Triangle Bowl sits quiet and empty as it has most of the past 10 months. But the phone isn’t silent.
“The phone probably rings five times a day, with people asking if they can get a lane today,” co-owner Beau Little said.
Multiple times a day, Little and his business partners have to tell would-be patrons that the only bowling alley between Vancouver and Olympia is closed, as it has been for all but a couple of months since mid-March. They’ve had to do the same every Saturday the past month, when Triangle Bowl opens to sell t-shirts, gear, and gift cards, but can’t let anyone in to bowl.
Now, optimism is tentatively rising with the rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine, with hope of an end to the pandemic on the horizon. But so is pessimism, with rising case numbers. And above all else, there’s a clock looming, with every passing day and week without normal revenue putting more financial strain on the alley.
“As far as family-owned businesses in the community go, this might be one of the largest, and basically it’s dying a slow death,” Little said. “It’s really sad to watch it happen.”
Back in March, Little and his business partners — his brother Scott Little and Kurt Bognar — didn’t foresee such a long-term shutdown. Like many business owners, they saw the ordered closures as a time to upgrade their facility. A simple scroll through the Triangle Bowl Facebook page shows a constant stream of work: a complete interior renovation, painting on the exterior, maintenance on the pinsetters, a new parking lot, refurbishing the neon sign out front.
The list goes on.
But aside from a brief two months of limited capacity in autumn, bowlers haven’t been able to experience it.
“We rolled the dice with that and thought that it was going to be short-lived, we’re going to come out better than ever, we’re going to invest in the facility, take advantage of the down time, and come out of this better on the other end,” Little said.
“That hasn’t happened.”
Without its normal amount of business, Triangle Bowl has worked with the Cowlitz County Economic Development Council, particularly councilperson Lindsey Cope, to secure federal and state grants to keep some money coming in. But most of the grants don’t come close to being enough. In November, when Gov. Jay Inslee announced $135 million in COVID-19 financial support, Triangle Bowl was accepted to receive approximately $12,000. Little said that amount could only cover around three weeks of rent, calling it “a slap in the face.”
That came on the heels of the Nov. 15 order to shut down after just over two months back in limited-capacity business. Inslee originally announced earlier in the year that all alleys would be shuttered until 2021, but in August he released guidelines allowing them to open back up. Those rules stipulated that the alleys could only allow league and club members in, limited the number of bowlers per lane, and upheld mask and sanitization requirements.
“We weren’t breaking even, but at least we weren’t bleeding money like we are during sports closures,” Little said.
On Sept. 8, the new-look Triangle Bowl reopened under the revised guidelines. By Nov. 15, with positive cases rising sharply again, Inslee ordered another shutdown that it has since been extended to at least Jan. 11.
As tough as it’s been, Triangle Bowl has been able to hold out longer than other alleys nearby. Before the shutdown, the next-closest alley was Fairway Lanes in Centralia, which closed permanently in August after 62 years in business. Now, the closest bowling center outside of Triangle Bowl is Husted’s Hazel Dell Lanes in Clark County.
If Triangle Bowl defied the order and let bowlers in, Little said they would quickly lose multiple “precious” licenses, including their liquor license and gambling license.
Before the shutdowns began, Little and his business partners employed 40 people at Triangle Bowl. For the two months of limited reopening, they were able to bring about 20 back. With no patrons, though, that number is now zero, and they have to worry about employees looking for more concrete jobs elsewhere.
“For these people to go because they have to go find another job to support their families, it’s really going to put us behind the 8-ball if this lockdown continues much longer,” Little said.
Meanwhile, he, his brother, and Bognar have been left to “weather Gov. Inslee’s shutdown” by themselves, taking out mortgages and emptying retirement accounts to keep Triangle Bowl afloat while holding out for something good to happen.
“The debt is getting insurmountable,” Little said. “Eventually either that debt will collapse this business, or a magic fairy grant is going to come from somewhere else.”
And should that good news come, they’re looking forward to answering the phones that keep ringing, this time in a more positive way and better news to report.
“None of us like that word around here... like, ‘This is the new normal,’” Little said. “It can’t be the new normal for us. We need to get back to the old normal.”