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Loss of Ballard’s Sunset Bowl still hurts

Verl Lowry takes a personal detour because doesn't want to see the spot where Sunset Bowl stood for more than 50 years. He'd rather remember it as it was. (Feliks Banel)

When Verl Lowry drives to Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood from where he lives in Bothell, he always makes a point of avoiding 14th NW and NW Market Street. It’s not because he’s trying to beat the traffic, which can be pretty bad around there at certain times of the day.

Verl Lowry takes a personal detour because he doesn’t want to see the spot where Sunset Bowl stood for more than 50 years. He’d rather remember it as it was.

“I haven’t been to Sunset Bowl since the day it closed,” Lowry said. “I think the closest I’ve been is 15th and Market, which is a block away.”

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Lowry was the manager of Sunset Bowl back in early 2008 when it was publicly announced that the bowling alley would be shut down for good. It was a heartbreaking time for Lowry and his staff, and for thousands of people in Seattle. Sunset Bowl was busy and profitable, but the land it had been built on back in the 1950s had soared in value.

The closure and eventual demolition of Sunset Bowl to make way for apartments seemed to symbolize so much change in and around Seattle back then. Now, just eight years later, it sometimes feels like the change around here has only accelerated.

Looking back to those tumultuous months of less than a decade ago, so many things are so different. Mayor Greg Nickels was in office at Seattle City Hall. It was a time steeped in national history, with a presidential election that would ultimately see Barack Obama defeat John McCain. Meanwhile, George W. Bush still had a year left in his second term, and the economy was beginning to slow. The Great Recession was yet to be christened, and that fiasco still lay somewhere ominously gestating beyond the fiscal horizon.

Lowry says that those few months between the announcement of the closure in January and final night of bowling in April hit him especially hard.

“It was the most stressful time of my life. It wasn’t anything there was even words for about the stress, knowing that we were closing. That really took a toll on me,” Lowry said.

You can’t blame him for taking it all so personally. Lowry had been on the job at Sunset Bowl for a long time. “I worked at both Sunset Bowl and Leilani Lanes in 1976, and then I went to just Sunset in 1980 as the manager, and then I was there until it closed. I was there actually 32 years,” he said.

Sunset Bowl, with its non-ironic cafe and cocktail lounge, was like a community center for that part of Ballard, especially for people of a certain age. It also attracted families on weekend outings, extended families getting out of the house during holiday get-togethers, kids celebrating birthday parties – as well as just people who liked to bowl.

Greg Olsen, executive director of the Washington State Bowling Proprietors’ Association, says that at one time, there were as many as 45 “bowling centers” in the Puget Sound area. Both Olsen and Verl Lowry say that “bowling center” is the term preferred by the industry to describe their establishments; an informal survey by this reporter found “bowling alley” to more readily trip off the tongue of most civilians.

Regardless of what you call them, Olsen says that there are only about a dozen in operation in 2016. The bowling centers that remain, he says, can be very profitable, especially those that have been remodeled or recently built to cater to corporate events as well as offer higher-end food and beverages.

“Higher-end” aren’t exactly the words that come to mind when recalling the charm of Sunset Bowl, but Verl Lowry says the place was special to its many customers. He says that’s because he wasn’t the only longtime employee on the job there.

“I think at one time I counted, and there were six or seven employees that had been working there for over 20 years,” Lowry said. “People knew them, so they were comfortable. It was like going in and sitting in someone’s living room and talking to them, ’cause you knew them that well,” he said.

The corporation that owned Sunset Bowl for 50 years sold the property for more than $13 million. Where the pins once crashed and the beer and pull tabs once flowed, there’s now a 233-unit apartment building on the site. It’s called AVA Ballard.

“I don’t blame them for [selling the land]. I mean, they made a lot of money,” Lowry said. “At that time they made a lot more money than what it was worth, so I don’t blame them for doing it.”

As the closure loomed, Lowry tried to keep Sunset Bowl open after the property changed hands. He reached out to the buyers but never heard back. “I’d make phone calls and leave messages and nobody would call me back, so I just gave up,” Lowry said.

After Sunset Bowl closed, Lowry worked in retail for a few years. He’s now retired and says that he hasn’t seen his former Sunset Bowl employees much since 2008. He also gave up the sport of bowling completely a few years ago when he hurt his knee. Lowry was once a pretty serious denizen of the oily hardwood; he’s rolled a dozen perfect 300-point games over the years.

Like so many people around here these days, Lowry keeps noticing how much things are changing . . . and changing around Puget Sound.

“I’ve lived in Seattle my whole life. I’m almost 70 years old, I’m 69. But I’ve seen so many changes now. You drive down the street and there used to be this there, this business and that business. Now you drive down there, and all the businesses are gone, and there are apartment buildings everywhere,” Lowry said.

One of the apartments that Lowry has noticed was built in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood, on the same spot where the bowling alley called Leilani Lanes once stood. Leilani Lanes, owned by the same group that owned Sunset Bowl, was sold and then shut down in late 2005.

Lowry says he likes the fact that the new building in Greenwood is called Leilani Apartments, as a tribute to another long-gone bowling alley, which also happens to be the place where Verl Lowry began his bowling alley career 40 years ago.

It’s pretty clear that Lowry is disappointed that Sunset Bowl has not received a similar tribute. “I don’t think they did anything like that where Sunset Bowl is. I’m not sure, I haven’t been there to know,” Lowry said.

Lowry says he likes the idea of the AVA Ballard apartment building incorporating some kind of tribute to Sunset Bowl, perhaps even changing its name.

And who knows? If that happens, Lowry might even find it within himself to drive by the place one day.

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