Midtown Raleigh News

Backstory: Former basketball player trades 3-pointers for strikes with The Alley

Chris Poole is co-owner of The Alley on Hillsborough Street. Poole and his brother Jimmy bought the bowling alley in 2008.
Chris Poole is co-owner of The Alley on Hillsborough Street. Poole and his brother Jimmy bought the bowling alley in 2008. jmgiglio@newsobserver.com

Chris Poole has traded alley-oops for The Alley.

The former Broughton High and Clemson guard, who has shared a court with local stars Shavlik Randolph and James Mays, has given up 3-pointers for strikes as co-owner of the retro bowling spot that’s known for its old-school charm, blue and white benches, old hardwood lanes and paper scoring.

Poole and his brother, Jimmy, bought The Alley on Raleigh’s Hillsborough Street in 2008 after Jimmy Poole, a commercial real estate agent, researched buildings on the block and found that the owner of Western Lanes wanted to get out of the business.

Chris Poole, 28, grew up in Raleigh and played on some of Broughton’s best prep teams in the early 2000s. He later walked on at Clemson, where he earned his business management degree.

Poole had been working at his father’s pediatric clinic in Raleigh but was ready for a change.

“I had no idea we’d be into this,” Poole said. “We just always thought it was a great business opportunity. … We believed we could bring it back to life.”

After raising money from friends, connections and investors, the brothers took over the lease and changed what had been Western Lanes since 1961 to The Alley.

The Pooles spent the first year running the place from the back office and learning the bowling business from employees, who they’d kept from Western Lanes. They made a few changes, including adding TVs, music and new carpet, and bringing the existing restaurant and bar up to code.

In 2009, the brothers realized business wasn’t increasing, so they started cutting employees’ hours and handling much of the business themselves.

“We literally worked every single shift,” Poole said. “We’re talking 70 to 80 hours a week, open to close. We did everything from handing out shoes, fixing the machines to serving hot dogs.”

They also re-evaluated the bar and restaurant, an area that wasn’t making money, and shut it down for six months to make changes.

In December 2011, they changed the restaurant to Melvin’s Hamburgers, which had been operating next door, Poole said. Melvin’s owner, Alan Lovett, now runs the eatery out of The Alley and gives the Pooles a percentage of his sales.

The bar – along with daily specials – attracts college students, who can pay $80 a semester to bowl and take classes from N.C. State. Chris Poole also sells semester-long passes in the parking deck beneath the alley and uses the proximity to the university as a marketing opportunity.

“This semester we did the best job ever of getting (fliers) into every apartment complex’s welcome bags,” Poole said. “… We’ll do free game coupons, but whether they’re redeemed or not, it lets people see that there’s a bowling alley here.”

The Alley doesn’t only cater to college kids, however. It has hosted birthdays for customers ranging from ages 3 to 80. During the summer months, The Alley participates in the national “Kids Bowl Free” program, which offers school-age children free bowling during the week.

Business has picked up now that the school year has started; The Alley sees about 300 people on a typical Friday or Saturday night.

The brothers have taken what they’ve learned and opened a second business.

In 2012, Jimmy Poole moved to Charleston, S.C., and opened a second Alley, this one brand new with synthetic floors, automatic scoring and the same retro feel as the old Raleigh spot.

Chris Poole, meanwhile, hopes the old place with its 24 lanes continues to evolve. He has plans in January to add an outdoor neon sign – much like the one that used to hang at Western Lanes back in the day.