Editor’s note: Time to Spare: Bowling clears a lane for sport, community is a three-part series that explores league culture, highlights women bowlers, and details the impact of bowling alleys closing and the history of the sport in Whatcom County. Part one explores league culture through reporter Jaya Flanary’s personal experience growing up bowling and through interviews with her fellow leaguers at Bellingham’s 20th Century Bowl.
My first bowling ball was neon-yellow with orange lettering. It was a hand-me-down 7- or 8-pound ball from strangers — a family that saw me bowling one day at my home away from home, Sunset Bowl.
Sunset opened in the ’50s in Ballard, a wanna-be city within Seattle where I grew up. My paternal grandpa worked at Sunset — on the graveyard shift — in 1970, drilling balls and manning the front desk.
He bowled, so my dad bowled, so I bowled.
We celebrated my fourth birthday party at Sunset. When I look at the photos now, I see my determination and interest in the sport far more than the other ankle-biters running around smearing cake on the lanes and rubbing boogers on the balls. (The photos don’t actually show them doing this, but I’ve worked at a bowling alley, so I know the hard truth.)
I see my dad in my bowling approach. Not because it’s similar to his, but because he taught me what it meant and why it mattered. You’re right-handed, he told me, so your left foot is your landing foot. Aim for the arrows; don’t look at the pins.
Soon he signed us up for a parent/youth league. At our first meeting, I was surrounded by our competitors — other parents and kids I didn’t know — who we would bowl against for bragging rights and a trophy with a little bowler on top.
Week by week, we got to know those strangers. We improved our games. (I still have my high-score trophy for shooting a 132.) And two years in a row, we won — once as team “Double Deuce” (don’t ask) and once as “The Aliens” (a tribute to my glow-in-the-dark alien bowling shoes).
Since I was given that yellow ball, I have been through three more used bowling balls from friendly leaguers. I gifted my old ones to others as I upgraded in weight and brand.
Throughout those years, we visited Sunset up to four times a week for various leagues and practice. I grew up there. I did my homework there most nights. Our friends were all leaguers and Sunset is where we socialized — with people from all walks of life because everybody, we were convinced, likes bowling.
In the opening of the documentary “A League of Ordinary Gentlemen” (2006), a film about the Professional Bowlers Association and the prospects of the sport surviving, one man says that more Americans bowled last year than voted.
Low bar, I say!
But another man says something far more profound that I just love, mostly because he sounds like a leaguer who had one too many beers when he said it: “Nobody never has not fun bowling.”
And it’s true. Whether you go once a year or once a week, bowling remains a favorite pastime in America, a sport anyone can have fun playing. It’s nostalgic, social, accessible and ritualistic, leaguers say. Bowling alleys are a second home, a safe space, even a church for some of us.
For me, it’s because no matter how the sport and its arena evolve — score-keeping technology, arcades, bowling ball advancements, inclusion in leagues and, sadly, the mass closure of alleys — bowling is still bowling. It can be enjoyed at the most basic, simple level for recreation; it can be taken seriously enough to be a person’s lifetime passion, or in some cases, career.
It quite literally made it through the Stone Age, one leaguer reminded me, as it’s been around as early as 5200 B.C.
Since then, it has become more than just rolling a stone ball against more stones. Bowling alleys are social hubs where community is created, valued and maintained. Birthday parties and leagues are just two examples of gatherings that rely on these spaces, which house more than 67 million bowlers in America each year.
And like the print newspaper, it just won’t die — no matter how often we wonder if it will.
Jaya Flanary, 25
High score: 277
Leagues come in all shapes and sizes, and the culture varies based on the night, the theme, the alley and its location. Social leagues and senior leagues are popular, but there are also men’s leagues, women’s leagues, gay leagues, and even themed leagues like “The Dude Abides” at Bellingham’s 20th Century Bowl in spring, which gets its name from the popular film “The Big Lebowski.”
Handicap systems allow for the not-so-skilled to bowl competitively against those with higher averages. The more serious leagues are “scratch leagues,” which don’t use a handicap system. The former type tends to have younger bowlers and more beer; the latter trends older and can be serious enough that not even music is allowed.
My boyfriend, Isaiah Roland, and I decided to join “Social Club,” the Thursday night league at 20th Century, last fall. It was my first time being placed on a four-man team with two strangers.
The first night we met our teammates: Richard Hodges, director of Voice Studies at Western Washington University (and a professionally trained opera singer who doesn’t let you forget it), and his friend, Mike Trenk (who has not only come out of his shell, but also improved tremendously).
We instantly clicked and have spent nearly every Thursday with them since September.
For me, the best part about it is the people. I don’t hang out with leaguers outside of league, and I barely remember their last names. But once a week I find out a little more about everyone: their jobs, their life and, best of all, why the hell they bowl, too.
Larry Nichols, 46
Averages: 179, 188, 191, 178
High score: 300
I noticed Larry Nichols the first night we started bowling Social Club at 20th Century. He is the leaguer who saunters down the house back and forth, says hi to everyone, passes out candy on holidays and wears the best bowling-themed graphic T-Shirts.
After growing up in Indiana and moving to Chicago — living there for 16 years — Larry ended up in Tacoma where he started his own gay league to mimic the leagues he participated in for years back in the Windy City.
