athletic fields, so bowling seems a natural fit.
How many sports can claim bowling's other virtues? There are no manicured fields to maintain, no expensive shower rooms and no cracked ribs. And you can talk and play music while you bowl, wear hip two-toned shoes and improve your math skills keeping score in that arcane point system bowlers insist on using.
In the life of any business and neighborhood, there are signposts that mark how far you've come. When we first opened The Alley, we had among us a group of eager, honest young teenagers who became master multi-taskers: Our sons and daughters learned to fix jammed pin-setting machines, comfort frazzled mothers, answer phones, work the cash register, teach the secrets of keeping score, haggle with suppliers and deejay a dance. Often, they did several of these at once, and we watched, amazed, as they grew into responsible young adults who handled requests - strange and quotidian - with grace, tact and efficiency.
The Alley was theirs - a subterranean clubhouse where they hung out in safety with their friends, played music as loudly as they wanted to and made a little money at the same time. For most of them, it beat bagging groceries. But now the oldest members of this homegrown workforce are graduating from college, and some of us are nearing the end of our child-rearing days.
The Alley is one of these children. It's for sale, ready to be reared by someone with spirit and ambition.
Someone who feels, as deeply as we do, that within every vibrant city there will always be smaller communities of people eager to spend time together - preferably in cool-looking shirts and shoes.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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