WESTBROOK, Maine — When decorated bowler Kevin Sparks bought Colonial Bowling Center, the wall carpeting spelling out “Maine is candlepin country” reeked a little of tobacco smoke.
Painstaking bleaching 12 years ago freshened the place and carried the 16-lane alley into its seventh decade and almost into its eighth. Facing mounting bills, increasing competition and stress from a game he once loved, Sparks has taken a buyer’s offer and will close the alley after a farewell tournament May 7.
“If I didn’t lose my passion for [the game], I wouldn’t sell it,” Spark said.
During a competitive Monday-night scratch league — 100 average required, no handicap — the news elicited disappointment but understanding from bowlers.
“It’s too bad,” said Gerry Dyer, who works at the nearby Sappi mill and whose father had in younger years been a pinsetter at the bowling alley. “This bowling alley has been here forever.”
Dyer said he’s sad the building isn’t going to continue as a bowling alley, after opening in 1939.
Sparks said the new buyer plans to put a warehouse on the property, leaving all of the bowling alley parts and memorabilia to him and customers.
Will Damon, a younger bowler who drives past three other lanes on his way from Old Orchard Beach for the Monday league, said he’s not sure whether another high-scoring “fast house” will replace it.
“For some people, it’s just a night out,” Damon said. “The cool thing here is it’s about getting better and improving yourself and improving the game.”
Arthur Spink, who bowled from 1962 until recently, said he’s not concerned about the sport but was sad about losing the lanes.
“Bowlers will go to another place, but there will never be another [Colonial Bowling Center],” Spink said.
The closure also means this summer Sparks won’t be praying for rainy days to bring in business, and he won’t split his time between the alley and his family — or his job with Atlantic Plywood. But he will be thinking about a return to the game.
“I want to be that person again and the drive that I had, that’s why I’m taking the time off to see if I still have that drive,” he said, hinting at a return.
His son, Joe Sparks, said he had a hunch his dad was nearing a decision to sell the place, before the official announcement, which came in a letter to patrons.
“I knew it was coming, and I was a little bummed out over it because this is like a second home,” he said, adding he’s seen how it’s hindered his dad’s ability to enjoy the game.
His father bought the lanes shortly after his 2001 sweep of Maine’s state title, followed by individual and team titles in International Candlepin Bowling Association tournaments.
Since, running the business has been difficult, with Westport Bowling Lanes in a more visible spot on Main Street and the pending opening of a new candlepin alley nearby at Pride’s Corner.
Kevin Sparks’ business, B&K Associates, faces about $39,300 in back taxes due to the city, and federal income taxes were mounting as well.
Sparks said the decision to sell will let him clear those debts.
“There will be no stress level, and I’ll be like a whole new man,” Sparks said.
After the sale and sitting out the summer, Sparks said he’ll issue a warning to “fear The Chief” if he decides to come back into the competitive candlepin fold, an idea he seemed to relish.