By Jenny Neyman
An unassuming strip mall with a pockmarked parking lot in Kenai is home to one of the top-10, best-designed new pool halls in the world.
Any surprise that statement may evoke disappears after opening the tinted-glass doors of Sharps Billiards and seeing the meticulously designed, mahogany- and nickel-themed interior that was three months of remodeling work, four buildings and 19 years in the making.
Sharps was named one of the Top Ten New Rooms in the 2008 Architecture and Design Awards by Billiard’s Digest magazine. It shares the honor with the likes of a multimillion-dollar, 20,000-square-foot hall in Australia. Sharps is 3,500 square feet and cost about $80,000 to renovate.
What it lacks in size or opulence it makes up for in attention to detail, craftsmanship and nearly two decades of dreaming.
Owner Philip Brower said he’s wanted to build a pool hall since he was 15 and lying about his age so he could get into the 16-and-up pool hall in Grand Rapids, Mich., to shoot pool with his grandfather. He spent five years in that hall, learning a game that takes a lifetime to master, and crafting a vision in his head for how he’d want his own billiards room to look someday.
“I decided about 19 years ago I was going to do this, and basically the way people see it today is how I envisioned it,” he said. “I really wanted to help change the general opinion that pool halls are a place of ill repute. People think they’re dark and dingy and smoky, or there’s drug deals going on. I wanted to prove it could be a family environment and kind of spread my love and appreciation for the game.
“You’re not going to see dogs playing pool on the wall. It’s just not going to happen.”
What patrons are going to see is the design Brower envisioned 19 years ago and has refined since then. It all comes down to the tables — six, 19-foot Brunswick mahogany tables with nickel fixtures. That theme is echoed throughout the hall. The pine wainscoting on all the walls and back counter is stained a mahogany color, as is the facing on the structural posts, the counters around the room and the dividing rail in the center of the space splitting one row of tables from the other. The wood ceiling, structural beams and chairs are stained an even redder color.
The only wood in Sharps that doesn’t carry the mahogany theme is the pool cues, which add a structural element on the walls that look more like art than sports equipment.
Accenting the auburn wood are nickel fixtures, including the electrical outlet coverings and lighting, and a splash of gold wall paint.
Brower and Sharps manager, Tim Adams, spent three months renovating the space in between shifts working on the North Slope. Brower and Adams worked at a billiards room in Anchorage in 1994. Adams saw the promise of Brower’s dream to open his own billiards hall someday, and Brower knew that employees work better if they’ve got a vested interest in what they do, so he wanted to bring Adams in as an investor as well as manager. They did the renovation work themselves — removing the paneling and peg-board walls, hanging Sheetrock, building the workstation in the back, swapping out all the lighting fixtures.
But before they could pick up a hammer, they had to find a space. That alone took four tries.
The first space Brower considered was the old Trustworthy Hardware store in the Peninsula Center Mall parking lot in Soldotna. The design in his head looked like it was ready to become reality — the architectural plans were drawn up, building permit obtained, parking spaces counted, pool tables ordered, and Adams was on his way back to Alaska from Bozeman, Mont., when the deal fell through.
“Phil called and said he was building the pool hall. I sold everything, hit the road and the rug got pulled out from under me,” Adams said.
Brower then investigated the old Gottschalks building next to Beemun’s on the Kenai Spur Highway in Soldotna. The owners seemed amenable to Brower’s intentions for the space, but he couldn’t compete with the price Liquidation World was willing to pay.
His third trip back to square one took him to the old Carr’s store in the Kenai Mall. Things looked promising once again, until the remodeling estimate came in at $350,000.
“Every place I tried to go it looked good until the last minute,” Brower said.
Meanwhile, Adams worked at IGA Country Foods for a while, then took a job on the North Slope. During one of Brower’s weeks home from his Slope job, he pulled up to the strip mall that houses Katina’s Restaurant on the Kenai Spur Highway heading north out of town and peered in one of the windows.
“In my head I saw the pool room. I said, ‘That’ll work. That’ll work.’”
Next thing Adams knew, he was getting a call from Brower asking if he wanted to be part of it.
“He was a little more demanding then asking,” Adams said. “He said, I need to go to the bank and sign the loan paperwork. I said, ‘Hey, I thought this was on the back burner again.’”
After 19 years, Brower was tired of simmering.
“You can’t give up on your dreams. People just lie down and die if you give up your dreams,” he said. “I’m just fortunate I’m one of those people who has dreams that are attainable. It’s not like I want to go to the moon.”
Maybe not, but business is taking off. Sharps has been open for five months, its clientele is increasing and Brower said business is right in line with his expectations. He hopes in the future to get more involved in the community by hosting nonprofit tournaments, and has already donated some pool cues to the Boys and Girls Club.
“I knew that this was a pool-playing community, and I knew there was this gaping void of anything nonalcoholic, as well,” he said.
Sharps doesn’t serve alcohol and it’s a no-smoking establishment. Kids under 16 need to have adult supervision. A recent Saturday night saw a middle-aged married couple at one table, a group of teenagers at another and a group of industrial workers at a third.
“It’s a good mix. And it stays clean. People police themselves, pick up their cups. People don’t even write on the bathroom walls — except this one,” Brower said, indicating his 5-year-old daughter, Jaden Hope, who seems to have inherited dad’s penchant for design and likes to express it wherever she can, whether it’s on paper, her clothes or the bathroom wall.
Brower said he went all out with the tables, with $250 pool racks that are accurate to within one-thousandth of an inch, and Sharp’s has the only regulation billiards table around. A pool league recently decided to start meeting there — although Brower said they won’t allocate more than two-thirds of the tables to league play, so other patrons can still shoot pool.
Tables rent for $10 an hour. Hours are 2 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. (or however long people stay there playing) Mondays through Fridays, and noon to 2:30 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
“Where else can six people go for a couple hours of entertainment
and spend two to three dollars each?” Brower said.
Adam Kosydar is a regular from North Kenai. He comes in about three times a week, and will probably play even more with his winter schedule, he said.
“I don’t like going to bars, so this is a good place to play. I think they did a good job building up the establishment. It’s got a clean environment — no alcohol or drugs. It’s a good place for young kids to hang out,” he said.
Brower said the design award came about after a representative from Brunswick encouraged him to apply for it. He procrastinated at first, then decided he had a shot and paid to overnight a CD of photos just before the deadline.
“When I got the news I was elated, obviously. I hoped, and I kind of felt; no, I knew we were going to win,” Brower said.
He also sent photos to the owner of the pool hall in Michigan he grew up playing in. That hall is now remodeling on Brower’s design theme.
“The pool hall that inspired me to build a pool hall is now inspired to remodel with décor after this pool hall,” Brower said.
“I wanted to make a first-class establishment, and do it right the first time,” he said.
And it only took four tries to get to that first time.