Before even moving to Bellingham to go to Western, Larry signed up for Thursdays at 20th Century. With no gay league in Whatcom County available, he chose the next best thing: a social league, where he met friends who invited him to bowl other nights, which is why he’s now in four leagues.
“One thing I can see consistently across every city I’ve bowled in: The social leagues are fun. Everyone gets along,” he said. “I think if I were to move to another part of the state, I would stay on Thursday nights and drive up here.”
Lacey Thompson, 37
Averages: 172, 160
High score: 256
Another Thursday night bowler, Lacey was excited to “nerd out” with me about bowling. She joined Thursday night league around 2010 with her husband.
“It is a culture. And for some people, it is most definitely a lifestyle,” she told me. “When you’ve been in it for a while, it’s like being in a club. There’s language and customs, bowling manners and just things that aren’t written down.”
But everyone knows them. Lacey calls them “situational morals” you just pick up along the way. “Don’t step up on the approach when the person next to you is on it” is probably the first a bowler learns.
“That’s really fun to have this kind of obscure set of knowledge that you share with all these people,” Lacey said. “It’s like a secret language.”
One of Lacey’s favorite parts of the sport is that anyone can participate. Everyone is welcome in a bowling alley, and the sport’s accessibility allows for inclusion other sports just can’t.
Emma Donohew, 36
Averages: 159, 165
High score: 265
A bowler since middle school, Emma Donohew finds the sport to be equally competitive among everyone — no matter their age, gender or ability — and said “some of the best bowlers” on leagues she’s joined have been quadriplegic bowlers.
Until bowling at 20th Century, Emma said, her leagues always included people in wheelchairs. The 100-year-old State Street alley is at the mercy of its age, with multiple staircases making it inaccessible for people in wheelchairs.
For Emma, league is about community more than anything.
“Bowling is my other church,” said Emma, a pastor at Echoes, a 10-year-old Bellingham church. “I think humans value ritual. And I think at its basic level, ritual is just doing something that you value over and over again.”
And over and over again we do. Fall league is every week for 33 weeks, a commitment you make to yourselves and each other. If you miss a week, everyone actually misses you and is glad to have you back the following week.
Bowling matters to Emma and adds meaning to her life, she said. The people — strangers who become friends, or simply familiar faces — are valued by each other every week for nearly eight months. That, she said, is league culture at its core, and is what will “keep the sport going forever.”
The bowling alley, a safe space for her, is where Emma went on one of her first dates with her now-husband. They played three games: he won, she won and then they tied.
“I remember him very strongly respecting me as an athlete that day,” Emma said. “I remember thinking, I could marry this person.”
Debbie Missiaen, 54
Averages: “Nothing under a 200” aka 205, 200, 200, 203
High score: 300
Another female bowler on my league, Debbie, initially frequented 20th with her then-partner. A competitive duo, they identified the house balls they liked, using serial numbers, before buying their own equipment.
One decade and more than 40 bowling balls later, Debbie and her partner set up a DIY system in their basement to bake the oil out of their balls. This process, usually done by a pro shop, involves heating up a bowling ball to extract built-up oil from the lanes which can cause a ball to not hook as well as it does when brand new.
Debbie’s homemade ball baker was a styrofoam cooler with a hairdryer on top, and a meat thermometer measured the temperature.
In late 2019, the hairdryer shorted out and started a fire.
“In that same room were a ton of bowling balls lined up underneath the counter,” Debbie said. “So it was just constant fuel. It was burning and burning. We had no idea we had a fire.”
The house fire blew out the windows and destroyed the basement of her tri-level home, and the smoke damaged the rest.
“It was really, really bad,” she said. “We lost pretty much everything. I lost all my animals.”
The rebuild took more than 10 months, but she had a community to support her.
Beth Brannian, owner of 20th Century, organized the first fundraiser. The Fraternal Order of Eagles (Debbie bowls its Sunday league) organized a second.
“Talk about a bowling family and the connections you make,” Debbie said. “It’s a cool sport because it’s individualized, and it’s also a team effort. The people keep me coming back. I love being active. I love bowling.”
She’s good at it, too. Described as a “rock star” by another league member, Debbie averages 200 or more on all four leagues she bowls.
Monday’s scratch senior’s league formerly required bowlers to be over 50 — until Debbie came along more than a decade ago. Eight weeks into subbing for an injured bowler, the league realized Debbie was 10 years younger than the requirement.
“So they have this emergency meeting … I said no, no, no, no, no, no, no. I’m grateful that you guys even asked me and I don’t want to be the controversy. Leave me out of it,” Debbie said.
The league members discussed the age requirement and, realizing that people were dying and getting injured, the league was diminishing in size.
“They decided to lower the age of the scratch league down to 40,” Debbie said. “Now we’re full.”
Debbie also bowls on Tuesdays, the Merchant’s League, a men’s-only league until last year when, like Mondays, the league was not large enough to continue without including women.
In August 2022, the members voted to include women in the league for the 2022–23 season.
It wasn’t the first time women bowlers disrupted Whatcom County’s bowling history, and based on the 10 hours I recently spent talking to local women bowlers, it won’t be the last.
Part two explores what it’s like to be a woman bowler through the eyes of various leaguers including Barbara Demorest, Janel Westerfield and Debbie Missiaen.