Meet the River Heads

BOWLING TO THE BEAT IN BROOKLYN: HOW CHARLEY RYAN COMBINES LIVE MUSIC, GOOD FOOD AND BOWLING BALLS

Charley Ryan, the founder of Williamsburg hot spot Brooklyn Bowl, says it all started a decade ago in a bowling dive with some tatted-up hipsters

By PAUL SAMULSKI

PHOTOS: SCOTT HARRIS

It all begins normally enough. You start with a career in the financial industry, working as a stock broker, floor trader, and eventually establish your own metals-brokerage firm. But then a regular career isn’t what you want. You switch gears, opening a string of clubs and restaurants, including the Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Wetlands Preserve in Manhattan. What’s next? You combine your love of music, food, beer, and bowling and create a hipster hotspot just steps from the Williamsburg ferry terminal, Brooklyn Bowl.  Believe or not, that’s the story of Charley Ryan, Bowl co-founder. We sat down with Ryan to ask him how this crazy concept, with locations in London and Las Vegas, came to be.

UrbanCoast.nyc: Why Williamsburg? Was it a good decision?
Charley Ryan: It was a great decision, but it didn’t come without its challenges. Our space is fabulous. It used to be the Heckla Iron Works, and was built in 1896. Finding it was a challenge because we wanted an interesting building in an area that had residential nearby, but not too close. When I first invited some friends/associates to check out the potential space they’re initial reaction was (a) It looks great. It’s really cool. Followed immediately by (b) How are you going to get people to come to this place that’s so far out of the way?  

UrbanCoast: Where did the idea of live music and bowling come from?
Ryan: My business partner Peter Shapiro and I owned the club Wetlands Preserve, in Tribeca back in the 1990’s and we used to take our staff on different outings. Once we went bowling. The space was beat up, dingy, dirty and the food was horrible. It shouldn’t have been fun at all, but our entire staff — tattooed, pierced and as jaded as can be — just dropped their pretenses and had a great time. That was thanks to the bowling component. So Peter and I thought, what if we take the things that we know, which would be (a) presenting live music and (b) managing food and beverage and combine them like they’ve never been combined before.

UrbanCoast: Why did you think customers would respond?
Ryan: Live music is conducive to people having a good time. If you build a place that’s compelling, in a lot of different ways, customers will come. This was a way to get people off their couches, get them out of their apartments, put down their takeout menus. They may have nice apartments, but our screens are nicer, our experience is more visceral, and our food is better.  We wanted to become an alternative to “the trap” of just sitting at home in New York City, where you can basically get anything you want.

UrbanCoast: Community has always been important to you. Why?
Ryan: On one level, the answer would be that it’s just good business, but on a much deeper level, the one that really resonates with Peter and myself, it’s that it’s more existential.  We believe that if you don’t have context, you don’t have anything.

UrbanCoast: Do you get excited when you see some of the things that are happening around you in Williamsburg?
Ryan: I wholly support something that’s visionary. Like the +Pool [the proposed floating pool in the East River]. Something that gives people encouragement that they can dream big dreams and do something that they thought they could never accomplish.

When we built the Bowl, we designed it to be green and LEED certified. We wanted to be “gentle change agents.” Not preaching to anybody, but instead doing something that we were proud of and also something that people who cared would appreciate. I was somewhat driven by fear of failure. Not business failure, but the type of failure that drives you to say, “Why did I do that? How did I let that happen?” The type of failure that equates to letting oneself down.

UrbanCoast: Would you call Brooklyn Bowl a serious bowling establishment?
Ryan: I grew up in Battle Creek, Michigan and there was this gigantic bowling center there that was the center of local activity with hundreds of different leagues. People would show up at all hours of the day, after their shifts at the cereal plant ended, before they even thought of going home. They’d go hit the lanes because they were members of a team in a league and this is just what they did. We don’t deal with the same type of bowlers. Every now and then we might get some people having fun wearing matching bowling shirts, but you can count on one hand the number of people who show up every year with a bag that holds a strike ball, a spare ball, and a personal pair of shoes. That’s OK with me. We just like seeing people having fun.

UrbanCoast: Do you ever put on a pair of rented shoes and roll a game or two just for fun?
Ryan: You know, I really don’t. There’s just so many things going on that I really don’t take the time to do that, but you’re reminding me that I really need to go purchase a ball of my own…and take some lessons. I was in a league once, way back when and I think my high score was 239. Today I’d be lucky to hit 150.

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PHOTO: TIM WARNER

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