915 State St., Grinnell, Iowa • (641) 236-5827
“How did you find this place?” asks Jim Buffum, the owner of Bowladrome. “We’re not on the Internet or anything.”
Indeed, Bowladrome does not have a website nor a presence on Facebook. The advertising budget is zero, Buffum takes summers off, and Grinnell — which, at one lane per 900 residents, surely has one of the higher per-capita lane counts in the nation — is a town of fewer than 10,000 residents, located just an hour east of Des Moines.
“This [place] is awesome because it’s so cheap,” says Arthur Richardson, a sophomore at Grinnell College. “It should be more popular than it is. It’s so close to the college.”
Frozen pizza is the only food offered at the venue, and the sparse furnishings aren’t much fancier than the plain sign behind the cash register that reads: “Bowling, $3; Shoes, $1; Beer, $2.25.” This is a place as frozen in time as the air is in January, when the average daily high temperature is 29 degrees. The walls are carpeted to lessen the din. A foosball and pool table collect dust in a long-idle game room. A Pac-Man machine, however, works just fine, as does the rotary-dial phone next to the cash register.
The building predates the bowling alley, but Buffum can’t say exactly what it was used for before pins started flying in 1947, when Grinnell, bucking a small-Midwest-town trend, was actually smaller than it is today.
Buffum’s father bought the place in 1958 and soon added two lanes to create a 10-lane house. He had no particular love for bowling, but he knew that a roadside restaurant he owned would suffer greatly once nearby Interstate 80, then just a drawing, was built. Bowling became his livelihood.
Buffum took over in the early 1980s, after his father died. One of the biggest changes was the installation of automatic scoring equipment in 2001. Before taking out a loan, Buffum polled his customers, who overwhelmingly agreed to a 25-cent-per-game price increase to pay for the gear.
Business has slowed in recent years, Buffum says, but remains strong enough that he envisions his son taking over one day.
“I try to take care of it,” he says. “I spend a little money on it when I’ve got it.”