CHICAGO (CBS) — The Southport Lanes bowling alley and its predecessor, the Nook, survived the Great Depression, the Spanish Flu, and some of Chicago’s worst weather – but not COVID-19.
The virus has wiped out yet another well-known Chicago business.
As CBS 2’s Marissa Parra reported Thursday, stepping into Southport Lanes, 3325 N. Southport Ave., is like stepping back in time. It’s a place where people, not machines, set the pins – and it’s one of the few places left in the country where that happens.
“So here’s the bowling lanes that have been around since 1920,” Southport Lanes general manager Phil Carneol said as he displayed the vintage setup.
From bartender to general manager, Carneol has spent more time at Southport Lanes than he has at home.
“I started bartending here when I was a snotty-nosed kid in 1991,” Carneol said.
The building was built in 1900 by Schlitz Brewery and was originally named the Nook. It was renamed Southport Lanes in 1922, when the 98-year history that is now ending began.
And if the walls could talk, you probably wouldn’t want to know what they’d say.
“This was an old speakeasy, where supposedly, there was a den of ill repute upstairs,” Carneol said. “Supposedly, there was gambling in the back.”
Southport Lanes’ website notes that there is still a dumbwaiter that was once used to bring refreshments to the escorts at the brothel upstairs and their clients. There is also a legend that Mayor Anton Cermak once held a weekly poker game in one of the secret rooms.
After prohibition, a new addition was built east of the bar room. It originally housed a gambling facility with ties to racetracks round the country. As the website put it, “In essence, it was an illegal off track betting parlor.”
But those same walls that survived Prohibition, the 1918 flu, and world wars will not survive COVID-19.
“I was waiting for the phone call,” Carneol said, “and I see the numbers.”
According to a study by Yelp, this is part of a national trend. From the beginning of March through the end of August, Chicago businesses have seen nearly 2,000 temporary closures and more than 3,000 permanent closures.
“We started having to sanitize bowling balls and pool sticks,” Carneol said.
Tedious tasks, expensive cleaning, and less room for paying diners means Southport Lanes can’t make ends meet.
“You’re just not making any money,” Carneol said. “The concern I have is there’s a lot of people who are going to be out of work.”
And for the place that has served the North Side of Chicago for almost a century, Carneol said it is like getting ready to hug an old friend for the last time.
“I’m going to miss the drips on Lane 4, you know?” he said. “It’s like you know your own kid, you know? It’s like you know your own family member.”
Southport Lanes opened for the evening as usual on Thursday, but you have a week and a half to say your goodbyes.