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?

"With the conditions he has, it's not a strike game, it's just trying to close the frame," he says. "It's just tough."

Lampson is telling a story about the Merchant Marine when he's interrupted by the death-ray alarm.

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.

Momentarily stunned, a man and woman are standing at the top of the stairs. They are dressed for Wall Street: Starched white shirt, silk tie, wingtips; sensible pumps, cashmere sweater, perfect hair. Lampson is wearing navy work pants and a baby-blue polo shirt, both stained.

It's time to conduct some business.

The man introduces the woman as his office manager. She wanders around a bit, eyes wide, drinking it all in. "Look, there's a shuffleboard," she says. "And pool tables." The man shakes hands with Lampson, as if they're old friends, but it's soon clear they don't know each other. He remembers Lampson from a party about 10 years ago. "There were a couple hundred people here," he says. "It was a riot." He wants a repeat for his office Christmas fête.

"Can you make margaritas?" he asks. "Do you mind if we bring in a case of white wine?" After so many years, this is old hat for Lampson. "I'll tell you how we do it," he explains. "Real simple. Hot wings, raviolis, pizza, salad, barbecued hotdogs." Plus, of course, bowling and drinks -- the deluxe package, which includes an open bar, costs $27 per person, but price doesn't come up as the men strike a deal in 10 minutes. The man tells Lampson to buy a couple bottles of Dewars and a case of chardonnay. "All I'm going to do is bring in a fruit-and-cheese tray," he says. "Give me a receipt for the whole thing when we're done."

Private parties, where revelers are apt to hike balls football-style through their legs, are what pays the bills at Arcade these days -- with the help of his grandchildren and a few friends, Lampson can gross more than $1,000 on a good night, which makes up for all the other nights when the lanes stay dark.

Partygoers rarely notice the scoreboard on the south wall that commemorates all the perfect games, including several by bowlers who ended up in the PBA Hall of Fame. But in France, they understand.

"Une caverne prehistorique," writes Benoit Heimermann in an article featuring Arcade that appeared last spring in L'Equipe, the French equivalent of Sports Illustrated. "Des dinosaurs de metal actionnes par d'antiques..." You don't have to live in Paris to catch the drift.

The French came to St. Louis in search of bowling's soul and referred to Arcade's proprietor as Jim "The Legend" Lampson in a story read by millions. Besides Arcade, Lampson took the journalists to the Hall of Fame and Tropicana, but Lampson, who donned a clean shirt for the occasion, ended up with the biggest picture and as much ink as anyone else.

Lampson may be a legend in the eyes of the French, but not everybody's a fan. "He's the biggest fucking asshole I've ever seen in my life," says University City Fire Marshal Joe Rice. "He got on my bad side some years ago. I'm a bowler, you know, and I just happened to go down there one morning to get some practice. He said, 'Well, how long are you going to bowl?' I said, 'Well, I don't know, I'm not going to bowl that long.'" Like most avid bowlers, Rice is accustomed to bowling on alternating lanes. But Lampson wasn't in the mood that day. "He said, 'You can bowl on one lane -- it costs less money to operate one lane than it does to operate two lanes.' I said, 'I don't want no one lane, I want two lanes.' He said, 'Well, you take what I offer.' I said, 'Fuck you,' and I took my ball and walked out. And I haven't been in that damn place since. I send people in there to inspect. But every now and then, just for the hell of it, I go in and see what he's doing in there." Rice has never found anything more serious than fire extinguishers that need recharging.

The fire marshal's opinions notwithstanding, newcomers to the sport won't find any better personal attention than at Arcade Lanes, where Lampson gives lessons to anyone who asks and no one laughs at a gutter ball. His teaching method is direct. "You want your thumb to point straight up in the air," he growls for the umpteenth time to a novice having trouble with his follow-through. "Remember! Thumb in the air. You're throwing like a girl." His gruffness comes off as contrived. Though he no longer bowls himself, he'll spend as much time as you want dissecting your game. If he thinks it's for a good cause, he'll cut his prices. He recently charged a Boy Scout troop $1 a head, shoes included, for a session that lasted well over an hour.

Schultz calls it a perfect place for romance. "It's probably a good second-date place because you know you'll be alone," he says "Talk about Elvis renting out a bowling alley -- you can be the only one here."

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