By Meagan Downey
Bowling novices often make the mistake of refusing to adjust. Just as expert bowlers know how to read lane conditions and adapt their approach, speed, and finger position for the highest score possible, the Longe family has continuously adapted their business to meet the needs of a changing community. When owner Michael Longe reflects on the many changes at Champlain Lanes over the last five decades, it’s clear that there is at least one thing that has always remained the same: the Longe family has a passion for the game.
That passion has only deepened over four generations of Longes since Champlain Lanes opened its doors. The bowling center was the first full 10-pin bowling center in the state of Vermont. Bowling arenas in Essex and Burlington offered some 10-pin action, but duckpin–a variation of 10-pin with much smaller balls and pins–prevailed. Champlain Lanes opened with 16 modern 10-pin lanes, seven billiard tables, a lounge, and a full-service restaurant. It also opened with the same Brunswick A2 automatic pinsetters still in use today.
Michael Longe says the family got their lucky shot at running the business when another man choked on his shot. Ray Pecor, Sr. was building the bowling center for another client when the deal fell through. Michael’s father, Ray Longe, stepped up to run Champlain Lanes with the help of his nephew, Joe Gay, Jr. Governor Hoff attended the ribbon cutting at the grand opening in 1963.
That same year, Ray launched Champlain International, a bowling tournament that still draws teams to Shelburne from all of New England. “From March through May, all of these motels up and down Route 7 are packed with bowlers and their families,” Michael says. “They eat at our restaurants, visit Vermont Teddy Bear Factory, and shop at our local shops. The tournament has a real impact on Shelburne’s economy.”
The bowling market has changed significantly since the center’s opening. In the 1960s, bowling was in its heyday. There were approximately 12,000 bowling centers in the United States and about 70 percent of bowlers participated in leagues. Then, bowling was a recreation for predominantly blue-collar men. At Champlain Lanes, bowlers enjoyed billiards and live music from artists like Larry Bevins and Jimmy T Thurston. In the 1970s, more women joined bowling leagues, but the game still wasn’t considered child-friendly because of the gambling, smoking, and drinking that carried on at many of the centers.
By the 1990s and 2000s, the United States Bowling Congress reported significant decreases in league bowling organizations. Bowling continues to be a popular recreational sport among occasional bowlers, but leagues generate only about 40 percent of overall bowling business today.
The Longes have adapted to these changes by turning Champlain Lanes into a family fun center. They’ve added fresh items to the menu and continue to offer bumper bowling and cosmo bowling for kids. The center hosts many school field trips and children’s birthday parties as well as holiday parties for local businesses. Champlain Lanes also supports local church groups and nonprofit organizations. For the last 10 years, Champlain Lanes has hosted leagues and tournaments for the Special Olympics School Unified Sports.
Michael says the family takes great pride in serving the town of Shelburne and always strives to give back to the community. The center is celebrating its 50th anniversary by bringing in more live music and comedy acts and offering $1 games and $1 shoe rentals on Monday and Tuesday nights from 9 pm to midnight.
Champlain Lanes offers a fun time for the whole family, but beware of lane 14. Lore says the ghost of a former patron lingers there and sometimes plays a few frames in the middle of the night. If you ask the staff very nicely, they just might tell you stories of tools moving and balls dropping when no one else is there. Surely this capricious fellow is one of many customers who have enjoyed Champlain Lanes so much, they never wanted to leave.
For more information, call (802) 985-2576 or visit www.champlainlanes.com.