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Standing behind a counter full of bowling shoes, Chris Poole answered the phone, “This is The Alley, how can I help you?” He paused, “We’re actually closing for good on Sunday.” He paused again, “That’s okay. Gotta make room for a Target.” He didn’t sound mad, or even sad. It was as if he were saying something as simple as, “Yeah, we’ll be closed on Christmas.” He hung up the phone and turned to me, “Someone selling security cameras. Don’t need ‘em.”
With less than a week left in their Hillsborough Street location, security cameras are probably the last thing The Alley needs. By next week, they will have moved everything out to make way for a new Target that will soon be moving in. The Alley will move to a new location in Durham, opening some time in 2017. As Chris prepares for the transition, he took some time to sit down and reflect on the last eight years of running and co-owning a place that Raleigh residents will remember fondly.
While the original bowling alley opened in 1961, the story of The Alley begins in 2008. That’s when Chris’s older brother Jimmy, who was in commercial real estate at the time, was looking to buy the property next to the bowling alley. While working on that deal, Jimmy would walk by and notice how run down the bowling alley was, but was still interested in the space. During the buying process he and Chris thought that it might be fun to take over the business.
“We loved the space and thought ‘It can’t be THAT hard’ even though we knew nothing about bowling. Like, nothing at all,” explains Chris, who was managing his father’s doctor’s office of 100 employees at the time. “I thought this could be a fun opportunity. I basically just said, ‘Let’s give it a shot’.”
Not knowing much about the business, the Poole brothers wisely kept the employees in place while they learned the ropes. “We removed the carpet and added the TVs and the music, which was huge. This place would be dead silent right now, it’d be so awkward,” says Chris. They didn’t want to manage the kitchen, and were fortunate to hire some great employees when next door neighbor Melvin’s Burgers was shut down. The Pooles also added an indoor deck area and bar to create a more inviting space for big groups. And the big groups came.
“One night it just blew up and all of the sudden we had our first hour long wait list,” Chris recalls. “It was absolutely slammed, with what seemed like 8 people on every lane. One guy even pulled out a $100 bill to try to jump the list. I remember making eye contact with Jimmy in the middle of the craziness and I think we both realized we had finally turned the corner.”
The Pooles kept the alley’s relationship with NC State intact, letting the school continue to teach its bowling course that had been held there for decades. NC State will be cancelling the class temporarily until they can find a solution. “We’ve loved working with NC State and having their students as customers. The Hillsborough Hike nights were always so memorable,” says Chris, referring to the NC State end of semester tradition that turns Hillsborough Street into a bar crawl. “We’d be at capacity for four hours, one in one out. We knew it was kind of getting out of hand when people were running down lanes and literally bowling themselves. At that point we thought ‘Alright, shut it down. What are we doing here’.”
After a few years of success, the brothers decided to expand to a new location in Charleston. “The Alley was like the Little Engine That Could. This business was doing so bad when we took over that it made Jimmy and I get in here and work every single shift from open to close, just to cover payroll. But in doing that you learn how to fix a pin jam, handle all types of customers, patch roof leaks, reset the HVAC, serve food, and do all of that in the same shift. We did absolutely everything. We knew that if we could run this place under these circumstances, there’d be no telling what we could do with new equipment and a blank slate. The Charleston location was just an empty warehouse that we got to build from scratch, which is what I can’t wait to do in Durham.”
As we were talking, Chris noticed an older couple approaching the front door from outside. “This is what we’ve seen a ton recently. People want to come in and just see it before it closes. They walk in, come to the top of the steps, look around, and walk out. It’s neat to see.”
The couple entered the building, looked at a picture on the first floor, and then left. Chris laughed, “Hah! They didn’t even make it to the top of the stairs! A kid came in yesterday and says he’s new to the area and wants to check things out. I told him we were actually closing up this location and making room for a Target. He looks at me and says, “Target?!” drops an F-bomb, and just walks off. That was it, haha. When we started posting that Target was coming people said, ‘Oh I thought that was a joke’.”
To be clear, Chris isn’t upset about being replaced by a Target. He knows it’s just business, but knows that the community was fond of this piece of history.
“Honestly, people are genuinely sad about this place shutting down. Growing up I came here every once in awhile for a birthday party or something, but a lot of people came here regularly. One guy walked in last week, pointed at a picture and said, “The first time I was here we went to Brothers Pizza and then came here to bowl.” They’re going to miss this place. It really is an institution.”
Chris and I grabbed a beer and chatted about the time I got a cease and desist letter from The Masters (more on that some other day). As we leaned on the bar that would soon be a checkout lane or shelves full of pumpkin spice Cheerios, two girls walked in wanting to order burgers. Chris thought they were out of burgers, but checked with an employee in the kitchen to make sure. The employee reported back that they had two left. Smiling, Chris turned to the customers and said, “Well then, you two get the last burgers ever.”
The Alley is leaving Hillsborough Street, but has a bright future ahead in Durham. The new spot will be a slightly different concept with more of a focus on the food and bar, and a completely different menu. It won’t be called “The Alley” but it will certainly be a product of everything they’ve learned in Raleigh and Charleston.
“You see these machines?” he asks, as we walked behind the lanes. “These things are ancient, but fascinating. They are so mechanical with so many moving parts. The new machines we’ll have in Durham are what every newer house uses. They’re so much easier to maintain. The maintenance here can be out of control. It’s like dealing with an old house.”
In addition to the new equipment, he’s excited about the 8 new lanes. “What’s most frustrating is that we were never able to give the serious bowlers a perfect experience. The only complaints we ever had were that the lanes could have been better and I totally get that. To me, it’s like the difference between playing basketball at the PNC arena and an outdoor court.”
Having grown up in Raleigh, attended Broughton, and lived in Raleigh since graduating from Clemson in 2007, the choice of relocating to Durham may seem odd to some. “We thought about downtown Raleigh and looked at some spots there but we couldn’t find anywhere that we were comfortable with. Durham’s got a good feel to it right now. We’re excited.”
In the meantime, The Alley needs to get rid of as much as possible. That’s why they’ll be holding a silent auction from 4:00 pm to 7:00 pm on Sunday, November 27th. 25% of the proceeds will be donated to Team Chris Combs to Strike Out ALS. They’ll be saving some materials to repurpose in the Durham location and will store anything they don’t auction off. “Everything must go. Pins, bowling balls, benches, even the lanes. We can cut sections out to almost any dimension. It’d make a great coffee table,” says Chris.
I returned to The Alley the next night to check out a band featuring some of our classmates from Broughton. The place was pretty crowded when I walked in around 10:00 pm. Chris was helping a group of customers and when the crowd cleared for a brief moment I went to say hello and get $10 in quarters to play Hoops Fever, an arcade basketball game that Chris has mastered over the years. Chris saw me and let out a deep breath, “I don’t know if it’s because of the band or what, but three lanes just started having motor problems so I’m working on fixing those.” I asked if there was anything I could help with. He looked at me like I was crazy, “Absolutely not, go grab a beer. We’ll be fine.”
Throughout the rest of the night customers came and went in waves. I watched as he fixed lanes, helped customers, managed the music, talked with people who wanted to reminisce, and more. Even though they’ll be moving from the historic spot on Hillsborough Street, I could tell that Chris was right. With eight years and two locations under their belt, they’ll be just fine.