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?

Lampson insists his lanes are good for another 25 years, but others say the clock is ticking faster than the water drips above lanes 5 and 6 during a hard rain. "Your ball gets on a weird roll and makes kind of a thunk, thunk, thunk sound," says Travis Boley, curator at the International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame, next to Busch Stadium. "I was on the fifth lane, I think, and that tells me that there's some warped wood out there." New lanes, which can cost more than $50,000 each, are out of the question for a just-scraping-by guy like Lampson.

Arcade Lanes was already in decline at the end of the 1980s, when bowling's popularity ebbed and worried proprietors pressured the ABC to allow more oil and otherwise change the standards so that bowling a 300 is now as commonplace as hitting 25 home runs. "There was such a conflict between proprietors and rulemakers that they modified the rules so that, really, the conditions that everyone's bowling on today is what Jim was trying to do back in the '70s," Granberry says.

The days when league bowlers competed under the same conditions as the pros are gone. Averages once sufficient to qualify a bowler for the PBA tour are now barely enough to get top bid on a high-school team. Nearly 40,000 perfect games are rolled each year, even though the number of league bowlers has plummeted from 5 million in the mid-1970s to about a million today. Octogenarians and preadolescents have shot 300s. The ABC, which once bestowed a gold-and-diamond ring on any bowler so skilled, now sends a siladium band and doesn't bother with inspectors. Bowling, say many longtime practitioners, has become too easy, thanks to high-tech balls, synthetic lanes and copious amounts of oil slathered on plastic-coated hardwood.

Arcade Lanes is one of two upstairs bowling alleys in St. Louis County.
Jennifer Silverberg
Arcade Lanes is one of two upstairs bowling alleys in St. Louis County.
Arcade Lanes is one of two upstairs bowling alleys in St. Louis County.
Jennifer Silverberg
Arcade Lanes is one of two upstairs bowling alleys in St. Louis County.

But not at Arcade Lanes. Lane 5 tilts to the right. Balls anywhere can take quizzical paths to the pins, at times literally zigzagging down the lane. "I think it's great because it's such an inconsistent shot," says Boley, who last shot at Arcade Lanes about a year ago. "I think of it as a great nostalgic throwback -- the way bowling used to be and could be and probably should be. The lanes are all nice and beat-up, so you never know exactly what your ball is going to do. It makes it a real challenge, especially for guys who are used to going to these new houses and throwing these gargantuan scores on a consistent basis. If you can score high there, you can probably score high anywhere."

For the last few years, Lampson has been nominated for the Greater St. Louis Bowling Association Hall of Fame but hasn't gotten the required 70 percent vote to gain admission. If Granberry had his way, Lampson would be enshrined. "Everyone who is even remotely interested in bowling should talk to Jim and have at least an hour devoted to it, because once he gets going, he can really regale you," says Granberry, who was admitted in 1992. "He can tell me things I knew but that I've forgotten about." Granberry thinks old grudges may be keeping Lampson out of the hall -- folks remember his fierce battles with enforcers, and some competing proprietors with voting privileges may be reluctant to honor him.

Dale Bohn, executive director of the association, thinks it's a matter of forgotten greatness. "There's mixed feelings about that," Bohn says. "Yes, he's quite deserving to be in, but it just seems like every year, whoever he goes up against, everybody votes for the other guy. He's done a lot for bowling. Back in the old days, Jim was quite the promoter. Unfortunately, the younger people now don't know it."

Bohn, who inspects each of the region's 982 lanes once a year, sees much to miss in the modern-day bowling center, where bowling is more pastime than passion these days. With fewer and fewer bowlers willing to commit themselves to traditional 35-week leagues, some proprietors are implementing 16-week schedules. The days of bowling houses such as Arcade Lanes are gone forever, Bohn believes, and that's not good for the sport. The way things are going, he says, bowlers will soon be able to swipe their credit cards at laneside and not have to talk to anyone. "There's not the personal involvement," Bohn says. "That's what bowling needs, the personal involvement. It should be a fun family get-together. It just seems like we're getting away from that."

Standing with his back straight and knees slightly bent, Gary Schultz raises his ball above his head until both elbows nearly lock. As the jukebox plays "Theme From Star Wars," he pauses for a few seconds, Zenlike, 16 pounds of Ebonite above his skull, staring straight through the pins 60 feet away. Then one step, two, three and four before he releases, sending the ball straight ahead into the pocket. Crash!

The strike makes his second turkey -- three strikes in a row -- of the evening. For one night, at least, Schultz, proud bearer of a 155 average, is lighting it up. So is his partner, Tom Miller, the other half of Rockets. Both bowl 198s in their final game, the equivalent of at least 225 anywhere else. Then it gets really good.

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