The faint aroma of fries, ball polish and cigarette smoke combine at Village Bowling Lanes in East Durham to create the nostalgic smell of a bowling alley. A cursory glance reveals that Village Lanes has all the usual amenities: an arcade room, a pro shop, a grill, shoe rental and dozens of lanes. On a Monday evening, the crowd is relatively small, with only the beginners' league and a few families bowling. The following night will host a more competitive league and the lanes are guaranteed to be full.
But while Village Lanes may seem like any modern bowling center, its connections to the past and deep roots in the community make it special. At a time when bowling alleys have morphed into regional entertainment centers that depend on Midnight Glow Bowling--with black lights and glow-in-the-dark balls--to lure customers, Village Lanes has become an anomaly: a friendly, neighborhood bowling alley.
Kenny Strombeck has been going to Village Lanes since he was 8. Now 30, Strombeck enjoys working there part-time while also competing in leagues.
"As I was coming up as a kid, our families--my mom and dad and her sister and all of their kids--grew up in the bowling alley, and it kind of put bowling in us," Strombeck says.
Bowling is a family affair in the Strombeck family. Kenny's older brother, Robby, works at Village Lanes in the pro shop. Having bowled at Village Lanes for well over 20 years, Robby Strombeck can appreciate how the center has changed over time.
"When I started, we used to have the old telescores and you had to keep score by hand," he says. "Now they have the automatic scoring. There used to be 24 lanes, and it's now a 40-lane bowling center. They added a pro shop, which sells bowling equipment, and they've added bumpers for kids. It's changed a lot since I was younger. We had the game room and that was it. We didn't have some of the luxuries we have now."
The bowling alley was built in the 1960s, just after construction of the nearby Wellons Village Shopping Center, which in 1959 instantly became one of Durham's largest shopping areas. It served the burgeoning, middle-class neighborhood around it of neat, suburban homes filled with young families living out the American dream.
Those were the days when Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton went bowling every week on The Honeymooners and league nights served as a center for social life. Since that time, bowling's popularity has waned, but Village Lanes has maintained that atmosphere. These days, it's almost retro.
"The biggest thing I remember from just being down here is the atmosphere. If you bowled in here you pretty much knew everybody," Kenny Strombeck says. "And that's really the fondest memory for me."
Though he says not as many parents take their kids bowling anymore, his brother is working hard to get the next generation interested.
"I bowled in the youth league 20 years ago, so it's been going on for over 20 years on Saturdays," Robby Strombeck says. "I've actually been running it for three years. The reason I got into it is because I have three daughters, and they all bowl."
Despite changes in bowling and the neighborhood, Village Lanes has remained a safe and friendly place. Some of the surrounding neighborhoods have not been as fortunate.
"It's seems like back when I was 7 or 8 years old, I can remember times going to bed with all the windows up and the doors not necessarily deadbolt locked," Kenny Strombeck says.
His brother Robby remembers a simpler time, when Wellons Village was a typical suburb.
"When we grew up in Wellons Village, I used to ride my bike down here all the time because I lived two blocks away. And I'd ride down here and it was really friendly, with a lot more little businesses in the area. But then as we got older, it became a more high-crime area. I still like Wellons Village. I'm back here working so I'm not afraid of it, but it has deterred some people from coming here," Robby Strombeck says.
"I think a lot of our people, even locals, don't realize what Village Lanes does have to offer," he says. "I will say this, and I have to knock on wood as I say it: Even though the area around us is not the best anymore, we have actually never had any trouble while we've been open. Once you get in here, it's pretty cool."
Larry Green, who has been coming to Village Lanes for 24 years and giving bowling lessons for the last 16 years, is a league champion with his name in the Bowling Hall of Fame in St. Louis, Mo. Green has mastered the sport to the point that he can score a nearly perfect game even when, for a change of pace, he bowls by swinging the ball under his right leg.
"I got bored with regular practice and so I began throwing the ball under my leg," says Green who, like a true athlete, is always up for a new challenge.
He enjoys the camaraderie in bowling, especially as it's found at Village Lanes. "Bowling is a great place to network," he says. "I found my mechanic here."
Robby Strombeck thinks bowling will make a comeback. "Owners and managers get together and discuss bowling and how it's going, and any ideas somebody might have to try in their bowling centers might work in ours," he says. "We think it's going to come back. I think it will make a return pretty soon."