Columbia Billiards closes, blaming ban

Monday, July 2, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:11 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

The last hours that the building at 114 S. Ninth St. would be called Columbia Billiards were bittersweet. Feelings of nostalgia, rebelliousness, good times and companionship filled the air. And although the pool hall was closing after more than 30 years, owners Phil and Maggie Spudich did not express regret.

“I’m actually pretty happy because we’re going out with a bang,” Phil Spudich said.

Spudich had fun with his store down to the last minute. The twinkle in his eye, the warm smile he sported and the glass of liquor that he raised in his hand whenever his customers approached him to say their goodbyes were all signs of the kind of man Spudich is and the kind of owner he has been.

“Everybody’s gotta earn a living,” Maggie Spudich said. “But we’ve had such a good time doing it. The people, customers and staff that we’ve been able to spend our days with are really special.”

Word of the pool hall’s closing brought in customers of all ages, regulars and first-timers. After all, Maggie Spudich’s one rule has always been, “Everyone is welcome, as long as you respect other people.”

Maggie and Phil Spudich wore genuine smiles and, with a celebrity-like status, made their rounds to different groups of people who were all patiently waiting to give them hugs and tell them the impact that the “mom and pop” pool hall had on their lives.

By 7 p.m., the waiting list for a pool table began to fill. Everyone wanted a chance to play one last game on the 9-foot Brunswick pool tables and use the unwarped pool sticks, both hard to find in any pool hall, let alone a bar in Columbia.

Posted on the window outside was a sign that read:

“Columbia Billiards opened March 1, 1974. Our last day will be Sat. June 30, 2007, 11 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. Thank you for your support (4/7 of city council excepted) Phil and Maggie Spudich.”

It was a classic example of the Spudiches’ fun-loving personalities with a hint of defiance

Ash trays that had not been seen since Jan. 9, when the smoking ban began, made an appearance. For one night, the not-so-long-ago days of smoking cigarettes indoors with a guilt-free conscience re-emerged.

The table lights lit the smoky haze that passed over the tables as people laughed, shouted and enjoyed themselves in resemblance of a speak-easy from the days of Prohibition.

“Well, they can only close us down once, and they’ve already done that with their vote,” Phil Spudich said. “I’m not going to complain. It’s done, it’s over and they did it legally.”

George Schafer, 35, has been a longtime regular at Columbia Billiards, and his attitude is different from Phil’s.

“You don’t see Applebee’s going out of business,” Schafer said. “They want to make downtown Columbia a bunch of chains. All the mom and pop businesses are going out of business because people wanna have a smoke and a drink, and now they have no place to go.”

Phil Spudich owns another pool hall in Springfield where, he said, there is a smoking ordinance that exempts pool halls and bars that have less than 50 percent of their revenue from food sales. Spudich said business is three times better in Springfield. He also said a fairer way to deal with second-hand smoke would be to set air quality standards inside a bar that would be accomplished with ventilation systems.

Adam Cagle, 25, is not a regular, but he has visited the pool hall a lot during his time in Columbia.

“It’s just really unfortunate that you can take a business that has been open for 30-plus years, and it’s brought to its knees by people who have never even set foot in this place,” Cagle said.

“This is a working man’s bar. Anybody who works down here in the restaurants or the shops, they put in their eight to 10 hours a day, they wanna go play pool. They wanna sit here and have a good time.”

Jimmy Knight had more than worked at the pool hall about 25 years ago; he lived on top of it. He recalled the people he worked with and the regulars who came in as his friends. He said they worked, shot pool and just hung out. A few days ago Knight saw the poster on the front window, and that’s when he found out that his former home was closing down. He made sure to make it to Columbia Billiards on its last night.

“It’s heart-breaking and sad,” Knight said. “This was my favorite place, my favorite job.I love Phil and Maggie.”

Kevin Gibbs worked at Columbia Billiards for 11 months before its closing. He noticed unfamiliar faces in the crowd and attributed them to old regulars who used to play pool in high school and have come back to say goodbye to Spudiches and the pool hall.

“I’m glad to see everybody coming out, but I wish there was some more support focused on, ‘Let’s do something about this,’” Gibbs said.

He said he didn’t believe Phil when he first said that they might have to close down, but he soon realized that Phil was serious. Gibbs is a nonsmoker who appreciates the smoking ban, but he is also regretful that he is now out of a job.

“You know, everyone knows who Phil is. If you say ‘Rack n’ Roll’ or ‘Columbia Billiards,’ everybody’s like, ‘Oh, Phil, yeah.’” Gibbs said. “So I guess that’s how you look at it.

“It’s just Phil and his wife and the handful of people that he chose to work in his business. I guess that’s what makes a mom and pop store.”

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