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Junction Bowl in Gorham adapts to COVID

Ben Smith in front of the outdoor patio area at Junction Bowl on Railroad Avenue in Gorham that features 10 tables for guests to enjoy proper social-distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo by Nathan Tsukroff, PortraitEFX)

Story and photos by Nathan Tsukroff, PortraitEFX

Going bowling is awesome! Except when it’s not allowed . . . Big parties are so much fun! Except when they aren’t allowed . . .

The Covid-19 pandemic sweeping around the world has put a real damper on fun across the country, and right here in Gorham at the Junction Bowl at 7 Railroad Avenue, just a couple of blocks off Main Street in the center of town.

Filling the ground floor of a building that was constructed just over a year ago with the look of a classic train station, observation tower and all, Junction Bowl boasts 12 lanes of Ten-Pin bowling, an arcade, a small sports bar area, restaurant seating for more than 200 guests, and a smaller room for private parties or business meetings, complete with audio-visual equipment for presentations.

The second, third and fourth floors of the block-long building encompass 33 apartments, giving tenants easy access to the Gorham business district or the main roads for travel to Portland and surrounding towns.

Junction Bowl owner Ben Smith said, “We were very busy from the get-go,” after opening on November 18, 2019. “It wasn’t out of the ordinary to have 200 people or more here on a weekend night, and bowling going on all the time, and families here all day and all night.”

The facility also hosted children and adult birthday parties and corporate events. “And all of that is done,” Smith said. Junction Bowl closed its doors temporarily because of the pandemic just four months after opening, on March 15, 2020.

The bowling alley has reopened using alternate lanes, Smith said. Family groups are allowed, but they still can’t host the big children’s parties that were allowed before the shutdown. Other big groups are not allowed yet, either.

And local town recreation leagues that had planned to bring children to the bowling alley during the summer cancelled all their activities because of the pandemic.

Junction Bowl then provided curbside service, in anticipation of opening its doors for limited service inside starting June 1. That changed just a few days before June, so Junction Bowl “pivoted for outdoor dining,” Smith said. They scrambled to create an outdoor patio area, borrowing concrete barriers to protect the 10 picnic tables there were spaced along the road outside the building. Service was initially Thursday evenings, and Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons and evenings, but the easing of restrictions has allowed them to expand to lunch every day of the week.

Now opening at noon instead of the previous 11 a.m., “We’re just trying to figure our way back,” Smith said. “We couldn’t just turn the switch and be wide open again. I don’t think that worked for anyone. It’s a slow build-up of people’s confidence, and know that we’re open, even!”

Smith said he is promoting his business on social media, has started radio advertising again, and has live music on the weekends. Having the live music “has helped, because those performers all have their own networks that they send out to, so the word is building, it’s definitely building.”

The restrictions from the pandemic brought some interesting changes to the concept Smith had for his business. Last year, “I surely would not have said we’d have that (outdoor) patio, and be doing what we’re doing right now, which is we’ve kind of opened a whole new place out there, really. We’ve reinvented it . . . from the seating, to the lighting, to the way we service it.”

Bringing in the live music was part of that reinvention, Smith said, and was something that would not have happened without the pandemic. “And it’s turned into something that I’m going to keep and continue to do going forward. So, it’s a massive silver lining for us and I think it’s a good offering for the town.”

The building was built and is owned by Smith’s brother, Jonathan “Jon” Smith, the president of Great Falls Construction in Gorham. Jon’s wife, Cynthia, guided the design of the interior of Junction Bowl, creating multiple open spaces with classic elegance. The building has the look and feel of a building that has been in place for decades and fits well into the neighborhood of large commercial buildings.

The bowling alley at Junction Bowl features automated pinsetter machinery manufactured by the Brunswick Bowling company. Smith said he spent a week at the factory learning how to run and maintain the machines.

Behind the wall at the end of each pair of alleys is a single automatic pinsetter machine that captures pins for resetting and feeds the bowling balls onto a conveyer belt that runs them back to the bowlers. The six machines are fully automated. Smith uses a large flat automated lane-cleaning machine to prep the wooden alley surfaces. Junction Bowl is the only bowling alley in the Gorham area, Smith said, filling a gap left when another bowling alley closed many years ago.

The pandemic brought changes to the staffing of Junction Bowl as well, according to Smith. While he took advantage of the Paycheck Protection Program, some staff members decided not to return as the business started to reopen. The staff who remain helped bring in family members, creating a close-knit group of workers.

The outdoor patio features picnic tables with large umbrellas, properly separated for appropriate social-distancing. All staff members wear masks and follow safety protocols, and guests are asked to wear masks unless seated at one of the tables. Smith said “I think I’ve lost 15 ‘Covid pounds’” from walking up and down the patio to serve his guests. Smith said he has had concessions from his brother for the property rent these past months, and he sees business continuing to improve as the state allows businesses to expand their reopenings.

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