Bowling Loses Its Grip -- Where Have All The Alleys Gone? Only 5 Remain In Former Pin-Crazy Seattle

Meet Tony Fabatz. He's possessed. In the basement of his Seattle home, the 80-year-old man has a bowling museum, of sorts.

He has kept almost every scorecard of his long career, filing them away in dusty cabinet drawers. There are old bowling balls, bowling shirts and bowling bags. There are even small bowling pins on his address labels.

Mr. Fabatz feels duty bound to bowl. It fills him with purpose and even a sense of patriotism, putting him in league with a host of other great Americans, including Archie Bunker, Richard Nixon and Fred Flintstone.

So why, he wonders, aren't more people upset that Village Lanes, one of only five remaining bowling alleys in Seattle, might call it quits.

"This bowling alley is the center of the community here," he says of the University Village area, where Village Lanes is a local landmark.

Long before there was a QFC, Starbucks or Fast Lady Sports, there was a curved roof and four red letters admonishing folks to B O W L. But now there is a sign posted near the old brown building, advising patrons it might be sold and demolished. Office Depot is interested in building a superstore there, adding another link in its 350-store chain.

That paper clips could be more popular (or at least profitable) than bowling pins says something of American society today. Thirty years ago, Seattle supported 23 bowling centers. They were epicenters of community activity. Today there are five and counting


People, it seems, would rather do other things than throw a 12- to 16-pound ball at 10 chunks of wood and then jump around in hysterics at the wonder of it all. What has happened to our priorities and communities today?

"I'm very unhappy about it," says Judy Lovett, a normally upbeat woman who can't imagine losing the place where she has socialized for the past 14 years with the other senior bowlers she sees weekly. "I hope we don't lose the friends we have here. It's almost like losing your home."

She'll miss the 32 lanes, pathways to more excitement than anything you'll see on TV - which is how a good many people are spending their spare time, and did someone say spare?

Lovett approaches the lane with confidence and verve. Bowling styles, like fingerprints, are individually unique. Lovett has a little kick that helps her telepathically propel the ball to the last standing pin and CLACK, it's a spare! She throws her arms up, waving, over a big smile and a small skip.

"Want my autograph?" she calls to the admiring and cheering group behind her.

"All of us, who could be in rocking chairs, have a good time down here," she adds. "You make so many good friends."


But friendships don't pay the bills.

"Bowling in this location is not profitable," says Ron Robertson, manager and part-owner of Village Lanes. "The owners have been interested in selling for 10 years."

So bowling, the Spam of sports, might take another hit in Seattle. The center sits on prime real estate, and property taxes are climbing. Plus, the old is giving way to new in University Village, where Lamonts is being replaced by an Eddie Bauer and Barnes & Nobles bookstore complex, and Starbucks recently opened 3,300 square feet of foamy coffee drinks.

Can bowling survive in such an environment? Its blue-collar roots suggest otherwise. In 1958, when Village Lanes was transformed from a roller rink (the largest one west of the Mississippi) to a bowling center, Seattle was a working-class town. Men toiled at Boeing and most women stayed home with the kids.

That was fine, especially when mothers discovered there was more to everyday life than making peanut-butter sandwiches. There was bowling! Not only did it offer fun, excitement and spirited competition, it also had free day care. What? Someplace to ditch the kids for an hour? The morning leagues boomed.

"We would have as much business before 4 p.m. as we would at night," says Robertson. "There were oodles and oodles of them (women bowlers)."

While the kids pummeled each other in a play area, under careful supervision of a caretaker, of course, the moms bowled their mornings away, inspired by the sport itself and the friendship found over a score sheet and cheap coffee. This went on for a decade until women started abandoning bowling for the workplace, the first giant migration away from the sport.

Today, other and perhaps more insidious forces are at work as local bowling alleys compete with these separatist trends:

-- Watching TV. American families now watch an average of seven hours a day.

-- The personal-fitness craze. At least 32,000 people are members in Seattle clubs, twice the number of league bowlers in the area.

-- Commitaphobia, the general unwillingness of people to commit to anything, for fear that something better might come along, or that they won't have the time for it.

"Young people don't want to commit to something every Tuesday night for 32 weeks," says Robertson. "I'm telling you now, it's changed. When I got out of high school in 1951, I found out I was a joiner."

He, like others of his generation, was attracted to team play, bound by competition, duty to colleagues, and matching bowling shirts. Corny as it might sound today, there was a bond among players who took their team responsibilities seriously. If you got a better offer on Tuesday night, too bad; the Unholy Rollers needed you!

People today are more independent. "Dads used to get their sons on a bowling team," Robertson says. "That family unit and tie is broken now."


The demise of the nuclear family has been blamed for many things, but can bowling leagues be included among its victims? Robertson is not alone in thinking so.

Last month, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam made a big splash with a paper called "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital." In it he argued that civic involvement was the key to this country's moral and competitive strength, and the erosion of that involvement was deteriorating our social fabric.

The decline of bowling leagues, he wrote, symbolized the decline of American society as we know it today.

