For enthusiasts, candlepin bowling in Pittsfield is right up their alley
PITTSFIELD — In the bowling world, candlepin is what you might call an underdog. It's smaller than tenpin bowling and receives less national exposure, candlepin aficionados will tell you.
But in Pittsfield, candlepin bowling is alive and well. The city boasts not one, but two candlepin alleys.
Tucked away on North Street is Candle Lanes, a labor of love for owner George Aslan. The 76-year-old Pittsfield resident said he runs the place like a family, not a business.
"They're all my friends," he said, sweeping his arm toward eight lanes of bowlers. Six more lanes were busy upstairs, all occupied by the Wednesday just-for-fun league he hosts.
In candlepin bowling, the balls are smaller than those in a tenpin game, and they don't have finger holes. Bowlers get three turns to knock down the cylindrical pins, rather than two, and the bowling lanes are not slick and oiled up like a tenpin alley. The result often is lower scores.
"It takes a lot of skill," said former professional bowler Don White, 68, of Pittsfield.
White started bowling at Candle Lanes when he was 10. The old-fashioned bowling alley is on the second and third floors of a building near North and Summer streets, marked by a faded blue sign. The inside is a slice of the past, where bowlers keep score by hand, on paper. There are no glitzy television screens above the lanes, just old, tube-style monitors. Over the sound of conversation, one can hear the crack of bowling balls striking old wood and the creaky, mechanical workings of the lanes.
White and Aslan traveled the Northeast in 1979 for a professional candlepin bowling world tour. The game is most popular in the northeast United States and in Canada, though candlepin alleys are sprinkled across the country. That caliber of professional candlepin bowling has fizzled out, White said, which he attributes to fewer kids bowling in junior leagues and moving up in the sport.
But candlepin culture is alive in the Northeast, at least online. The "Candlepin Chat" Facebook group boasts 1,500 members and saw more than 200 posts in the past month. Users share candlepin photos, scores and equipment for sale.
Brian Fuller Jr. of Newburyport was bowling even before he could walk. He started the Candlepin Chat group three years ago as a space for candlepin fans to communicate.
"I felt like there needed to be a place for bowlers to talk bowling and promote tournaments," Fuller said. "People can talk about candlepin and promote tournaments, post their scores, share bowling videos, or any other stories they have."
Fuller agreed that the number of candlepin bowling alleys is on the decline.
"I think the sport is shrinking because a lot of centers have closed," Fuller said. "The property value is worth more than the business."
Aslan said that what concerns him about keeping Candle Lanes in business is the metered parking downtown that was introduced in January 2017.
"I lost $10,000 this year, and $10,000 the year before," Aslan said.
For his older customers who are in their 90s, paying $1 per hour for on-street parking is too much, Aslan said, and walking from the 50-cent parking spots is too taxing. Aslan said he has talked with city officials about a different approach to parking, to no avail.
"If they want to come talk to me about it," Aslan said. "Be my guest."
Despite closures, the joy and history of candlepin bowling have not disappeared, said Bob Ireland Jr. of Imperial Bowling Center on Dalton Avenue. The bowling alley his father and former professional bowler, Bob Ireland Sr., started in 1977 has stayed afloat, thanks to folks who appreciate the old-school charm of the business.
"It's true, bowling centers are closing. But we're a family operation. We put the time in that we need to, and we make it work," Ireland said. "People are searching out something that's out of the norm, something that's unique to the area. People really appreciate our dedication to the sport of candlepin bowling."
People appreciate the history, Ireland said. And the bowling alley is practically a vintage find — its original ball returns and score tables are intact after four decades of play.
Imperial Bowling Center also is dedicated to the community, Ireland said. The bowling alley temporarily is hosting sports memorabilia, like banners and plaques from St. Joseph Central High School, which closed last June. Imperial Bowl has 14 lanes and offers parties and group events.
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