Bowling for Fewer Dollars

St. Louis is the sport's Cooperstown, but another Walgreens closes the next-to-last alley in the city

Happy endings are scarce. Most times, all that can be hoped for is a decent severance package.

That's all Elaine and Irv Waldmann want as they prepare to sell Carriage Bowl, the 24-lane bowling alley they've owned and operated since 1979. Irv is 65, Elaine 62. The bowling business has been slowing down for years at the busy intersection of Arsenal Street and Kingshighway, just across from Tower Grove Park.

Real-estate speculators had been stopping by to ask whether the Waldmanns were interested in selling, but Elaine didn't pay much attention at first. They always thought they'd sell to someone who would take over the bowling alley. Finally, Elaine says, a real-live "broker/developer" stopped in: "I laughed and said to him, 'What are you going to do, build a Walgreens?'"

At the time it was a joke, but jokes have a way of turning out to be true. Years ago, the Walgreens at Southwest Avenue and Kingshighway, less than a half-mile north of Carriage Bowl, was built where the old Palace Bowl had closed years before. In 1996, the Walgreens at Gravois and Hampton avenues replaced Red Bird Lanes, which at the time was still open. At one time Red Bird was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

So it goes that the Waldmanns are preparing to sell to Kaplan Real Estate Co., which in turn plans a building for the site that will be leased to Walgreens. With the imminent demise of Carriage Bowl, only one of the area's more than 40 bowling alleys will be located in the city. Aside from the church lanes at Epiphany and St. Mary Magdalen and the lanes at the International Bowling Hall of Fame downtown, the only alley in the city will be at Western Lanes, 4041 Bingham Ave.

The dynamics that interacted to close Carriage Bowl are factors familiar to anyone paying attention to urban reality: Population spirals outward to the suburbs and beyond, people want to recreate close to home, income levels in the city lag behind those in the county, bowling alleys are being swallowed up by larger corporations, Walgreens opens a store a day nationally, and, well, people drive wherever they go, and they want to park real close to where they're headed.

Listening to Irv and Elaine tell it, never mind all that demographic and macroeconomic stuff: Parking did them in.

"We can't park people, so it's killing our business," says Elaine. "We're landlocked."

The problems began, or got worse, back around 1985, when the Waldmanns tried to pave a vacant lot they owned behind the bowling alley. The lot faced Odell Street and was situated across from Holy Innocents Catholic Church. At night, bowlers had been parking at the gas station next door, but a new manager of the Shell station jacked up the fee he was charging the Waldmanns for parking privileges.

"He goosed it up so high, we thought, 'That's stupid.' He's sitting over there seeing dollar signs on us, and here we have a lot sitting back there vacant that we could do something with," says Elaine. "Our people wouldn't be walking that much farther, and it'd be well lit. They could come right in the back door -- what's the big deal? Why should we pay him when we got property we can do something with?"

But the parking-lot option wasn't to be. A few neighbors objected, and the neighborhood association came out against it. Ald. Robert Ruggeri (D-24th) went along with the crowd, and the necessary city permits were denied. Even the church got into it, with the pastor at the time opposing the parking lot and going so far as to hold a special Sunday-evening Mass, noting in the church bulletin that the association maintained that the parking lot would be "detrimental to the neighborhood." Elaine, who kept the April 18, 1985, church bulletin that announced the Mass, is still steamed that the priest got involved.

"I don't understand the whole thing with Holy Innocents," Elaine says. "They have no parking. We offered them that lot for funerals, weddings, Mass on Sunday. The times we knew we wouldn't be using it, they were more than welcome to use it. Why would you not want a parking lot?"

The parking controversy dragged on for several years, and at one point bowlers started to park on the unpaved lot. Irv was summoned to court.

"The judge told me if I didn't cable off the lot so no one could park there, he'd throw my ass in jail," Irv says. When Elaine corrects her husband by saying the judge used different terminology, Irv relents but adds, "He made it clear."

So the 30 or so parking spots on the west side of Carriage Bowl were all that were available to bowlers. Eventually, some patrons started to park up at the Schnucks store about a block away.

"When we were turned down for our parking lot, that next year we lost a third of our business, league-wise," says Elaine. The leagues that used the eight lanes downstairs left. Those leagues had an easier access through the back door to the parking lot in back. "When you have the house full and you have 24 teams, five on a team, that's 120 people. Most of the people bowling downstairs were older people, couples. They're not noisy people who are going to go out and make a big disturbance."

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