1851 W. Irving Park Road, Chicago • (773) 549-9770 • www.timberlanesbowl.com
It’s shortly after breakfast on a Saturday, and Timber Lanes is in full swing. Jim Clemens, a regular league bowler here for practice, rolls the day’s first ball at precisely 10:23 a.m. He is not, however, bowling alone. Friends out for a daylong pub crawl have just arrived, so the bar is hopping, and every lane is soon taken.
“It’s classic,” says Mike Ignatowski as he hoists the day’s first Miller Lite. “It’s North Side Chicago. Wooden lanes. You keep your own score, so you can cheat a bit.”
Owner Bob Kuhn beams.
“It’s like having a party at your house, but you don’t have to clean up,” says Kuhn, who got his first job at a bowling alley when he was 16 and bought this place in 1985.
The building dates to the early 20th century and housed a speakeasy during Prohibition. Lanes were installed in 1945, then covered with lanes from a Japanese bowling center during a renovation in 1978 that also introduced a modern ball-return system, ?using underground tracks. With the help of a flashlight, you can still see the original lanes and ball tracks if you peer through a hatch at the bottom of the ball-return machines.
The decor is spartan, from wood-paneled walls along the eight lanes to a pair of trees, more trunk than branch, painted on the wall above the pins.
“They are pretty sad-looking trees,” allows Kuhn, who says he has kept them there for 27 years out of respect for the prior owners.
Kuhn says that while at one time he gave directions by telling folks that Timber Lanes was two muggings away from the L train, the neighborhood has gentrified, making it safer to come here to play. Kuhn says he’s been offered more than $2 million for the property, but he’s not interested in selling.
“We do very, very well with the bowling alley,” he says.
Kuhn knows his regular bowlers by name, asking about their friends and families and how things are going at work as they arrive. He’s an invaluable resource for folks like Clemens, who takes his score sheet to Kuhn for totaling at session’s end.
“I kept screwing it up,” Clemens says, “so I gave up.”
With no automatic scoring equipment, bowlers are on the honor system when it comes to paying for games, which cost either $2.50 or $3, depending on whether you’re bowling on a slow night or during peak hours. Kuhn says he doesn’t worry about customers fibbing; the bar, not bowling, pays most of the bills at Timber Lanes.
“[If] a guy walks out of here and says he beat me out of a game, do I care?” Kuhn asks. “He’s been drinking the whole time.”
The alley’s vital weak spot: nails showing in some of the lanes owing to wood that has disappeared with decades of regular sanding. Kuhn says he sands every three years and figures the lanes have three sandings left. And so a decision looms.
“To put in regular wood, it might cost $40,000,” Kuhn says. “I don’t know. I’m 56.”