Sept. 7 marked a very special anniversary in the life of former Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America President John LaSpina, who operates Maple Family Centers, which today holds five locations altogether with four in the greater New York City area and one in Clearwater, Fla. That day marked 60 years since LaSpina’s father Peter LaSpina Sr. completed construction on the bowling center that started it all for the family — Maple Lanes on the corner of 16th Ave. and 60th St. in Brooklyn, conveniently just a couple blocks from the elevated subway and two bus lines. What’s more, Maple Lanes had a parking lot — a rare luxury on the bustling streets of Brooklyn!
The occasion sent LaSpina into a series of vivid reflections on that long-ago day, when he threw the first shot at his family’s new bowling center in Brooklyn at age 11. He put together the reminiscence below. At a time when COVID-19 has imperiled bowling centers, LaSpina’s recollections provide a timely reminder of the tales and toil behind the family businesses that long have been this industry’s backbone.
Here are the thoughts LaSpina put together on a cherished anniversary for him and his family. If you, like many throughout the bowling world, are looking for a pick-me-up as the bowling-center business continues to try to find its footing amid a global pandemic, this may well be it:
“Today, Sept. 7, 2020, marks the 60th anniversary of the opening of the original Maple Lanes on the corner of 16th Avenue and 60th Street in Brooklyn, N.Y. All day that Friday, I was excited. I had watched the place rise under my dad’s direction from a dirt lot to a beautiful, 48-lane center that was ultra-modern for its day.
I was to ‘open’ the center by throwing the first ball on lane 7. The day also happened to be my father’s 52nd birthday. Imagine what it took for my father, a custom home builder, to change careers to that of a bowling proprietor at such an age?
While he became quite comfortable with his role as bowling proprietor over the years, he never really gave up his role as a builder. He grew up in a construction family, and all that ‘stuff’ ran through his veins. Contractors see within the walls, they understand what lies beneath, what holds the building up. It’s an inside-out mentality. He understood stuff that I still wonder about.
I recall so much about that night, and I reminisce about it often.
I can see the grocery-store cash register that was brought in by dad’s partners at the time, as they ran supermarkets.
I can see the receipt paper spew out, as no one could remember how to stop it from flowing.
I can see the carpet with maple leaves and matching design on the walls.
I can see the mural that dad complained cost $600 in those days. It picked up all of the colors of the center and graced the bar on two different walls for the center’s 53-year run. (When we closed, I had a museum art restorer clean it and re-hang it for nearly 10 times the original price. It remains a treasure to me.)
I can see the clock over the desk that my grandparents bought (and which will find its way to one of our centers soon).
Besides my parents being there, I can see Uncle Tony Lepore, my dad’s cousin and a giant of a man, balancing himself (he was no ballet dancer!) on the gutter caps taking pictures of the center and capturing me rolling that first ball, successfully picking off the 10-pin with my weak wrist bending right for that corner pin.
I can see Sam Bressi, a ‘night’ watchman for the construction job as he lived a few blocks away. He was a retired mason and did all sorts of odd jobs for dad once we opened. He became head porter (all of whom only spoke Italian) and Sam would bark funny words to them often.
I would ‘go to work’ with my dad each Sunday; Sam’s family had Sunday dinner early, and I was often their invited guest… enjoying a feast at 2 p.m., then the ride home to my own Nana’s house where I learned that there aren’t enough carbs or Italian food to satisfy me.
Those early days were inspiring, as we didn’t know what lay ahead.
My dad and his partners were true entrepreneurs, taking risk with some new venture and hoping to succeed. Thankfully, in 1971, dad struck a deal and his two kids joined him in the ‘family’ business. All in all, we’ve had a 60-year run; we’ve built a reputation with values set in 1960 when Maple Lanes was deemed ‘Brooklyn’s Friendliest.’
We were taught to keep the bowling center clean, to build relationships, to be creative in our marketing, to give value, to treat staff and bowlers as extended family. Not much has changed on that front, though another generation has followed me in delivering to our customers and to our staff my dad’s generous spirit and kind ways — with a dose of business acumen as well.
And here we are today in the Covid-19 business world. I write this on my dad’s 112th Birthday, and on our 60th Anniversary I believe we face the same unknowns about what the future will bring us as we faced all those years ago.
It is my hope that we embrace the same entrepreneurial spirit that my dad had in those days — days when the future was just a dream, a dream for success, longevity, prominence in the marketplace and in the industry. Sixty years is a long time but, in a flash, here we are again back to day one.
Dad had a number of sayings that explained how we make a living. ‘We will take a short-term loss for a long-term gain,’ he used to say. That is a builder’s mentality; build it right and the rest will take care of itself. He also taught that if you promote bowling as a lifetime sport, many others will be bitten by the ‘bowling bug,’ as he called it. And those customers will carry you the rest of the way.
Here’s a toast to Dad, for his wisdom, his love, and his charm on this day, his 112th. It’s my hope that I am half the man he was facing tough, unknown times with a smile, with smarts and a commitment to the investment he made in a sport that many love… even in these uncertain times."