It’s Tuesday night, and you finished up enough of that essay so that you have the time and energy to socialize with your friends. Taco Tuesday is dead, Berkeley is old and, well, the usual. What are broke and bored Cal students to do?
A quick BART or free AC Transit ride away with tasty snacks and burgers, a sports bar, and specials for college students almost every night, Albany Bowl is the perfect spot for your casual night out.
Welcome to Albany Bowl. “The Bowl,” as it’s known, is always bustling, filled with happy bowlers. The walls are lined with vintage bowling memorabilia, from clocks with bowling pins to posters with bowling puns. Head down the hallway to the bathrooms and you’ll see countless photos of Bay Area sports and music stars, featuring the Oakland Raiders (and Cal’s)’ Marshawn Lynch, the LA Rams’ Marcus Peters, the Denver Nuggets’ Leon Powe, Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, E-40, former Cal football coach Sonny Dykes and many more. Families and friends talk, joke and bowl in the two different bowling areas, as kids (and some adults) filter in and out of the arcade in the middle of it all. The golden aroma of french fries wafts in when customers open the door to the adjoining restaurant, Little J’s, or the in-house sports bar, Tierney’s Sports Bar.
A Long History
The Bowl has long been a community cornerstone. Opened in August 5 1949, the Albany Bowl started as a mom-and-pop shop as El Cerrito’s downtown began to grow after World War II. In those days, BART was still a dream And streetcars and buses still took people around the Bay, with a stop on Fairmount Avenue near El Cerrito Plaza and now-closest BART stop today.
At the time, however, El Cerrito Plaza wasn’t a shopping center — it was a recently closed greyhound racing track. From 1932-1939, a legal dog racing track was built at El Cerrito Plaza, and around it sprang up illegal gambling rigs and nightclubs.
The track shut down during the war, however, and became the site (along with parts of the Gill Tract) for a federal housing project for wartime industry workers. After the war, the project was dismantled and developed locally. In this early mid-century boom, the Bowl was conceived of and constructed, and it’s been a hit since.
Current owner and manager John Tierney bought the Bowl in 1985 and sought to expand the community of the Bowl to the greater East Bay, including to UC Berkeley. For the past 33 years, he said, “We’ve been married to Cal.”
A Special Relationship with Schools
During the day, area schools hold PE classes there while families take their children there to bowl for free. A promotion where families can register for a free ticket at “KidsBowlFree.com/Albany” is a popular way for customers to save on costs for anyone 15 and under, and the family-friendly atmosphere makes the Bowl an ideal and affordable way to entertain kids for the day. Which can be a bit of a “zoo,” according to a chuckling Tierney.
At night, older folks come out to play, enjoying friendly competition and friendlier vibes. Open from 9 a.m.until 2 a.m., bowlers can take games to the next level. And for UC Berkeley students, it gets even better. For the past 15 years, Tierney has put on Cal Nights with price specials every Monday and Tuesday from 8 p.m. – 2 a.m.
Sometimes, Tierney says, he goes to Sproul Plaza and hands out a thousand wooden chips that give their takers free games. It’s something he likes to do for the UC Berkeley students, he notes. He’s always happy when UC Berkeley students come in to bowl. Almost every Cal sports team has held a team night at the Bowl, and countless UC Berkeley department faculties have also help bonding nights and Christmas parties at the Bowl over the years. And that’s not all.
The Melvin Special
There’s an extra special connection to UC Berkeley for one of Albany Bowl’s 40 employees. UC Berkeley student Melvin Merlos has been working at Albany Bowl for 13 years now. At 17, he took the job to make some extra money, but what he found instead was family among the co-workers and his managers. When he got married, had a child, and decided to return to school at UC Berkeley to pursue a degree in sociology, they supported him through it all. While living in Vallejo with his wife and son, he works at Albany Bowl and commutes to campus.
Tierney was so proud of Merlos that he created and named Wednesday’s Cal night after him: the “Melvin Special.” Wednesday nights, there is music all night and groups of three or more can get unlimited bowling and free shoe rentals from 8 p.m. to midnight for only $12.
A League of His Own
Tierney has seen it all over the years. Formerly a mechanical engineer designing subway cars in New York, he came out to California in his mid-twenties and fell in love. When he bought part of the Bowl in the ‘80s, he had partners who owned six other bowling alleys. But the rising prices of rent in the past decades have meant that Albany Bowl is the only one left.
“We’ve seen good things, sad things, and we’re still fighting,” he says. “It’s not a 9-5 — it’s a labor of love.”
“My wife has put up with it,” he jokes. Tierney, a father of three, and now a grandfather of five, still comes into the Bowl almost every day. His favorite part is his employees, who have almost all been there for a long time. They’re service-oriented and “amazing people.” He also loves the customers, especially Cal players.
Tierney goes to every Cal football game with the team, cheering them on from the field. He’s especially close with Marshawn Lynch, who he says has become a family friend from all of the time they’ve spent together. At one appearance at the Haas Pavillion, Lynch brought Mr. Pin, the Bowl’s unofficial mascot. Needless to say, Tierney is happy to have Lynch back in the Bay Area and playing for the Raiders.
With fun games, daily deals, delicious food, and a love of UC Berkeley this big, UC Berkeley students can’t go wrong going to Albany Bowl. As Cal grad student Charles Garfinkle says, “It’s not even about the bowling. It’s about the bowlers and the Bowl.”
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