“Everything in this place has a story,” says Harold Nesland, sitting inside his eight-lane Snoqualmie Bowl in Snoqualmie, Washington.
There are many tales woven into the building’s past. It began life in 1925 as Snoqualmie’s first commercial laundry, but burned down — no insurance coverage, either — just two weeks after opening. It was rebuilt and operated until the 1950s, when rising costs and the advent of automatic washing machines and wash-and-wear fabrics made it difficult to keep a rural commercial laundry business going.
In 1954, the building began new life as a bowling center. As with many businesses that evolve with the times, it has changed hands, names, and appearance many times — a fairly mundane tale, until Nesland starts pointing at the equipment.
“This is Leilani. Sunset. Chelan. And this is Hilander,” he says.
Almost all of the fixtures and equipment that make up this bowling center — things that have been recycled and pieced together over many years starting in 1954 — came from somewhere else. Many of those “somewhere elses” are now gone, with only their memories to live on in an unassuming little concrete bowling hall sandwiched between a historic rail line and the Snoqualmie River.
Nesland, now 44, grew up in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, and remembers casually bowling at the late, legendary landmark Sunset Bowl (long known for being open 24 hours, and popular with students from the nearby University of Washington for late-night stress relief.)
But Nesland never became a bowler. He has always been a pizza man — co-founder and current VP of the Sahara Pizza chain. He has never identified as a serious bowling fanatic; at his best, he says, “I bowled maybe 150s, 160s.”
But when word got out that the little Snoqualmie bowling center was in danger of closing, there was something inside Nesland that wanted to save it.
“That’s probably the only reason I bought this place: the memories I had of Sunset Bowl,” he said. “They were going to tear down this place to build a new City Hall.”
The lanes were wood, the masking units classic Brunswick Gold Crown, when Nesland took over in 2000. Back then, it was known as Mt. Si Bowl. (Follow this link to see a “before” picture from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.)
Nesland was well aware that bowling centers — especially older ones with eight lanes, no automatic scoring nor ancillary income sources — were not huge profit-makers. He decided to co-brand businesses like other companies were already doing.
If people came in for pizza and some drinks, he reasoned, perhaps he could put together a package and convince them to stay and bowl a few games.
“I already had a Sahara Pizza here [in Snoqualmie]. I had a good customer base already from the pizza. I knew if I co-branded, I could make it work.”
Things got off to an ominous start. On Nesland’s first day at the helm of the bowling center, his revenue was “215.”
Two hundred and fifteen?
“Two dollars and fifteen cents,” Nesland says. “We sold one soda pop.”
Never one to give up, Nesland made small upgrades as equipment became available. When larger bowling centers closed, Nesland would scoop up spare machinery, house balls, tables, chairs — anything.
The Gold Crown masks were replaced with newer, more vibrant, glow-in-the-dark designs. Nesland showed me behind the lanes, where printed on the back of the panels is the only clue as to their origin: “LEILANI LANES.”
Yep — that Leilani Lanes, another Seattle landmark, closed in March 2006. Snoqualmie, known at the time as Adventure Bowling Center, got eight of Leilani’s synthetic lanes. Later, Chelan Lanes in eastern Washington upgraded their pinsetters, and Nesland snagged them to replace his aging Brunswick machines. When Sunset Bowl finally closed in 2008, its bumper rails went to Snoqualmie, as did some of the furniture.
With all the hand-me-downs Nesland has picked up over the years, what stands out immediately to sharp-eyed bowlers are two things he hasn’t yet upgraded. The above-ground ball returns are still there. And the place still has manual telescore tables. Automatic scoring is on Nelsand’s wish list — someday soon, he hopes.
As we continued our interview at the telescore of lanes 7 and 8, families trickled in and were assigned to the lanes around us. The house lights went down, the blacklights flickered on and the disco ball started to spin. Finally our lanes were given out, and we relinquished our seats in the settee area. From the desk Nesland watched the silhouettes of young bowlers and their parents, the glowing pastel balls careening off the bumpers.
Soon the lanes were all in use. One was occupied by a teenaged couple; the rest of the bowlers were elementary-age kids and a few of their parents. Want a lane on weekends, especially when it’s too cold to be outside? Forget it.
Business is brisk. Nesland has come a long way from that first day, when he sold the one soda.
“I’m enjoying the bowling business,” he said. “I think that as long as I have the pizza place, I’m never closing the bowling part.”
Story and photographs © 2015 by Kevin Hong.