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Why I bought a historic pool hall

A young couple ducks into the air-conditioned shelter and out of the hot sunlight. They have come to the Green Room to play a few games of pool, maybe some shuffleboard, and to enjoy a cold beverage or two. After close inspection of the beer cooler and a brief discussion of prices with the bartender, called a houseman, they each choose a drink--a Vermont microbrew for her and a PBR for him.

Andy Seamans, left, and Michael Dearing outside the Green Room in Durham. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

The houseman hands over a rack of balls, and they set off to find an open table. They make their way around the 10 antique tables--no quarters needed--to table seven, a beautiful 4 1/2-by-9-foot Brunswick Centennial manufactured pre-World War II. With a piercing crack the cue ball strikes the stack and the game is under way.

This is how it starts. People who find their way to the Green Room on Broad Street in Durham almost always hear about it from a friend. There is no outside sign, and until recently there's never been any advertising. Yet, this humble, almost invisible place has been around now for more than 20 years, and has touched the lives of countless people.

Imagine stepping into a Depression-era pool hall under siege, like an indoor demilitarized zone. The floor seems like it's a hundred years old. The walls are marked with holes, and in spots, the brick exterior shows through. The tables have an ancient appearance that makes one wonder how many people must have played on them before you. Its endearing, no-frills decor feels honest and real, like the people inside it.

My father first introduced me to the Green Room about 18 years ago. After a family dinner at home, he said he knew the perfect place to go out and shoot pool. This night would change my life. Some may call it a "misspent youth," but I don't. Sure, I played pool there, but the Green Room is as much about pool as Doctor Zhivago is about medicine. It's about people and life. I've made friends there, been employed there, been educated there, and now I own it. I'm sharing my experiences because the place means so much me and, I believe, so much to Durham.

As my father and I became regulars, we got to know the owner, Joe Wilson, who operated the place for the last 20 years until he recently passed it on to me and my business partner, Andy Seamans, who also has a long history with the place. Andy found it while in graduate school in 1992 and began working there a year later. On his first night as houseman, he met his future wife, Marcia Brooks, who would later become the first "housewoman."

Joe, like his barbershop father Blacky Wilson, is a Durham institution. It's quite impossible to walk down Ninth Street with the man because everyone knows him and wants to talk to him, no matter their age, color or shoe size. Over the years, Joe has managed to transfer his rare and special spirit to the Green Room.

This small, almost invisible pool hall on Broad Street attracts young and old, men and women, wealthy and not-at-all-wealthy. You'll find all races, religions and sexual orientations. You'll witness pierced artists and tattooed Harley riders playing alongside professors, students and athletes. And everyone gets along. Patrons need only abide by the six simple rules posted above the register: 1. We don't serve drunks 2. Use common sense 3. Respect others 4. Take care of the equipment 5. No drinks on the tables 6. Don't talk with your mouth full.

Listening to Joe reminisce about the Green Room is a guilty pleasure. He is, as many in Durham already know, a wonderful storyteller. He recently spoke at a Durham Historic Preservation Society function about the time he "accidentally" won the Green Room in a high stakes game of gin. He also recently regaled a group attending a Durham Arts Council fund-raiser about the time he spent with Kevin Costner and crew filming the pool hall scenes for the movie Bull Durham.

Most Green Room stories aren't about flashy celebs, but about the unique, colorful and everyday people that have come to this bar for the last few decades. Like the quiet and modest Vietnam veteran who played pool every afternoon, whom the regulars thought they knew everything about. One day he brought in a box of medals from the war containing three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and the Medal of Honor. There's also the story of a guy who shot an attacking grisly bear at point-blank range while camping solo in Alaska. It's a good thing he survived, because he's the one who handmade the Green Room's full-size shuffleboard table back in the early '90s. Five of the Green Room's 10 tables have been named after deceased loyal patrons: Walter Norfleet, Louis Whitman, Charles Poirer, Javan Breakers and Randy Clayton.

Both Andy and I have worked at the Green Room and seen its customers come and go for many years. The common traits among its patrons seem to be honesty, integrity and loyalty. This is not a place people go to see and be seen. It's where they go to relax and have fun. The place also provides evidence that Durham is not as divided and polarized as some outside media reports would have people believe.

Come by and spend time in a place full of character and filled with characters. With a little luck, we'll be able to keep the Green Room's magic going for another 20 years.

Wanna play?

The Green Room is at 1108 Broad St., Durham, 286-2359.

Open Monday-Saturday 3 p.m.-2 a.m., Sunday 7 p.m.-2 a.m.

And, thankfully, there are so many pool halls all over the Triangle that there are too many to list. For a complete listing, see the Yellow Pages under Billiard Halls or visit www.triangleipages.com/a/amusementrecreationsvc/billiardparlors/default.htm.


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