Bowled Over: How I discovered what “Candlepin” is

Candlepin bowling in action (Photo: Rene Schwietske)

When my husband and I went out on a date to Bowlaway in Needham, MA, I didn’t know what candlepin bowling was and I certainly didn’t know I would accidentally end up creating a bowling league that very night. But these things happen.

The alley was tucked away beneath a hardware store in an old brick building. According to the alley’s owner, Zach, the place has been around since 1917 so practically everybody’s heard of it and knows where it is. Nonetheless, my husband, Google, and I managed to walk by the alley’s door multiple times that night before we found the place.

The alley was empty except for a few teenagers and Steve, the manager who handed me a pair of navy blue and rose red rental shoes. I put on my all-American bowling shoes and began “candlepinning.”

Candlepin is a type of bowling that was invented in Massachusetts. The pins are taller and skinnier than those used in mainstream bowling (aka: ten-pin bowling). These narrow pins are actually why the sport is called candlepin since the pins look like candlesticks.

The bowling ball is different, too. It’s about the size of a grapefruit and you hold it in your palm since it doesn’t have any holes to stick your fingers into. Because the ball is small and the pins are skinny, the ball can actually roll between two pins without knocking a single pin down. In ten-pin, the ball will always knock down the pins if it goes between two pins. That’s why New Englanders can brag that candlepin is harder than ten-pin.

Now that you know how hard candlepin is, you won’t be surprised to hear that the first time I bowled, I didn’t knock down a single pin. Or the second time. Or the third time. Eventually, I got to the point where I could knock down a single pin on the outside. My husband called me “the sniper” when I did this.

After the game, which involved hunching over in a kind of lunge and doing this maneuver which I call “chucking” (where I semi-rolled, semi-threw the ball), I was ready to get something to eat. As we returned our shoes, my husband asked if he could join a bowling league.

“We’re actually looking for someone to run a league,” Steve told him.

“Oh, I can do that. That’s just a Google calendar thing,” I said, kinda surprised they couldn’t do it on their own. Steve put me in touch with the owner Zach and a few days later, I discovered ‘run the league’ didn’t mean ‘schedule the league’s activities’. It meant starting a league from scratch by recruiting at least 12 people and getting them to commit to bowl competitively every week for 24 weeks. I told Zach and Steve that I would do it.

“Great!” Zach said, “You know candlepin’s actually something that’s skipped a generation.”

After hearing Zach’s story, I went to work. I made fliers with hand-cut lettering, approached strangers at the Farmers Market, and told them about the league. After handing out around 300 fliers over the course of 2 weeks, one person showed up to the league’s first meetup. A few years back, he sent an email inquiry to another league about joining but they never got back to him. “You actually got back to me so I’m joining your league.”

Little by little, people started putting the fliers up on their fridges and showing up at our meetups. By the end of the year (2022), we had 8 solid members and 4 casual (biweekly) members.

When making the fliers, I wrote, “You can travel the world, but candlepin’s a New England thing,” and glued a picture of an airplane next to my handwriting. Steve, the manager of Bowlaway, would frequently pass by my flier in the alley and the words “New England thing” stuck out to him. One night, he suggested we name our league the New England Thing league (N.E.T. league, for short). And all twelve of us agreed with him.

When people asked the owner of Bowlaway about the N.E.T. league, Zach would describe it as a ‘casual, social league.’ As someone who moved from Providence to Boston during the mask mandate and found it hard to make friends, the N.E.T. league was exactly what I needed.

With my “sniper” bowling style, where I take down one pin at a time, I became more social between turns. Taking one moment at a time, I connected with people and we chatted about our lives between frames. One day, a member invited me to go on a walk with her and her dogs in the arboretum. That’s the day I stumbled upon what I wanted most: friendship.

For the 2023 season (which started in September and goes until January 2024), I got an email from Kathy asking me if she and her friends could join the league. I didn’t know it at the time, but she’s a mover and shaker – someone who you can lean on to organize people and get the job done. Recently, I asked her what made her want to join the league.

“Growing up with five sisters [including a twin sister] and one brother made me competitive. We killed it in everything we did. We went to parochial school and killed it in sports; we wanted to beat each other. We loved to sing. We loved to dance,” Kathy told me.

Through Kathy, the league became more competitive. One night, she fueled us to bowl our best by giving away scratch tickets to anyone who got a strike. She also expanded the league to include people who had grown up candlepinning at Bowlaway as kids, and people who had been in leagues during the heydays of candlepin.

For instance, Karen joined. She remembers throwing her kid’s 5th birthday party at Bowlaway and now that kid is fully grown.

“People are like, ‘Bowling. What?’ But then they get here and they just wanna kick each other’s butts so bad,” she says, having recently dragged her teenage nephew in for a game just to watch him get really into it, only to face a crushing defeat by his aunt.

Whether it’s for hipsters like me who just recently learned what candlepin is or high scorers who were in cutthroat leagues in the ’80s, candlepin bowling is good, clean fun. As a teenager, candlepin was, “more appealing than drinking in the woods,” for Amanda (which is good because Bowlaway doesn’t allow drinking). “It’s a place to do something out of the house at a regular set time,” says Kyle; and watch how Kyle “has this grin he gets on his face whenever he’s kicking people’s butt,” says Liz.

Back in the heyday, Linda was part of a league in Malden, Massachusetts and she and a girlfriend told the other bowlers at Grenada Lanes that they couldn’t make the meetup because they had to go to a fictitious Christmas party. They actually snuck off to see their favorite disco band Breakaway, where Linda met her now-late husband. Though it involves missing a bowling meetup, Linda’s story reveals what it’s all about. To me, candlepin is about the spontaneity of meeting people and keeping those sparks alive.