Kids’ shoes line the counters at 20th Century Bowl. // Photo by Brooke Weisbecker
The buzz of neon lights resonates through the air as people walk into 20th Century Bowl for the Thursday night league. Through the doors, people line up at the Century Café in the alley to buy their team pitchers of beer as classic-rock music blasts from every speaker. Chatter and cheering-on of teammates can be heard from lane one all the way to lane 16.
Located off of State Street in downtown Bellingham, 20th Century Bowl, has a tight-knit community of regulars, said owner Beth Brannian.
Debbie Messiaen, a league bowler at the alley, said she has been a patron since she was a young child when the bowling alley had a daycare center in the basement.
“This is a place I have always gravitated to,” Messiaen said. “It feels like my home center.”
Rebecca Butler, a league bowler at 20th Century Bowl, loves that the alley is a place where people from all different backgrounds can come together when they normally wouldn’t have the chance to, she said.
“When I come here, I am interacting with people from so many different walks of life,” Butler said. “I interact with people I would never interact with in my normal friend group or run into in my daily life. It’s nice coming here and talking to people I wouldn’t find other places.”
Brannian has also been going to the alley since she was a child like Messiaen. Her family owned the alley in 1956 when it was relocated from Railroad Avenue to its current location on State Street. She took over the family business in 1997, she said.
“We’re kind of a quirky place,” Brannian said. “We’re not your average bowling center.”
Brannian mentioned she tries to make the atmosphere of the alley like the sitcom “Cheers.” She said she used to use the analogy of the sitcom to train her employees.
“The bartenders knew all the clientele, the clientele knew all the [other] clientele,” she said. “We are ‘Cheers’. We are a neighborhood bar and bowling alley.”
20th Century Bowl is a mix of new and nostalgic with pinsetters from the mid-to-late 60s and 5-year-old synthetic lanes. Pieces from the original wood lanes were made into tables that customers can use to watch games or eat their food on. Brannian even collects old items her customers give her in a glass display mounted by the front entrance.
“We call that the Shrine to Tacky,” she said. “I mean, it does have an Elvis plate, pink yard flamingos and dogs playing poker. A Shrine to Tacky would not be complete without those three things.”
Brannian also put moose antlers and a sign above the exit doors with the line, “You can checkout anytime you like, but you can never leave,” from the song “Hotel California” by The Eagles. She said the sign is something she thought about putting up for five years and she knew it just needed to be there.
“I am as comfortable here as I am at home,” Brannian said. “This is an extension of my living room.”
Because 20th Century Bowl does not fit the average mold, people still bowl quite often despite the decline of bowling itself nationwide, Brannian said. The league numbers continue to go up, which Brannian believes contributes to the friendly neighborhood feel of the alley, she said.
“I have clientele that spend more hours here than I do,” she said. “They bowl in three or four leagues a week and they come in to bowl on the weekends.”
She said a lot of the league bowlers are ages 25 to 45, which is younger than the average league bowler.
“Anybody can bowl,” she said. “You might not be able to play soccer or tennis, but anyone can bowl.”