Columbia Billiards and Rack ’n’ Roll are nearing their final days.
Phil Spudich, owner of both pool halls, plans to sell the building that for 33 years has housed Columbia Billiards on Ninth Street. As for Rack ’n’ Roll on South Providence, he may lease that building to a prospective tenant in the restaurant business.
His liquor licenses will expire June 30, which is the latest he plans to keep his businesses open. He wants to ensure that his employees have new jobs lined up before he closes.
Spudich blames the smoking ban that went into effect in January for hurting business.
“We’ve been smoked out,” Spudich said. “We’ve never had an underage drinking violation. We’ve been doing the right thing for 33 years and all of a sudden, they’ve changed the rules on us.”
Some regulars at the pool halls believe that a smoky haze beneath a table light is a classic pool hall scene. Members of the Pool for Dummies 8-ball league, based at Rack ’n’ Roll, pointed out that most pictures hanging in pool halls feature a player leaning over a table with a cigarette or a smoky background.
Spudich said when smokers are paying by the hour for a table but have to leave the building to smoke, they’re wasting their money. He also said that because most people come in groups to play, the smokers who stay home force friends who do not smoke to stay home as well.
Others, however, question whether the smoking ban is entirely to blame for the closing.
Ken Clay grew up playing pool at Spudich’s establishments, and he is now a bartender at Rack ’n’ Roll. When he started working for Spudich two years ago before the city smoking ban, Clay said, the bar required four employees. These days, he said, they can get away with two or three.
“I did notice a lot of regulars stopped coming after the smoking ban (went into effect),” Clay said. “That was just the nail in the coffin to me. It was just sliding slowly down anyway.”
Spudich’s accidental venture into the pool hall business began in 1973. While attending MU with intentions of getting into medical school, a friend who manufactured pool tables tried to convince Spudich to sell the tables for him. At first, he refused, but after repeated nagging, Spudich agreed to put an ad in the paper for a table to see if anyone was interested. On the first day the ad ran, Spudich received 58 calls.
He began to sell pool tables from his original business, Spudich Billiards Supply, located in what is now a vacant store next to Britches. He hung bed sheets to divide the room in two. The front half served as the show room; the back was the warehouse.
“Between Nov. 15 and the middle of January,” Spudich said, “I sold 120 pool tables, dropped out of school, rented a building and opened a pool hall.”
In 1974, he named that pool hall Columbia Billiards. About three years later, he met his current wife, Maggie. Not long after, he bought the building. Together, the two worked to create what Maggie Spudich calls a hospitality business that welcomes everyone.
“The only rule we had was that if you were going to be in the pool room, you had to respect the other people who were there,” Maggie Spudich said.
The couple lived in a small room in the back of the building with their son until 1985. Both promoted pool as a sport that deserved to be respected and valued. Maggie Spudich explained how strength or gender mean nothing when it comes to billiards.
Her favorite part of the sport is how it brings different people from all walks of life together. She recalled one of their young dishwashers in a dirty apron playing 8-ball with an attorney in a three-piece suit. She smiled as she remembered how “cool” that was.
Phil Spudich bought another building and opened Rack ’n’ Roll in 1993, where he hosts the amateur 8-ball and 9-ball state championship. He thinks he might move the tournament to Springfield, where he owns a third pool hall.
Sam Maguire and Paul Huesgen are both regulars at Columbia Billiards, where they play almost every day after work. They said they’ll miss the well-maintained equipment, such as the regulation-sized pool tables.
“Dollar beer specials every night. Cheap pool. Everyone who works here is great,” Maguire said. “They know us by name, they know what we drink, they cut us deals. It’s like my second home.”
Maguire is a smoker, but he doesn’t mind leaving his table to smoke a cigarette and actually prefers the outside air. Both men said they enjoy playing pool with or without the smoking ban.
When closing time comes, neither Maguire nor Huesgen know where they will play pool or even if they will play pool.
“They keep it immaculate down here,” Huesgen said. “Once this place closes, it’s like I’ll probably go back to playing darts.”