March 4, 2010

Pool hall owner banks on regular customers

— Q.What have you done for other jobs?

20090915_ShopTalk
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20090915_ShopTalk

Gordon Chibroski

A.Well, while I was in college (University of Maine) I worked for the recreation department (in Auburn) in the summer. I have a bachelor's degree in child development. Afterward, the first job I ever had was in banking. I was branch manager for a number of years at what was at the time Northeast Bank, the Westgate office. And from there I went into construction sales for a while, and had my own cleaning business, and at one time started a construction supply business, with a gentleman. I worked in advertising at Casco Bay Weekly, and then managed this place for four years prior to buying it, on Aug. 1 of last year. I had already worked here part-time since 1992.

Q.How long has the business been around?

A.Since about 1988. It's always been a pool hall; there were like three different owners before me.

Q.Who's Ernie?

A.The one who owned it before I did. Ernie Rouleau, a good Frenchman. It was Timothy's Sports Bar before, and originally called the Forest Avenue Tavern, or Fats. Like Minnesota Fats. I think way back it used to be a car dealership of some sort.

Q.Like lots of things on Forest Avenue Do you own the building?

A.No. I rent.

Q.How come you're not calling it ''Dona's''?

A.Everyone knows it as Ernie's. I would be in here and hear people call their friends -- ''Hey, I'm down at Ernie's, meet me down here.'' Why change it? Name recognition is a big thing.

Q.How many people work for you?

A.I do most of it. I have one girl that works the evenings for me

and one other does some of the weekends. So three of us, really.

Q.So you're there by yourself a lot --

A.Oh, yeah! Cooking, bartending, sometimes running tournaments. You stay busy.

Q.When does your day start?

A.We open at 2 during the week and 1 during weekends, and we're open until 1 o'clock. That's seven days. I'm here every day, whether I'm working or not, but usually working.

Q.Do you have a ''dream'' job?

A.I think I'm doing it, I really do. The first time I walked in the door, a couple of years before I starting working here, I thought ''would I like to own this!''

Q.What appeals to you so much?

A.The atmosphere. Just, the people you meet. I've never met a nicer bunch of people than the people that come in here. It's just, friendships form here like you've never seen friendships form before. At the same time, it's a pool hall; there's lots of league play and a lot of things to do. We have one ping-pong table, but it gets a lot of use. There's the arcade, and eight 9-foot pool tables. Last spring I had them all re-covered, so they play like brand new.

It's kind of a little neighborhood place. I have more people who walk in, live around the corner and never realized this was here, and didn't know how big it was, very deceptive from the front.

Q.Pool halls have a reputation as tough places, don't they?

A.Not at all! That's changed. I mean, back when my mother was a girl, women didn't venture into pool halls. It was just a taboo.

Now, there are all-ladies teams that play in leagues. Anybody can play, and men are not better at it than women, though some will argue with me on that. It's a game women can play and have a really good time.

A few people might be surprised that I own it, No. 1 because I'm a woman and No. 2 because it says ''Ernie's.'' It is predominantly a male game, but it's not as if there's ever any trouble here. Fights or anything, it just doesn't happen.

Q.You don't need a bouncer?

A.Oh God no. A lot of people, regulars, look out for the place. If they just see someone using one of the tables the wrong way, they don't hesitate to say something.

Q.So who plays?

A.I have all ages. One guy who was 87 came in a couple times a week until recently. Two men in their 70s come in twice every week. And then, it's a wide range of people. We have doctors come in. Fathers come in with young sons

The summer slows down; winter is the busier season. Five different leagues play out of here, on different nights of the week, Monday through Thursday -- three national leagues, one local, and in the summer we do an in-house league. We've got a few guys who come in who are extremely good players, and a couple of women who are not too bad either.

One of our league teams, the Cobra Kais, won the state competition and went to Vegas for the nationals, in 8-ball this year and 9-ball last year. There were two 9-ball teams from here in Vegas this year. The 9-Ball Xpress came in 33rd out of 297 teams.

Q.Are food and beverage a big part of the business?

A.Oh, the beverage, yeah. I have my regulars. We have a small kitchen with munchie-type things, pizza, burgers and dogs, and just beer and wine, no hard liquor. That's why kids can be here, until 10 p.m. It's an insurance issue.

Q.Anything you don't like about the job?

A.Probably the fact that I'm here every day! The previous owner has offered to give me a vacation, but right now, no, I don't take a day off. I'm the one who has to be here every day, to get the place ready.

Hours a week? I never really thought about it. Probably 50 to 60, since the people who work for me do the nights.

Q.How much does it cost to play?

A.Only $6 an hour. You can come here with $20 in your pocket and play pool for an hour and have four beers and still have $4 left -- beer is $2.50.

Q.That's a beer every 15 minutes

A.Not putting away four beers, no! I mean if you came with a friend, you can both play pool for an hour, have two beers -- and still tip the bartender $4! Since I started working here in the early '90s, I don't think the price has gone up.

Q.Do you play pool?

A.Oh, yeah.

Q.Are you good?

A.Not bad. I can hold my own with most of 'em. I started playing because I was in a bar one time during college, the Piece of Work Pub in Auburn, with a friend and someone asked him to play partners and he asked me if I wanted to play, because they'd challenged us. I said OK, but I didn't know what end of the stick to hold. I was embarrassed and said I was going to learn how to play the game.

Q.What got you into working there?

A.I just happened to be here one evening, and they said they needed someone to work a couple of shifts because someone had retired, and I said ''I'll do it.'' I've worked out here on and off since 1992.

Q.Was the business expensive to buy?

A.Not really. I don't think so, not compared to other businesses.

Q.I was just trying to weasel the selling price out of you.

A.Good luck!

Q.Are you getting rich?

A.No, but I'm happy.

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