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Looking for the next Cue: pool hall owners' lives revolve around billiards

By Mark Wineka

Salisbury Post

Every day at the Friendly Cue starts much the same for Larry Lowe and his father, L.B.

Their footsteps echo across the expanse of pool hall as the fluorescent lights flicker on over each table.

They bring out the Electrolux on wheels and steer the machine from table to table — 22 in all — vacuuming the felt playing surfaces and making them seem like freshly mown greens on a golf course.

At each stop, the Lowes also wipe down the rails, getting rid of the fingerprints and chalky smudges from the previous day’s play.

They sweep between the tables and empty the butt buckets and ashtrays along the sides.

At the racks on the wall, they check the tips and bumpers on all the cues and cull the sticks needing repair in the back shop.

Sometimes they stop to straighten out the stacks of “Pool & Billiard” and “Billiard News.”

They no longer pay attention to all of the Friendly Cue rules posted on the walls. The pool room’s laws became stamped on their brains long ago.

One of their favorites is a warning: “Be Loud and Be Gone.”

The smell of smoke is part of the decor, along with various clocks and posters. A couple of the posters show Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason in scenes from “The Hustler,” one of Larry Lowe’s favorite movies.

The days are long at the Friendly Cue.

The Lowes open the doors at 1:30 every afternoon (4:30 p.m. on Sundays) and stay until 11 or 12 at night. On Fridays and Saturdays, which are always busier, they remain until 1 in the morning.

After 50 years associated with pool halls, L.B. Lowe still shows up to help every day.

“He gets around pretty good for 86,” Larry says.

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It’s fair to call Friendly Cue Billiards a Salisbury institution.

Forty years in a town will do that.

For 20 years, the Lowes operated on East Fisher Street where Las Palmas restaurant is now.

One Saturday night in 1986, the Lowes rounded up about a dozen guys to help and, after they closed, the volunteer crew rolled all of their tables across East Fisher Street to Friendly Cue’s present location.

That Sunday they leveled all the tables and opened for business the next day.

But the Friendly Cue’s future is in doubt.

Looking for somewhere to have a children’s theater, Piedmont Players bought the pool hall building from the Lowes for $340,000 Jan. 19. The theater group has given the Lowes at least a year to stay, while it raises money for the building’s purchase and transformation.

Larry Lowe, who is near retirement age himself at 65, says he’s not sure what he’ll do in 2008.

If he remains healthy, Larry says, he might look for another location and open up a smaller place.

He acknowledges that the “pool business” has been down the past five years.

“You can make a little living,” Larry says.

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Probably 99 percent of the players at Friendly Cue Billiards are regulars.

One of those regulars, Ernie Athey, looks around and announces that he knows everybody in the place. And he’s known the Lowes since they came to Salisbury.

Athey considers L.B. Lowe a stepfather.

“I’m one of the old-timers,” Athey says between shots.

He raps the 2-ball into a corner and then taps the 3-ball into a side pocket. He misses the 4-ball.

Athey’s own association with Salisbury pool rooms started when he was a child. While his grandfather sold parched and boiled peanuts on Saturdays, he would give Athey 25 cents to see a movie at the old Victory Theater.

His instructions were to meet his grandfather at a pool hall on Council Street when the movie was over. So it was an early indoctrination that stuck.

Athey sometimes fills in for the Lowes on weekends when they want to get out of town or for a few hours during the week when they need a break.

“Boy, my luck’s all bad,” Athey complains as his next shot goes for naught.

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L.B. Lowe’s career in pool rooms began in North Wilkesboro, where he once was in the poultry business, working a contract with a hatchery that paid him 10 cents for every dozen eggs.

Lowe eventually figured out he could rack a game of pool for the same price.

So in 1957 — 50 years ago — he set up six tables in a basement pool hall beside the police station in North Wilkesboro.

He eventually sold out and moved to Statesville in 1964, buying another pool hall.

When Larry Lowe came out of the service in 1966, he went to work at one of his father’s two pool rooms in Statesville.

By then L.B. Lowe had branched out to Salisbury. It was a bold move because he opened for business next door to another Salisbury pool hall run by Ed Rufty.

The two pool rooms co-existed for awhile until L.B. bought out Rufty and combined operations, expanding his Salisbury enterprise to 20 tables. Then came the across-the-street move in 1986.

The Statesville pool rooms have long closed, but the word “Friendly” was incorporated into the names at every location because of his dad, Larry Lowe explains.

L.B. Lowe has always been easy to get along with and willing to give everybody a fair shake.

