As a New England newcomer, I’ve learned how to be a Red Sox fan, practiced the pronunciation of Chelmsford, and realized that historic plaques on houses are commonplace. But some things still surprise me: candlepin bowling, for example. While growing up in a small town in New York state, tenpin bowling was one of the few recreational activities available. Bowling was all about the magic of finding the perfect ball with finger holes that fit, carrying it to the lane with both arms (because it was so heavy) and making sure my brother didn’t touch it. Bowling was the smell of cigarettes, bowling shoes, and 7 and 7s. It was the sound of people laughing and swearing, and the lure of the candy machines.
The pins were the size of adult cats; curvy, heavy and statuesque. Skilled bowlers would roll the ball so powerfully that it would slam into the pins with a tremendous crash. Good bowlers boasted the occasional 300 (perfect) game. I averaged around 75.
Here, things are different. Candlepin balls fit in the palm of your hand, and the pins are built more like Twiggy than Marilyn Monroe. So I decided to check out some of the old-school bowling alleys. My favorite visit was to Riverwalk Lanes in Amesbury, a bowler’s haven since the 1940s. The first time I played, I used the tenpin technique of lobbing the ball with as much force as possible. I did get one strike. Unfortunately, the pins I knocked down were two lanes over.
Co-owner Mark Ricci explained a few of the differences between candlepin and tenpin, noting that candlepin balls weigh around 2 pounds rather than 15, that professionals throw one or two strikes per game and record scores of 120 to 125, and that downed pins remain on the floor and become part of the game, so you have to “play the wood.”
According to Ricci, the building that houses Riverwalk Lanes was originally an addition to the Lafayette Naturalization Club, which was founded in 1896 as a private social club for French-Canadian immigrants. It was still called Lafayette Lanes until a few years ago.
“It used to be a hotbed for money and grudge matches,” Ricci says. “You’d get top guys in any night battling it out.”
Foam sheets installed behind the pins bear a collection of signatures from great names in candlepin throughout the years.
“All the best bowlers lived here,” Ricci says.
Eighty-year-old Lou Gosselin comes to Riverwalk every evening at 7:30, unless he’s out of town following the traveling leagues. As a teenager, Gosselin worked with three cousins setting up pins, earning 7 cents per string (one game).
“The money was good, but it was dangerous because of the balls and pins flying all over the place,” Gosselin says. He recalls great bowlers and record-setters. “When [local bowling legend] Brian Fuller bowled 224, I was here to see it. And the funny thing about it? When he was born, he didn’t even weigh a pound.”
Ricci says, “Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, bowling was everything. Kids were in leagues on Saturday mornings. Families would go bowling Saturday night. It was just the thing to do. When you were bowling with your parents, you saw them as people. You couldn’t beat your dad at arm wrestling, but you might beat him at candlepin. And that was cool. Since candlepin went off television 20 years ago, there’s been a downward trend.”
And that’s what Riverwalk Lanes is trying to reverse. “We’re starting a new television show,” Ricci says. “There are a few on public access and YouTube, but no one has re-created the old format of one guy against another guy playing three strings. Our show is for the bowlers, by the bowlers,” he says.
Ricci says he always wanted to own a bowling alley. “I’m a bowling freak,” he says. “I can put in 40, 50, 60 hours a week and it doesn’t feel like I’m working.”
Ricci took over Riverwalk in November 2012 with his fiancée, Melissa Caissie, and partner, Brian Bazylinski.
“It’s always been a family operation,” Ricci says. “The Quinn family ran it for more than 30 years. Before that, Tony Baldinelli’s family put candlepin on the map. Now it’s us.”
Caissie and Ricci spent six months renovating the building, bringing the pin machines (installed in 1964) back to working order, and redecorating. For things that needed to be modernized, such as the jukebox, they chose items that had an old-school vibe. As for scorekeeping, Ricci says, “It’ll be pencil and paper forever!”
I can still hear a television jingle from when I was a kid that went: “Hey! Let’s go bowling! Let’s go bowling!” So go do it. Find a vintage alley, and enjoy the experience.
As Ricci says: “It’s ingrained in the culture of the area. It’s not just a game. It’s a way of life.”
( Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2014 issue of MVM )
For more information on the rules and history of candlepin bowling visit MassCandlepin.com.
11 High St.
725 South Main St.
325 Boston Road
North Billerica, Mass.
King Bowling Lanes:
751 Mast Road
340 Amherst St.