Skip to main content

Sue Card, left and Donna Lincoln celebrate a friend’s strike.The Globe and Mail

There's no price tag you can place on what 65-year-old Barb Trip is doing, as she rolls her three-pound bowling ball smoothly toward five defenceless pins at the Varsity Ridge Lanes.

Nor is there a monetary value to be put on the activity of any of the three dozen or so seniors who have joined her this Monday morning to chat and take their crack at spilling a few pins. For many, it's their only exercise and socializing of the week.

Their time on the lanes is, as the ad says, priceless.

But it's soon to end. The long-time bowling alley with the iconic big pin on the roof is heading toward its final frame, to be replaced by a four-storey condominium project on land the developer bought for $15.5-million.

With that kind of money at stake, there was little chance for five-dollar-a-frame bowling to survive, and the 12,000 school kids, 700 league bowlers, innumerable recreational pay-as-you-goers and 80 Special Olympians who find their way to the basement lanes every year will soon be out of luck.

"I think it's a sin," said Ruth Major, who bowls regularly at Varsity Ridge Lanes to help ease her multiple sclerosis. "This is how so many seniors get some exercise and it's their community. It's not all about the bowling."

Ms. Trip, meanwhile, who had watched delightedly as her ball claimed all five pins for a perfect strike, said bowling is a way to get seniors out of their homes and provide some exercise.

"It's not a good thing that this is going to be destroyed," she said. "This is a good community resource."

The west side bowling alley, one of only four left in Vancouver, has been a fixture of the Arbutus neighbourhood for 62 years, along with the adjacent Ridge Theatre, also destined for the wrecking ball.

Heading down the stairs is to be transported back to a simpler, seemingly bygone era: the clank of pin-setting machines, bowling balls trundling back along the track, the satisfying thwack of balls scattering pins, and whoops and hollers when things go right. "Oh yay, I got a hundred," proclaims an exultant senior. And, oh yes, there's a plate of free cookies on the snack-bar counter, restricted by house rules to two per customer.

The most modern fixture in the place may be the carpet, decorated by intergalactic symbols that glow in the dark when alley operator Ken Hayden douses the lights and throws a special switch. "Cool, eh?" he tells an admiring visitor.

Mr. Hayden, 69, has been running Varsity Ridge Lanes since 1981. It's a family affair, with his wife, Judy, and sister Gail helping out. A picture of mother Alma, who bowled until she was 99, hangs on the wall outside his small, cluttered office.

He got into the bowling business after deciding it was more exciting than manufacturing bar stools in Port Moody. "We've done very well here, and we're still doing well. It's the best-kept secret in town."

Mr. Hayden is bitter about the lanes' imminent fate, which marches, petitions and heartfelt pleas to the city by scores of bowlers have failed to avert. "No one from Vision even came to visit us," he complains, of Vancouver's ruling municipal party. "I'm so upset. People are devastated, and I'm losing a job after more than 32 years. It's sad."

There is not yet a firm closing date for Varsity Ridge Lanes. Mr. Hayden says he will make a decision after the leagues shut down for the summer at the end of June. The future of the roof-top bowling pin is also up in the air. "I've had some other bowling lanes asking about it. … Maybe the [Vancouver] museum would like it."

Whatever happens, nothing will replace the homey, community feel of a place that has provided so much pleasure to so many for so long. "You'd come down the stairs, and Ken, Judy or Gail would know your name, have your shoes ready and away you'd go," said Maryalice Schaffer, 72. "This is all very sad."