Sitting in Bowl America, just off Shirley Highway in Northern Virginia, you find a certain comfort, and it all has to do with familiar sounds.

The muffled squeak of the rubber-soled bowling shoes as the bowler moves toward the foul line ... the solid thunk of the ball as it hits the varnished maple wood deck on the throw ... the deep thwock as it hits the laminated wood pins dead on ... the clanging of the metal sweeper and automatic pinsetter as it efficiently sets up the scattered mess ... and, finally, the whoosh of the ball as it comes up the dark return tunnel and the smack as it hits the other balls waiting in the corral.

What you can't hear is the steady ringing of the cash register at this Bowl America and others like it -- a noise that's made the Alexandria-based chain of 25 bowling centers one of the most dependably profitable publicly traded companies in the Washington area and in the bowling business.

Over the past three decades, in an intensely competitive and shrinking industry, Bowl America Inc. has had an amazing record of strikes. Its increasing profit, revenue and dividends have made it a little-known darling of analysts and kept a rock-solid group of longtime investors satisfied -- so much so that almost 70 percent have held the stock since it went public in 1958.

And as it enters the 1990s, the conservative company, one of the country's larger independent bowling centers, has assiduously avoided the over-leveraging, over-expansion and over-technologizing that have hurt other bowling chains. It is sitting on a pile of cash and is ready to expand for the first time in many years. Three new centers are planned for the next two years in Northern Virginia. The chain also operates in Maryland and Florida.

"We're pretty pleased with the way the company has gone over the years," said Bowl America President Leslie Goldberg, son of founder C. Edward Goldberg, who died in February at age 83 after a half-century in the business. "It may not be the most exciting and trendy way to make money, but as long as we stick to doing what we do well, I think this franchise can continue to make money for a long, long time."

Even though the company has not opened many new lanes in the past five years, its financial performance has gained strength. Since 1986, the average return on equity, a measure of company profit, has been more than 20 percent, about twice the industry average.

Over that time, revenue has climbed to $27.3 million annually from $18.8 million and profit has more than doubled to $4.3 million from $1.8 million. Dividends have also more than doubled and the stock price has moved steadily up.

These results do not reveal other financial strengths, including virtually no debt -- just $87,000 -- and almost $10 million in cash investments. And that, say analysts, also leaves out drastically undervalued real estate on the 11 sites they own and below-market long-term leases at the rest.

"They have run the business well for years and have been conservative and debt-free," said Charles T. Akre of Akre Capital Management in Alexandria. "I wish I could get my hands on the stock, but no one who has it will let go of it. It's a company for the long term."

The bowling business has not always been that solid, though in the middle of this century, its prospects seemed endless. The popularity of bowling made it the nation's largest indoor sport. More than 10 million people participated weekly in the late 1950s and early 1960s, flocking to 12,000 bowling alleys nationwide.

But bowling alleys were overbuilt, just like drive-in movie theaters and diners. By the mid-1960s, lanes went empty and there was an intense shakeout in the industry. Today there are just under 6,300 retail bowling centers across the United States. About 8 million people now play weekly, spending about $2 billion a year.

Bowl America survived all the changes in the industry, but it wasn't easy.

C. Edward Goldberg built his first alley in 1940 -- a three-story affair in Clarendon where games cost 25 cents -- with $10,000 invested by himself and three partners. All the families of the original partners still are involved in the company.

In the next decade, as bowling became more popular, the companies that made bowling equipment, AMF and Brunswick Corp., decided to create a market for their new automatic pinsetters and helped proprietors like Goldberg expand by outfitting alleys under favorable credit terms.

To finance growth, Goldberg and his investors took the company public in 1958, garnering $600,000 for 300,000 shares at $2 apiece. He used the money to expand and by 1963 was heavily in debt, just as the allure of bowling began to wane. The stock price fell, and Goldberg sold off alleys and made personal guarantees on loans to keep his business intact.

It was a good move because the Goldberg family now owns 800,000 shares of a class of stock that has super voting rights and is not publicly traded -- worth about $18 million today. The publicly traded stock, with limited voting rights, closed Friday at $18 a share, though it has traded as high as $24 and as low as about $5 in the last five years.

At its helm now is Leslie Goldberg, 60, the founder's only son. Many say he is the main reason for its modern-day success.

The younger Goldberg grew up setting pins, watching the foul lines and selling sodas at his father's lanes, but did not get into the business after college at the University of Virginia and graduate business school at Harvard University. Instead, he became a New York advertising executive.

But he was laid off in 1971. After being on Bowl America's board of directors for five years, he decided to come back to Washington to work at the company in 1976, after his father suffered a heart attack. While the return of prodigal children to the family business is fraught with pitfalls and oft-dashed expectations, Les Goldberg led the company toward solid growth and profitability, reining in costs, putting a halt to expansion and making some shrewd investment deals.

