“If you’re not having fun, I’m not doing my job,” says Rob Houtman, owner of the Saugerties Bowlers Club behind Simmons Plaza in Barclay Heights.
Houtman, 67, has worked at the bowling alley started by his father since it moved to its current location in 1968 from a smaller eight-lane location in the Village.
Houtman said his father initially entered a partnership with two other men from Albany which also included two other bowling alleys in the Albany area. That dissolved by the 1970s with his father taking sole ownership of the bowling alleys. Both locations in the Albany area have since closed.
That was the golden era of bowling with participation peaking in the late 1960s through the 1970s, he said. Back then there were so many people in the leagues that they had to “double shift” seven days a week with one league starting at 6:30 p.m. and another at 9:30 p.m. On top of that, there were also afternoon leagues, he said.
It was a time when practically everyone bowled and then discussed what happened in their league last night during work the next day, he recalled.
Houtman said the number of bowlers started to decline a bit starting in the 1980s and more so in the last 20-25 years, particularly among women. He said the decline cuts across all age demographics from 18 year olds to 80 year olds.
And these days, one shift suffices to meet the demand.
“Bowling is down by 60 percent from what it used to be,” Houtman said. And that’s resulted in a lot of bowling alleys closing down across the country.
“There’s only one or two left in Manhattan,” Houtman said. Locally RUPCO’s Energy Square was built on the site of a shuttered bowling alley on Cedar Street in Midtown Kingston.
There are a number of bowling alleys in the area including Patel’s Kingston Lanes on U.S. Route 9W in the Town of Ulster and the Hoe Bowl in Catskill owned by the Hoe family who also formerly owned the Ulster alley.
Other bowling alleys have placed a greater focus towards open bowling where anyone can show up and bowl without committing to joining a league and birthday parties. While other bowling alleys, like one in Poughkeepsie, have cordoned off perhaps three-to-four lanes into a walled-off area for use strictly by corporate events.
While Houtman offers open-bowling, he prefers traditional league bowling and he estimates that league bowling still makes up 90 percent of his business. “Change is hard,” he said.
“The customers I have are great,” Houtman said. “They’re the diehards.” Some drive 40 miles just to bowl at the Bowlers Club, he added.
He admitted it’s harder than ever for people living ever busier lives to commit to 30-week leagues that meet weekly with the exception of the summer months.
“They’re joining the gym doing other things, and with the COVID-19 thing they’re staying home and bundling down,” he said. But grumblings that the league’s seasons are too long is nothing new.
“I heard that 50 years ago,” Houtman said.
The Bowler Club has also contended with the pandemic that forced the alley to close entirely from March 13, 2020, to August 2020 under a state mandate that shut down many types of indoor gatherings over fears of spreading the virus. When they were finally able to open, it was with barriers between the lanes and masks on. More recently, the masks have returned with the rise of the highly contagious omicron variant in late 2021 and early 2022.
Still through all these changes, Houtman says the Saugerties Bowling Club is holding its own and is doing just fine.
He said they lost a few customers during the pandemic, but most seem to be slowly making their way back. “It’s still a terrible, terrible tragedy,” he said, thinking of the pandemic.
As for attracting new bowlers, Houtman said promotion has always been a huge part of the business. He recalled that even back in 1968, at the height of bowling’s popularity, the Bowlers Club called everyone in town offering free lessons at its then new location to introduce new people to bowling.
“We had five people on the phones asking people to come in for free bowling lessons,” he said. “I’m a little long in the tooth to start over now.” You gotta keep pushing and pushing.”
He said one of the great things about bowling is that people of a wide variety of ages can participate. “You can bowl from four years old to 100 years old,” Houtman said.
Like any other recreational sports there are people who get a bit more competitive than others, he said. But he emphasized at the end of the day having fun is the number-one priority.
These days the Bowlers Club hosts a league every night Mondays to Fridays and an additional junior league on Saturdays.
He said while a few people come in for open bowling it’d be trickier to plan staffing if he were to set aside a dedicated day for an open bowling day in the future.
“With a league, you know you’re going to get 100 people, so you can have someone in the bar, the snack bar and at the desk,” he said. “With open bowling, you could have only three people.”You’re stuck wondering if they will come in or not.”
Houtman does not mind hard work and that means working seven days a week during the 30-week season that runs through the fall, winter and early spring. “I like what I do, it’s ok,” he said. “Anyone who runs a bowling alley works hard.”
Houtman pretty much does all the work to help maintain the building along with the 40-50-year-old machinery that helps set pins and returns balls to bowlers.
“I know how to keep these running and I’m too old to learn,” he said. But they have made some upgrades over the years, like automatic scoring equipment. “We’re on our second set of automatic scoring equipment, that’s something we didn’t have 30 years ago.”
Houtman just prefers to keep equipment going over buying new stuff. “I don’t drive a new car, but my wife does,” he said. “If I don’t keep that running, people can’t bowl.”
He said taxes and upkeep on everything are his biggest expenses.
He admitted his work schedule hasn’t been made any easier by staffing shortages felt by businesses, not-for-profits and government agencies across the country.
But he makes up for this crazy schedule in the summer months when he only opens twice a week for a pair of summer leagues. He even closes up shop altogether in July.
“I take my time,” he said.
Outside of its regular routine of leagues, the Bowlers Club has recently played host to a couple of movie shoots. The film business is booming across the area of late with Ulster County towns hosting shoots for big-budget productions like HBO’s Pretty Little Liars and smaller productions alike.
And he said his loyal customers are very understanding of the film shoots. Like one that recently shut down the bowling alley for one night, forcing a league to cancel that night’s games.
“They were like okay we’ll take a week off mid-season,” Houtman said.
Looking ahead to the future, Houtman doesn’t have a succession plan, at least in the family, for the business started by his father. His mother and father both passed away last year after more than 30 years of retirement in Florida.
“My son is a school teacher in Spackenkill and lives by me,” he said.
A Saugerties lifer, Houtman was born in the Village of Saugerties before moving up to Houtman Road, which is named after his parents who bought a place on the road back in the 1920s when it was still a dirt road.
“We’ve been here a long time, we don’t have any money, but we have a road named after us,” he said.
Houtman invites anyone who is interested in the Saugerties Bowlers Club to call (845) 246-4969.