Jerry Hindel, Bowling Alley Owner

The sport may be struggling, but the proprietor of the city’s oldest bowling alley rolls with the changes.

February 2019Add a comment

Bowling is a bit of a mystery. It’s hard to explain the distinct pleasure of knocking down 10 white pins with a 16-pound ball. The destruction, the racket, the clean sweep as the mechanical arm swooshes away the fallen soldiers.

Photograph by Tony Valainis

Jerry Hindel knows it well.

“People come in to bowl, and 99 percent of the time they’re having fun,” says the 75-year-old owner of Hindel Bowling Lanes. “No matter how bad they play, it doesn’t seem to make any difference.”

Hindel Bowling is an Indianapolis institution, the oldest family-run alley in town. Some 1,300 guests pass through the doors each week for league play. A few hundred more come to practice or enjoy the game room, bar, and pro shop.

The story began in 1957, when Carl and Judy Hindel built an 18-lane bowling alley at 6833 Massachusetts Avenue. Bowling was so popular then that there were wait lists and a bowling newspaper column. The lanes stayed open 24 hours a day to accommodate overnight workers from Western Electric. In 1959, the Hindels added a dozen lanes, then another 16 in 1974.

More controversial was the bar. The Hindels first considered the idea when a regular threatened that his league would not return unless the alley served liquor. Carl initially opposed it.

“My mom said, ‘Carl, are you crazy?’ That was the answer to that,” Hindel recalls. “The next September, we had a liquor license and a bar. It turned out to be a good thing. That’s our No. 1 money-making area.”

A lot has changed in 60 years. Forget pencils. Computers keep score. No one oils the lanes each night with a mop anymore. A $30,000 machine does that job. And don’t even think about smoking.

But in the digital age, bowling is a harder sell, even at $3 a game. Indy once boasted 30 bowling lanes. Now there are 10. It’s hard to get kids excited about the game, Hindel says. Cell phones and the internet soak up time and attention. Fewer people commit to weekly leagues.

“Many people say it’s a dying sport,” Hindel says. “Maybe I’m just refusing to recognize it.”

But bowling still has aficionados, like Henry Carter. With left-handed shoes and a left-handed ball, he was scoring left-handed strikes on a recent afternoon.
Carter calls the alley his “house.”

“It just brings back so many memories,” he says. “I bowled my first 300 on lane 35 or 36.”

A creature of habit, Hindel comes to work seven days a week at 7:30 a.m., makes coffee, tours the lanes, checks the monitors, reads notes left by staffers, then heads to his office to do the daily sales report and check reservations.

“Then I go out and help a little bit,” he says. “Make myself visible. Act like I’m doing something important. Stand around and visit with the people.”

Hindel was once a good bowler himself. His best score was a point shy of perfect—a 299—although perfect comes easier now thanks to equipment innovations. In the old days, when a bowler had 10 strikes, everyone stopped to watch.

“Now they will shoot a 300 and we announce it and they don’t even get a round of applause,” Hindel says.

He’s met some great people over the years. Bowling star Dick Weber worked at Hindel. The late Mayor William Hudnut dropped in for a photo op. Hindel has been inducted into the Indianapolis Bowling Hall of Fame for service. (House rule: Special-needs groups bowl for free.)

Annoying customers? Sure, they’re out there. The kind who blame their lousy scores on “lane conditions.”

“There’s too much oil or not enough oil or the oil is in the wrong place,” Hindel says. “It’s the No. 1 excuse, because what other excuse is there?”

Because he doesn’t have children, Hindel plans to leave the business to his general manager of 30 years, Mark Hunt. He just hopes there’s still a thriving business to pass down. “My real plan would be to outlive him,” Hindel jokes, “but I don’t think that’s possible.”

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