“I don’t have the patience he does,” Larry adds.

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The Friendly Cue used to charge by the game. Now players pay $3.50 an hour per person or $6 an hour for two.

Larry Lowe designates a couple of tables for seniors at 50 cents a game.

The most prevalent games are 8-ball, 9-ball and one-pocket.

Bobby Bramblett and George Little play three hours every Wednesday.

“We’ve got nothing to do but shoot pool,” Bramblett says of retirement.

Little says walking around a pool table for three hours becomes a decent amount of exercise. As for his game, it’s been better.

“I’m probably at my worse now,” he says.

Little started playing at Ed Rufty’s pool room when he was 16. He likes coming to the Friendly Cue because, as the name suggests, it’s “a good friendly place to be, I think.”

“Pool’s something you got to do real regular to be any good,” Little says, lining up a shot and letting fly with his stick. “Like that shot there. I used to not miss that shot.”

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Ever since opening his first pool room, L.B. Lowe never sold beer.

He says he was a church-going man who didn’t believe in alcohol. Salisbury also had a city ordinance on the books that prohibited pool rooms from selling spirits. Larry Lowe says the city passed the rule after a shooting and killing at a billiards hall in the 1930s or ’40s.

But Larry Lowe says pool halls always have fought against an undeserved reputation.

“People just assumed a pool room was a bad place to go,” he says.

Larry has tried to debunk that image most of his life. The Friendly Cue has recreation classes attending from North Rowan and West Rowan high schools, and parents who raised concerns were invited to attend with the students and check out the pool hall.

They saw there was nothing to fret about and left within five minutes, Larry Lowe says.

“The people who think it’s a bad place have never been here,” he says.

Athey lends his own perspective.

“I’ve seen one fight,” he says of all the years he has played at the Friendly Cue, “and I broke it up.”

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When Larry Lowe was little, he would stand on an apple crate so he could reach over the rail of the pool table in the family’s basement. L.B. was still raising chickens then.

All the Lowes, including brother Danny who also worked at the Friendly Cue for several years, played the game, but none ever became quite as good as Larry.

“I wouldn’t want to tackle him,” L.B. says.

Larry describes himself as “a little better than average.”

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he played a lot of tournaments in nearby cities such as Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston-Salem. He even took a trip once to Atlantic City.

The tournaments generally had low entry fees and modest monetary prizes. Larry Lowe just enjoyed the competition and getting away.

In Salisbury, Larry says, there are probably a half dozen guys who play “real pool” at “my speed.”

“They’ll beat your average player, but they’re not ready for television yet,” he says.

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The Friendly Cue is not a religious experience, but pews provide seating along the sides and in the back.

“There have been a lot of people praying from time to time,” Larry Lowe says.

The Lowes bought the pews from an old Salisbury church. They are elevated to provide a good view of the action at the tables.

The Friendly Cue has some T-shirts and hats for sale, but Larry Lowe says he gives many away for advertisement purposes.

If someone buys an extra table from the Lowes, they will move it to the buyer’s house and set it up. The Friendly Cue also sells pool supplies, has a good repair business and covers tables.

Even though more people played at pool halls in the past, the Lowes claim today’s average player is better, thanks to television, books, videos and tables in their basements.

The Friendly Cue used to sponsor tournaments, but tournament players usually expect alcohol to be available, so that always proved a drawback for attendance, Larry Lowe says.

For special demonstrations in the past, Larry brought in pros such as Mike Massey and Earl Strickland.

He paid Strickland $1,000 once to demonstrate trick shots for an hour. Strickland then provided a two-hour show and played exhibition games with Friendly Cue patrons.

Lowe charged only $2 a person because he just wanted his regulars to see a good player.

“It was probably the best $2 people ever spent in their lives,” he says.

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North Carolina has other pool halls, of course — 50, according to the Web site Pool Table Rules.

But most have only a handful of tables and are combined with bars, grills and restaurants. Larry Lowe’s is among the smaller collection dedicated solely to pool.

L.B. and Larry Lowe will have to find new places to live when the Friendly Cue closes or moves on.

They now stay in apartments at the large pool hall building — one upstairs and one in the basement.

But they recognize that things change — just as the pool business has through the years.

Pretty much gone are the days when strangers came into town and tried to hustle the locals.

The good, serious players now rely on sponsorships, big-city tournaments and television to make their livings.

The Lowes have seen it all, and they still find meaning every day when the bright lights blink on above each table.

“I guess we’ve been around it all our lives,” Larry says.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or mwineka@ salisburypost.com.

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