(All Photos by Ben LaFond)
Roger Engmark is a man of few words. But then again, having spent more than 30 years maintaining the lanes at Bryant Lake Bowl, he’s probably tired of repeating himself. After all, we’re the interlopers, whereas he “came with the building” when Kim Bartmann acquired the joint in 1993.
An octogenarian himself, Roger has witnessed Uptown’s metamorphosis from his vantage point at the lanes as well as owning a home in the neighborhood. Though the original BLB was established in 1936, by Roger’s estimate the building existed long before. Prior to its conversion into a bowling alley, he said the space had been home to a Ford showroom and garage. The lanes sit atop the former garage portion of the dealership, which accounts for the solid concrete beneath and the building’s minimal basement. The former game room now holds BLB’s Theater, though archival images dating back to the mid-1950′s show the bowling alley shared the block with a furniture shop and roofing supply store.
Just past mid-century, things got a bit seedier in Lyn-Lake. “There used to be some all-night pool hall type bars, things like that, which kept some undesirable people around the neighborhood. The city finally closed them down so we were the only ones around who had pool tables or games.”
According to Roger’s memory, machines supplanted the practice of hand-placing pins in 1969. Maintaining these machines with parts culled from other closed houses is Roger’s secondary duty, though a new kid—“a guy named Jim, works at Barbette”—is being trained to pacify the ancient beasts.
As I watched the pins reset from behind locked doors at a place that’s just so much fun, my exuberance was tempered by Roger’s succinctness. As the old machines clanged away, he told stories that belied a sense of nostalgia for days long gone, when roving packs of truly skilled bowlers divided their time between a multitude of leagues, tournaments, and the bars and eateries who sponsored their fun.
When pressed to describe the difference in BLB nowadays compared to decades past, “there’s no leagues” became a refrain.
“I would say that 95% or better aren’t bowlers. They’re in to have a good time and what have you. But what I consider a bowler they are not.”
The absence of bowling as it used to be even seeps into his weekly routine of oiling—not waxing!—the lanes. Accordingly, he only applies conditioning oil to only the first sixteen feet of each lane, toweling off the excess after he’s had a cup of coffee. Beyond those first sixteen feet, it doesn’t much matter for non-competition bowlers.
What’s more, apparently the resident ghost doesn’t mind the lanes’ amateur conditions, either. Several employees will attest to having seen a man roaming the basement, back rooms, and lanes, though Roger admits he’s never seen him with his own eyes.
“What do they see when they see the ghost?” I asked.
“It’s a guy.”
“Does he bowl?”
“Nope, he just haunts the place.”
So what keeps Roger coming back if the sport itself is in such decline that even the ghost doesn’t roll? His answer is unsurprising in its practicality.
“At my age, it gets me out of the house and off of the couch. I just… I really don’t work. I do and I don’t. I don’t get paid for it. I get my bowling if I want. I get a meal once and a while. It’s more just to keep my hands in it.”
Besides, Roger is something of a legend in his own right, the status of which seems like it would be hard to relinquish. A portrait of him taken over a decade ago hangs above the house balls and adjacent to the rental shoes. Beneath it, a placard reading Roger is in would have hung depending on the time of day.
“Believe it or not, somebody stole that picture one time. They put the [empty] frame in the clock room.”
I couldn’t contain myself. “You’re famous, Roger! You’ve made it!” Someone had actually stolen his image within his lifetime.
“I know. I’ve been on a lot of shows in the Twin Cities. I don’t know if you’re acquainted with Diners, Drive-ins and Dives with Guy Ferrari [sic]? I’ve been on Channel 2, Channel 11, Channel 4 too.”
“Are you getting sick of the attention?”
Regardless of whether Roger continues to appreciate it, the view from his side of things is actually pretty extraordinary. After trying (and failing) to articulate this feeling to him, there was nothing left to do but thank him for sharing the vista.