Once in the family, back in the family: Bowling in Paris

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PARIS — When Russ Nealey Jr. began looking for a career change, he had no idea that he would follow in his father’s footsteps and buy the bowling alley Russ Nealey Sr. once owned.

STRIKE! — Russ Nealey Jr., new owner of Stars & Strikes Bowling Center, purchased the Paris business last month, which was once owned by his father, Russ Nealey Sr.

Russ Jr. closed on the bowling alley – formerly Hobbs Lucky Lanes – at 108 Park St. in Paris on Nov. 18, which happened to be his father’s 74th birthday. Russ Jr. purchased the property from family friend, Eben Hobbs, and has since renamed the business Stars & Strikes Bowling Center.

During the majority of the time his father owned the Paris business, Russ Jr. was in the Navy, traveling around the world. After 14 years of service, he had to medically retire in 2005 as he was diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma in 2003.

“I graduated high school down in Westbrook then I went in the military and I didn’t know which path I was going to go. After a time from the military I worked at an investment firm in Portland,” Russ Jr. said, adding he then started his own investment firm and when that didn’t work out, he ran a self storage facility in Saco. “I was ready for a career change, working for myself. I put it out there.”

Russ Sr. owned the bowling alley from 1996 to 2003, when it was known as Oxford Hills Bowling Center. But that wasn’t when the Nealey family first got into the bowling business. Russ Sr. owned Pride’s Corner Bowling and Recreational Center in Westbrook. That is where Russ Jr. learned how to bowl. And ironically, Russ Sr. was look for a career change himself when he purchased his first bowling alley.

“I was a school teacher to begin with. I taught 17 years then I decided well I needed to do something different,” Russ Sr. said. “That was my hobby, bowling. One became available on Pride’s Corner. I knew the people, they helped me get it and that’s how I started.”

Russ Jr. considers himself lucky to have so much knowledge he can tap into. He calls Russ Sr.  his first bowling dad and Hobbs as his second bowling dad.

“The luxury I’ve had, too, is I’ve got Dad’s experience and Eben has been really helpful,” Russ Jr. said. “The transition has really been smooth without a lot of unknowns.”

Russ Sr. said he has helped his son a little bit in his new business adventure and he is happy for him.

“He’s been doing most of it on his own obviously, which is good,” Russ Sr. said. “I think it’s a great challenge for him. I think he will do really, really well. He’s a very hard worker, he’s industrious, he plays attention to detail.”

The hours are a bit of a challenge, but Russ Jr. is OK with that. He’s been averaging around average 90 hours a week, he said.

“The bowling center may not be open but I am just doing things to learn and get familiar with the machinery and stuff,” Russ Jr. said.

Russ Sr. said that is a work schedule he is extremely familiar with.

“I did the same thing. I think the shortest week I had at Pride’s Corner was 106 hours for the first two years. Then after that I got a vacation because I got down to 60 hours,” he said, laughing.

Russ Jr. gave a nod to others who have helped him during the transition, including his wife of 25 years, Jodi. She works in Portland on Monday and Tuesday but spends the rest of her time at the bowling alley with him.

“She should get most of the credit,” he said. “She’s the glue that makes everything work.”

The couple commutes from Old Orchard Beach, though they do rent a place from Hobbs so they don’t have to drive back every night. The plan is to move to the Oxford Hills sooner rather than later, Russ Jr. said.

Also helping during the transition are Andrew “Aitch” Shaskan – who does the mechanical work on the machines and who Russ Jr. called vital – and Melody Plummer. Plummer has run the bowling alley for 10 years and Russ Jr. said Hobbs told him he should keep her on. In fact, he kept all of the employees on when he bought the business.

WELL-OILED MACHINE – Melody Plummer has made the South Paris bowling center run smoothly for the past 10 years, first as Hobbs Lucky Lanes and now as Stars & Strikes. Behind her is the thank you card the business received from Special Olympic athletes, as the bowling center continues to give back to the community.

“Talk about somebody making everything go,” Russ Jr. said about Plummer. “She is the one who does all the tournaments. She has done a fantastic job with the junior program.”

He noted a recent international tournament in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where a boy and girl from Stars & Strikes – helping represent Maine – won all their events.

“It’s all because of her teaching,” Russ Jr. said about Plummer.

And thus far, the reception to the change in ownership has been positive.

“A lot of people remember my dad so that kind of helps and I think they’re seeing me spending a lot of time here, which is all positive, and sometimes change isn’t easy,” Russ Jr. said.

Stars & Strikes is home to an extensive arcade that Hobbs expanded while he owned the business. Russ Jr. is continuing the Saturday night Rock and Bowl and birthday parties. Having the arcade and offering food and a full service bar is “another way I compete with other businesses for discretionary spending,” he said, laughing.

Russ Jr. noted his bowling center is one of the only remaining in Maine that uses manual scoring, which can be positive and negative.

“We have not leaped to the new technology mostly because of the cash flow – it’s expensive,” he said. “We foresee in the future potentially going to the auto scoring, maybe redoing the lanes. There are a lot of things that can be done.”

For more information, visit Facebook and search for “Stars & Strikes Bowling Center formerly Hobbs Lucky Lanes” or call 743-9863.

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