Bowling Alone

Arcade Lanes is nothing fancy, and Jim Lampson likes it that way. Could this faded jewel be the best bowling alley on earth?

Of course, it hasn't been the same since Odie died in 1993 of diabetic complications -- the end came after five heart attacks in four days. Even today, a stranger can't talk to Lampson for five minutes before he mentions "Mother dear," and that's when his tough-guy persona melts.

After doctors amputated one of her legs in 1988, Odie never again entered the bowling alley. Just going to the bathroom was tough. She couldn't do it alone, and public restrooms were especially big hurdles. Stalls were too narrow for a wheelchair, let alone two people who needed room to maneuver. She endured sideways stares and snickers from women wondering what her husband was doing in the ladies room. It was embarrassing. Demeaning. And, to Lampson, totally unnecessary.

"I said, 'We don't have to kiss nobody's ass,'" Lampson recalls. "I bought two big pieces of black linoleum."

Jim Lampson, owner of Arcade Lanes: "I'm the biggest bullshitter in town, and I admit it."
Jennifer Silverberg
Jim Lampson, owner of Arcade Lanes: "I'm the biggest bullshitter in town, and I admit it."
While bartender Charlie Nack (center) serves up advice, Gary Schultz (left) and Tom Miller (right) calculate their chances of breaking 200.
Jennifer Silverberg
While bartender Charlie Nack (center) serves up advice, Gary Schultz (left) and Tom Miller (right) calculate their chances of breaking 200.

From the linoleum, Lampson cut pieces to cover the windows of his 1982 Lincoln Town Car, plus another hunk big enough to bridge the gap between the sedan's front and back passenger doors. With clothespins to secure the homemade privacy screens, it all snapped together in less than a minute. He put a portable toilet in the trunk, and from then on, his wife answered nature's call on her own terms. Didn't matter whether it was a crowded parking lot or a highway shoulder. "Mother would slip from the front seat right onto the pot," Lampson says, his arms motioning as if he were still helping her, his voice soft as if on the edge of tears. "I could wipe her and clean her. And I carried a gallon of water to clean everything. She would cry, say, 'I never thought I'd have my husband do this.' It hurt me when she'd cry. It made me want to love her better."

In caring for Odie, Lampson neglected his business, but he has no regrets. It was Odie who helped him kick a four-packs-a-day habit -- "Go ahead, smoke those Tareytons," she challenged him back in 1989, and her reverse psychology did what mouthfuls of nicotine gum couldn't. It was Odie who stood by him during 47 years of marriage and many nights alone while he ran the bowling alley. She kept the books and ran the business during the day while raising four children, even if she had reservations about buying the place.

"My wife said, 'Why?'" Lampson says. "'Why do you want a bowling alley?'" For Lampson, the answer was simple.

"I like to see people have fun," he says.

They don't make places like Arcade Lanes anymore.

The building is crumbling, but slowly. University City building inspection files show 40 code violations since Odie died, but it's mostly small stuff -- a broken window, cracked chimney mortar, a busted gutter, broken pavement in the parking lot. Nothing serious enough to shut the place down.

With just eight lanes, it's one of the region's smallest bowling alleys and one of two second-story bowling houses left in St. Louis County. Saratoga Lanes in Maplewood, built in 1916, is also a walkup, but with satellite television and other updates added through the years, it's a far cry from Arcade Lanes. According to building-permit records, the bowling alley in U. City has remained unchanged since 1962, when Lampson built a cocktail lounge.

Automatic pinsetters spelled the demise of small walkups in the years after World War II. The machines weighed upwards of 3,000 pounds, too heavy for many buildings to support, but not this bowling house -- Arcade Lanes has an iron superstructure and plenty of 18-inch wooden beams. St. Louis County tax records show it was built in 1920, but Lampson insists the official record is wrong. The building, he says, has been around since 1909.

According to a state historic inventory prepared by St. Louis County Parks and Recreation preservation historian Esley Hamilton, local businessman David L. Remley built the place as a slaughterhouse, processing 100 cattle, 200 hogs and 100 sheep each week to supply his grocery store in downtown St. Louis -- Lampson believes workers tossed guts into the nearby River des Peres. The Watchman-Advocate newspaper in 1920 reported that the plant cost $75,000, about $723,000 in today's dollars. There was also a grocery store, which was called the Remley Arcade Market to avoid confusion with other Remley stores in St. Louis.

It's not clear when the slaughterhouse shut down. At some point, a restaurant opened on the second floor. The grocery store was taken over by A&P during the 1930s and remained until the company built a new supermarket in 1942, just across the street in a building now occupied by a thrift store. Lampson says a ballroom opened on the second floor sometime around World War II, but Hamilton's research uncovered no such evidence. After the war, Andrew Sansone bought the property, and part of it subsequently became House of Luck Liquors. By 1946, the second story was vacant.

County directories show a bowling alley opened in 1948 under the name Froy's Bowling Alleys. During the next dozen years, it was run by a succession of four managers before Lampson acquired an interest in 1960, sharing ownership with Walter Bartels. Again, Lampson's account is at odds with the official record. Lampson says he was a silent owner, working on a sweat-equity basis with Odie for nearly two years before Arcade Lanes became their own. He doesn't discuss details: "It was a deal where you kept your mouth shut -- 'Don't tell nobody.'"

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