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Fairway Bowling in Natick to shut its doors after 56 years in business

Posted by Your Town  May 5, 2011 05:06 PM

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The 32 lanes of one of the most prominent suburban bowling alleys in the area will go dark next week, as Fairway Bowling -- a Route 9 institution-- shuts its doors after nearly 56 years in business.

The prospect of Fairway's closing -- the latest of several local bowling alleys to close recently -- is "like a death," said its 84-year-old owner Helen Sellew, who along with her father and brother, helped open the business in 1955 on part of their family's dairy farm.

"When we opened, everyone bowled," she said. Fairway, which charged $1 for three games or "strings" in the 1950s, was so popular it expanded from 16 lanes to 32 just five years after opening, and the family built a golf putting and driving range behind the complex.

Over the years, the long, squat building with the orange paneled facade and the brown and tan fiberglass benches became familiar to fans of the iconic local television show "Candlepin Bowling," hosted on weekends by Don Gillis on WCVB-TV, featuring the distinctive New England bowling style that features smaller balls and thinner pins than traditional ten-pin bowling.

Today, Fairway's faithful bowlers, nearly all in their 80s, lamented its end.

"I hate to see it close," said 81-year-old Bob Cowie, who has been bowling with close friends Ed Lupinksi, 81, and Joseph Quagliozzi, 80, all of Waltham, for nearly a half-century.

This is the third regular bowling haunt the trio has watched close -- Riverside Lanes in Newton closed in the 1980s, the Wal-Lex bowling and roller-skating complex shut its doors in 2002.

Just last month, the 90-year-old Needham Bowlaway, an eight-lane candlepin alley nestled on a basement floor near Needham Center also closed its doors. On its Facebook page, the Needham alley thanked customers for their support, but said the economy had made it impossible to stay in business.

"There's not too many places left," said Quagliozzi.

The men said they would probably begin bowling at the Acton Bowladrome next month.

The state has approximately 40 remaining candlepin bowling alleys registered with the Massachusetts Bowling Association, according to the group's website.

At the Fairway in Natick, which still uses old-fashioned score cards and rents a pair of scuffed maroon- and-navy bowling shoes for $3.25, Sellew agreed to sell the property earlier this year. The 33,000-square-foot Fairway building and surrounding property -- asessed by the town in 2011 for $2.8 million -- is going to the Dover Rug Company, which has said it will likely move its showroom there.

She declined to discuss financial details of the sale or her business, but she readily admitted that business had dropped off in the past decade, part of a slide that began in the 1970s. Back then, the many leagues who met at the Fairway took over all 32 lanes. Today, most leagues barely need eight lanes, she said.

For decades, the Fairway hosted leagues at 5 p.m., 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., said Sellew. Today, only the 7 p.m. time slot is used.

There was a time when suburban women were regular daytime bowlers, and men were avid after-work bowlers, wearing colorful shirts bearing their company or civic organization logo.

But women entering the workforce on a larger scale in the late 1970s and 1980s created a sea change for activities like bowling -- it became harder to fit into busy family life, she said.

But over the decades, Fairway always prided itself on being "clean, safe, and friendly," Sellew said. Her father always disliked pinball machines and their descendents -- arcade video game machines -- and never allowed them, keeping the Fairway a calmer, bowling-focused family establishment, she said.

Many of the successful contemporary bowling businesses -- including Kings in Boston, Lanes & Games in Cambridge and Metro Bowl in Peabody -- incorporate video games, light shows, and even cocktails into the experience, but that was never the Fairway's niche.

"It's been said you can't make a living the old way anymore, and maybe that's right," said Sellew. Yet, she refused to sell the Fairway as a bowling business, choosing instead to see it close.

"Nobody would have run it the right way -- they way I wanted," she said

A typical weekday still draws around 100 bowlers. And Fairway is still a lively place on the weekends, Sellew said, with hundreds of younger bowlers paying $4 per game. But that isn't enough to sustain a business that has sky-high heating and air conditioning bills, in addition to other expenses, she said.

Gloria Cullati, 88, of Framingham, is part of a Thursday afternoon women's bowling club and has been coming to Fairway since 1960.

"We just love the sociability and sitting together," she said of her group.

Mechanic Jeremy Seaholm, 30 -- who keeps the pin machines and scoring machines in working order -- has been working full-time since graduating high school 12 years ago. He considers himself lucky to have found a new job as a bowling alley mechanic at Ryan Family Amusements in Millis, but will work at Fairway until the last pin falls on Friday.

"A lot of people are saying they are going to miss this place," said Seaholm.

The staff doesn't plan a party for the May 20 close date, though the lanes will be open until 11 p.m. as usual.

Her landmark marquee sign will probably bear a final message, Sellew said, yet to be determined.

"I think we'll just say that we'll really miss everyone," she said.

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com

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