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BENNINGTON — It’s hard to quantify what the closing of something like a bowling alley means to a rural community like Bennington. Some might say it’s all about the economics, how mom-and-pop places can’t cut it in a town like this in 2023. Others might say it’s just another business changing hands, replaced by a stronger, more viable one with corporate ties or deep-pocketed outside investors. And for others, it just might mean the loss of another piece of their social network, another familiar place with familiar faces that anchor us to the fabric of a community.

The Bennington Lanes, a familiar sight to generations in Bennington, is closing its doors permanently later this month. It has been a mainstay of the community since its opening in 1958. Just two families have owned the bowling alley for all those years. The first one featured not just modern 10-pin bowling but old-school candlepins, too — those skinny, tall pins of a long-ago era in America.

The second and last owner is Cindy Thomson. Brooke Thomson-Drew, the daughter of Cindy and Bill Thomson, was born in 1980, the same year they bought the place from the original owners. She still carries the scar under her chin from, as a toddler, falling on one of the lanes as she carried a bowling ball.

“I grew up running around here,” Brooke says, tears welling in her eyes. “I don’t know what I will do when it’s finally gone.”

Cindy was a school teacher when she and her husband purchased the bowling alley and the land it sat on in 1980, nearly 43 years ago. They later added the Dairy Bar ice cream stand, right out front. Both businesses are Bennington icons about to disappear permanently, leaving thousands of memories.

“I’m in here day-to-day,” Brooke says. “I see parents here with their kids that I knew when they were children. Their parents and grandparents come in on Saturday mornings, and I see their kids bowling with our kids. There’s a value here that’s disappearing. I mean, there are not a lot of bowling alleys around anymore. Is it hard contemplating not having this place here.”

“It was a heart-wrenching decision for me,” says Cindy Thomson. “The last thing you want to do is put your business out of business. But the reality is we can’t survive anymore. Bennington has really changed. We were a mill town. You think about all these mills, little mills and big mills that were in town. This was their only entertainment. Third shift used to come down at 8 o’clock in the morning when they got out of work to bowl. That’s all gone. There used to be a Homemakers League, but that’s gone, too. It’s just not viable anymore.”

The bowling alley mechanic, the person who came in to maintain and fix the pin machines, moved to Georgia last year. The gentleman who oils and maintains the lanes has worked for the Thomson family for nearly 30 years. He’s aging out of the job, as well. There aren’t many young people trained to do those jobs, even if you could find them. That has been a struggle.

There was some thought of Brooke keeping the place going, but the overhead and being away from her family has taken a hard toll on the 43-year-old, who has been the manager since her father died in 2003, sometimes working seven days a week, 12-plus hours a day.

“The amount of money that I would have to put in over the next five to 10 years just to keep it going is unsustainable,” Brooke says. “We’ll have to buy a new boiler if we stay in business. Those start at $50,000. For us to keep our mechanics coming in, that’s up to $30,000 every year, with parts and labor. We need to put a new roof on the center in the next five years. It just didn’t make sense. We talked about putting in or updating our scoring (system). We just got a quote for $160,000 for 18 lanes. So, for me to financially give my mom a fair price for her business and then do the necessary upgrades to keep it going, I just couldn’t do it. I already feel like I live here, and I would really be moving in if I had to do that.”

The Thomson family wanted to sell to someone in the community who could keep the bowling business going, but no one stepped up. There was a gentleman from Long Island who made a bid but walked away two weeks from closing. No one else came forward in the three years they had it listed.

“I was devastated when at the last minute, they just decided, ‘No, we’re not going to do this,’” Brooke said. “It was devastating to all of us.

A buyer eventually stepped forward, but the dream of keeping the bowling alley and the ice cream stand wasn’t part of the deal. The new owners plan to demolish both buildings and put up a car wash, which has left some bitter feelings in the community and another link to the past in Bennington gone forever.

When asked what the next steps might hold for Cindy and Brooke, both tried to stay positive, but when you’ve grown up in a place, it’s hard to see what the future might look like without looking back.