Few bowlers were aghast, perhaps because they aren't great readers of the Journal of Democracy. But within days of the article's publication (in Vol. 6, No. 1), "Bowling Alone" was being debated on National Public Radio and trumpeted by syndicated columnists. If Putnam was right, the very core of American democracy was at risk and all because a few bowlers had retired their team bowling shirts.

Well, more than a few. League bowling is down throughout Seattle and the country, for all the reasons of societal isolationism Putnam cited in his tome and the stiff competition among leisure-time activities. In the past 15 years, there has been a 50 percent plunge in league membership, down from 9 million nationwide in 1979 to 4.6 million last year.

But that doesn't mean bowling is on its last pin. Although league bowling is down, open bowling is up as more individuals, office parties and fund-raising groups find their way to bowling lanes. And while bowling has declined in the city, it remains strong in some suburbs. In 1994, a record 80.9 million people bowled in the U.S. - more than the number who voted in congressional races. And who said democracy was at risk?!

Yet the increase in people "bowling alone" doesn't make Putnam feel better about the state of society - and more practically, it doesn't offset the loss of repeat league bowlers, the bread and butter of bowling alleys.

"Years ago, in the Archie Bunker years, about 70 percent were league bowlers," says Greg Olsen, executive director of the Washington State Bowling Proprietors' Association. "Now it's 50-50."

To compensate, bowling centers have tried all sorts of gimmicks to bring in new income, including shorter league seasons, automated scoring, and bumper bowling for kids, in which pads are run along each lane, to prevent those discouraging gutter balls. But the biggest gimmick of all is gambling. Pull tabs have become a familiar sight at many bowling alleys.

At Sunset Bowl in Ballard, for example, the pull-tab counter fills with regulars, bent intently over their small, tidy stacks of cardboard promises. Judy Reed, the Vanna White of pull-tab operators, dips her long arm into glass bowls, extracting tabs and wishing luck to the hopeful players.

"Most (bowling lanes) are doing as well financially, because of gambling," says Olsen. "They've been able to weather the storm. Gambling has allowed them to modernize and put in automatic-scoring systems, but it hasn't let them expand."

Nor has it erased their blue-collar reputation.

"Bowling has always had an image problem," says Steve Force, general manager of All Star Lanes in Silverdale, Kitsap County. "They're dark, damp, smoke-filled - just crummy like that. In a lot of places that's a fair evaluation. If 25 percent of the population now smokes, I look around bowling and probably well over 50 percent still smoke."

All Star Lanes is located in military country, where there's still a strong attachment to the sport. Within a 20-mile radius of Silverdale, for example, there are four public bowling centers and two more on the Bangor submarine base and the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Bowling and brass still mix.

But in Seattle, bowling balls have been replaced with wrecking balls, or at least by new tenants.

The old eight-lane center on North 85th Street in Greenwood is now a commercial printing plant. Holly Park Lanes in South Seattle became a bingo hall. Rainier Lanes in the Rainier Valley was converted to a giant laundry facility for the University of Washington Medical Center. Sky Lane Bowl near Boeing Field is an Eagles Fraternal Order (and the roof still leaks) and Palladium Bowl, at 12500 Aurora Ave. N., is now an electric company.

"Geographically, I'm driving myself around the city," says Olsen, trying to recall other lanes that have closed. "Frontier Lanes on Holman Road. It's a 12-story condo now."


Little wonder that some proprietors have succumbed to controversial practices designed to raise scores and hook bowlers.

Most lanes are oiled to protect the surface from pounding bowling balls. But the way in which they're oiled can have a significant impact on a rolling ball.

If more oil is applied to the center, it creates an invisible berm that helps straighten curve balls otherwise headed for the gutter. There are regulations governing the amount of oil applied to lanes, but who's going to enforce that? Heavy oiling has become the norm in some bowling alleys, slowly inflating scores and enticing bowlers to stay with the sport.

"In the old days when you hit 200, you were God," says Andy Shiels, the mechanic and oil man at Sunset Bowl. "Now, in two to three years, some guy can learn to hook the ball just right, with the right ball, and score 200. People come to expect high scoring."

Plus, two holes are now drilled inside of pins to change their center of gravity so they'll fly more. And balls are designed to hit with greater impact, also increasing scores.

"That's not bowling," Shiels complains. "That's a striking contest."

He says this from a workshop behind the lanes, a tinkerer's paradise with oil cans, hammers, wrenches and springs, all cluttered around a long wooden work bench.

Outside, the lanes are operated by belts, cams and levers, old machines designed by the Otis Elevator company. Conveyers lift and drop the heavy pins, noisily but not flawlessly.

"Oop, I got a jam down here," Shiels says, his spidery frame darting off across the top of the machines, stooping to correct a twisted pin.

"This is '40s technology married to the computer," he says when he returns.

"It creates some interesting problems. But they're built to last and nothing today is built like that."

And that, it seems, is the story here. Bowling alleys once dotted the local landscape, their curved roofs rising like ant hills with a buzz of activity inside. No more. If Village Lanes vanishes, that's a strike against Seattle's civility, and did somebody mention strike?

Judy Lovett turns again toward the lane, her small body framed by a big wall mural featuring Mount Rainier and two campers. She could talk all day about this wonderful place, but something more pressing demands her attention.

"I gotta bowl, honey," she says, and rolls 12 pounds of pure fun into the past.