Fifteen minutes down the road from where I live is Canada’s only sanctioned hand-set bowling alley. It’s an a place called Youbou, a long stretch of road past a lake, some new summer homes, a coffee shop, a gas station, and the remnants of a former logging community. The alley should be depressing. Geographically, it seems likely to be depressing. It is — and I say this emphatically — the opposite of depressing.
It is great.
Youbou Lanes opened in 1951, and was paid for mostly by the logging company that owned the town, figuratively if not literally. It’s just four lanes and a concession stand/shoe rental attached to a community hall. It has the weird decor you might expect — bowling plaques and trophies, archival photos, and amateur murals of ‘50s couples swing dancing.
You don’t notice, at first, the absence of machines. If you look closely, though, you can see little hands clearing pins and setting them back up after each throw. A little later, you’ll realize that the dark half-moon that looks like part of a painted logo at the end of the lanes is actually a peephole — a window to make sure your pinboy is safely out of the way before you roll again.
To the right of the lanes is an aisle that leads to the door where the pin setters do their work. If you peek behind the curtain, you’ll meet Max and Curtis, two local teens dressed from cap to shoes in colorful branded skater gear. They come every other Friday and get paid $30 apiece for the three-hour shift. To reset the pins, they step on a foot pedal that lifts short, blunt spikes where each pin sits. The spikes fit into gaps in the bottom of the pins. Once the pins are set, the setter releases the pedal and the spikes fall away. They earn their keep — it’s hard work to keep up with two lanes bowling at once. Is it fun?
“Not really,” they say, shrugging in unison.
The scoring console has two ashtrays (no longer used) but no digital parts. It has an overhead projector, though, so scores can be projected onto screens overhead. Except the last batch of transparencies the alley ordered were speckled in black dots, so they quit and switched to pencil and paper, the woman who took our money told us.
We went on dollar night. One Friday a month, games cost just a dollar per person, plus a dollar for shoes. Beers are just $3.50 (that’s only about $2.65 in US dollars). Only one lane of the four was in use. How is it possible that this place even exists? How is it possible that this place has not yet been overrun with hipsters?
It helps, I’m sure, that Youbou is literally an end-of-the-pavement town (the gravel logging roads continue and fan out into the forest in all directions.) The town sits at the center of the southern end of Vancouver Island, off the west coast of British Columbia. The island itself is sparsely populated, with a population of about 750,000 spread over an area the size South Carolina. Half of those live in or close to Victoria, the provincial capital, at the island’s southern tip — about an hour and half’s drive away.
Another reason that this place still exists, when the hand-set alley has all but gone extinct, is good old fashioned socialism. The center is funded through a regional government recreation department. I’d bet all my money that its revenues don’t come close to covering the operating costs.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t capitalize on nostalgia. In fact, many in the bowling industry are counting on it. I talked to Pat Ciniello, who owns the HeadPinz Entertainment Center in Fort Myers, Florida, and has a lifetime of experience in the bowling industry. “I’ve lived most of my life in bowling, starting at 12 years old, working in a bowling center cleaning bowling balls for free games,” he says. “I just loved the sport.”
Very few people are building traditional bowling alleys these days, he told me (and by traditional, he means what you would have expected in the ‘80s or ‘90s — lots of lanes, maybe a concession stand or small bar.) Bowling center owners are getting creative to keep their businesses profitable, and that means focusing on making money through food and beverage sales, or through additional forms of entertainment like arcades, go-karts, and laser tag.
Often, though, the decor harkens back to an earlier time. “They’re constantly looking to have a little of that nostalgia put back into it,” says Ciniello. Because what is bowling if not good, old fashioned fun?
Ciniello’s own entertainment center has all that other stuff — modern bowling lanes, bars, a restaurant, VIP areas, an arcade, a ropes course, laser tag — but also this: four lanes of “old time” bowling, harkening all the way back to the early 20th century. The pins are hand-set, of course, by pinboys and pingirls in period dress. For that extra authentic feel, they’ll heckle you as you play. If you like, you tip them by rolling up a bill into the thumb hole of a ball and sending it down. (In the old days, patrons would toss quarters down the gutters, Ciniello explains.)
Everything in the space was designed to transport guests back to the first decades of the 1900s. It’s part museum and part Disneyland. “It’s really a step back in time,” says Ciniello. He’s not just manufacturing nostalgia, he’s manufacturing nostalgia for a time before the vast majority of his customers were born — although a few remember a time before automatic pin-setting machines were ubiquitous. “When they see the ‘old time’ area, you’ll see some people go, ‘Well, when I was a kid, I used to do that! I use to set up pins.’ I said, ‘Hey, we’re looking for some pin boys right now, do you want a job?’ And they go, ‘Nah, I think I’m a little too old for that these days.’ Young and old are just amazed at it.”
Ciniello fell in love with the early era of bowling while he was working on a project recreating old-style lanes for the Bowling Museum & Hall of Fame in Arlington, Texas. But it’s a dying breed — there are only a handful of operating hand-set bowling centers left in the United States. As far as Ciniello knows, his is the only new build that harkens back to that time. Asked if he thinks the hand-set alley will make a comeback, he laughs. “I don’t think we’re going to see a surge of hand-set pinsetters coming back.” The labor costs, plus health and safety liability issues, are prohibitive for most.
But they weren’t enough to keep Ciniello from his dream of transporting his customers back to the bowling heyday. At HeadPinz, you pay more for Old Time bowling, because it’s a premium experience — the pinsetters, the scorekeepers, and the barkeep are all part of the deal. And people are willing to pay more, because it’s fun to pretend we still live in the time before technology took over our lives. What a thrill it is, now, to have real humans do the jobs that we have become used to machines doing in their stead.
Youbou Lanes offers a comforting reminder: When the revolution comes and the lights go out and our smartphones don’t work, we’ll still be able to hang out with a group of friends, balance tall objects on their end, and knock them down. Electricity is great, but we don’t need it to have fun.