“I’m probably just going to have a little more free time than I’ve had,” Cindy says. “I retired from teaching in 2008 and worked here part time. The Dairy Bar demands far more of my time in the summer, because there’s more payroll and invoices than the bowling alley does, but I don’t know. Brooke has a college education. I would like to see her use that.”

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“I’m excited and scared at the same time,” Brooke says, sitting at the front desk, looking around. “I’ve lived within these four walls and the four walls across the parking lot for a big part of my life. I don’t have much of a life, because it’s been the business. And as scary as it is, it’s exciting to know I can have a different future. I don’t know what I’m going to do. And everyone keeps saying, ‘What are you going to do?’ I’m scared to death, because I have no idea.”

There have been some nasty messages posted on the Bennington Lanes Facebook page and other social media pages from some in the community who blame Cindy and Brooke for closing the doors on an important piece of Bennington’s social fabric. But both women, while understanding the feelings, don’t think those people understand the tremendous financial pressures and stress they have been under trying in vain to find a buyer who could keep the place going. The business also has given back to the community, supporting several projects and donating time and money. Some people just see that something they care for is disappearing.

“I’ve received, honestly, some mean messages through our Facebook page. People have no problem saying, ‘You have no right to sell the bowling alley,’ that ‘You’re taking away our only entertainment,’ and ‘Because of you, we will see more drug use in our community.’ We were for sale for three years. No local person came in and looked at the business to keep it running. We were very hopeful that somebody locally would come in. I would have done it if they had asked me to stay on and work or help them.”

Cindy smiles when asked about any memories that have stood out over the past 43 years.

“We used to have this telephone booth,” Cindy says. “And the kids, when they were in here with their parents, running around, sometimes their parents wouldn’t be completely paying attention to what they were doing. They’d go into the phone booth and dial 911. We were told that more 911 calls came from the bowling alley than anywhere else in town, to the point where the dispatcher would just call back and go, ‘Are the kids on the phone booth again?’”

Ellie Tracy, 92, has been bowling here for over 30 years. She chatted in-between strikes and high-fives from other seniors on her team on Friday.

“It’s terrible,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t happen. I came here for so long with my husband and my girls.”

She points to one of her daughters, a senior herself, and laughs. When told the last day is a month away, she says, “This has been a big part of my life, being here with friends. It makes me sad. This is important to me, and I suppose a lot of others here.”

Phyllis Cornell has been bowling here since 1978.

“Oh, my. This has been my life, a lot of good memories here. It’s really the only entertainment in Bennington. It breaks my heart that we’re not going to have it. It’s a community, social between everyone. We laugh together. It just makes you feel good being here. It’s so sad. I’m brokenhearted.”

“I have really good memories here, too,” Brooke says, “just like everyone here. I have great relationships with all groups of people in this community. They see me in Home Depot, they see me in the grocery store, and they have a relationship with me. I can’t remember their names, but I can remember that they always order a small half-and-half with rainbow sprinkles, because I see them, and I remember what they want. I might bring joy to their day because they had a really bad day at work, but they really liked their ice cream cone, which made them feel better. Or the kids came in, and they had a great time. They remember their 12th birthday party, because they had it here. I think we brought a lot of enjoyment to many people in our community. And I hope that is what they remember us for.”

“We’re crying with Bennington,” Brooke says. “We’re not leaving town. We’re not cashing in and leaving. We’re going to be staying and being active members of the community. I think we’re both just exhausted. We’ve both worked really, really hard, ever since my dad died. We’re sad, and we understand. We’re just at a point in the business where, unfortunately, we’re unable to take care of the machines going forward. We’re not selling the business to sell the business. ... A lot of thought has gone into it.”

Brooke and Cindy are both appreciative of the Bennington community.

“I’m very happy with my childhood here,” Brooke says. “I’m appreciative of how everyone has always welcomed me in here. There’s a lot of memories here, but there’s also a whole life out there.”

Bennington Lanes closes its doors for the last time on April 24. The Dairy Bar will open for a brief time later this spring, then close sometime over the summer. If all goes according to plan, the new owners officially close on the business in September.


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