For example, Goldberg was able to scoop up expensive bowling equipment for 10 cents on the dollar in the mid-1970s after the bowling fad in Japan died hard. He's used that almost-unused equipment to outfit and update his lanes ever since. Then in the early 1980s, he parked $800,000 in extra cash in American Telephone & Telegraph Co. and profited when the conglomerate broke up and the value of stock in its spinoffs climbed. The company now owns $2.6 million worth of stock in a range of Baby Bells.

All this is icing, according to Goldberg. "Bowling is the heart of the business," he said. "You have to make it there or you don't make it at all."

Bowling is a high-volume, low-priced retail business -- sort of the discounter of the recreational sports industry. Since two-thirds of revenue comes from bowling fees -- as low as $2.25 a game -- it is critical that Bowl America attract huge numbers of customers to its 920 lanes.

For that, the business relies on league bowling rather than walk-in traffic, which is considered by bowling kingpins to be too random to depend on. Of the 75,000 people who bowl at Bowl America weekly, 50,000 are league bowlers. Goldberg maintains elaborate incentive systems to keep them organized, including tapping senior citizens, youth and other groups.

The lanes are usually the most crowded on weeknights with the men's, women's and mixed leagues, and weekend nights typically see a rise in walk-in bowlers. Sundays typically attract families. Late-night play is not at all profitable, Goldberg said, though his centers will stay open as long as there are players on the lanes. "And rainy days are heaven for us," he added. "Winter is better than summer and cold dry snow is better than ice."

Food and beverage sales take in 30 percent of revenue, with beer making up a third of that. Sales of goods such as shoes, balls and other bowling accouterments add only a negligible amount to the bottom line; Goldberg keeps them there only because customers like it. The average bowler spends under $20 a visit.

Operational costs are low for Bowl America, with buildings paid for. Operating expenses actually rose only 6 percent in fiscal 1990, which ended in July, less than the 7 percent rise in 1989. Most of the increase was for higher wages, which are uniformly low, Goldberg said.

The company employs about 500 people, many of whom work part time. It takes about 18 employees to run each bowling center, and at corporate headquarters Goldberg has a very small staff. He is the only top-level executive at Bowl America, earning $177,664 last year. All the other executive officers and directors combined made $244,714 last year.

Goldberg decreased advertising 25 percent in 1990, compared with a 17 percent increase the year before, relying mostly on direct mail and word of mouth. He also shies away from most of the newfangled fads in bowling equipment, though he is renovating and putting in services that customers have come to expect, such as computerized scoring and instructional videos.

It's all seemed to pay off -- Bowl America has operating profit of more than 27 percent, compared with an industry average of 15 percent.

"The reason for those numbers is that every penny he spends is partly his own, so Les Goldberg is very careful about everything he does," said Thomas Russo, partner in Gardener Investments in Lancaster, Pa., which owns 20,000 Bowl America shares. "That makes investors rest easy."

And it makes the future look solid. In the Washington area, Bowl America's competition is primarily Fair Lanes Inc. of Baltimore, with 34 bowling alleys in the region. But the private, 67-year-old Fair Lanes has been through two expensive leveraged buyouts and carries a lot of debt, according to retail observers, giving Bowl America some breathing room to expand carefully now without too much worry.

The three new centers planned for Northern Virginia will cost about $3 million each, Goldberg said. The money will come out of the chain's operating profit and will involve little if any bank loans, he said.

This may be a good time for the modest expansion, since some believe the bowling business might be entering another upturn, as the population ages and more families are seeking inexpensive social activities.

"It's a mature industry, but, like golfing, bowling is a perfect sport for the 1990s," said Lance Elliott, executive director of the Washington-based National Bowling Council. "For companies like Bowl America, if they are ready to take advantage of those trends, things look like they could take off again."

To Goldberg, an unfailingly polite and pleasant man who eats lunch in Bowl America's restaurant almost daily, that's always been a given. "You don't have to be from Mars to understand the basic appeal of knocking down sticks with balls," Goldberg said almost philosophically as he sat in Bowl America's headquarters next to the Alexandria lanes. Once a talented bowler, Goldberg no longer plays because of a bad back, but he's never far from the sport.

In fact, the noise of the bowling alley next door wafts through the walls of Goldberg's Spartan office -- the thunks, thwocks, thuds and occasional cheers that signal a business in action.

"We'll have our ups and downs in popularity, but as long as we stick to what we do best, we will do well," he mused. "As every bowler knows -- the more times you have done it, the more times you get it right."


The median age of bowlers is 28.2, compared with the national median age of 37.7. Just under 94 percent of bowlers are high school graduates and 52.7 percent attended or graduated from college. Nationally, 75.9 percent of the population has graduated from high school and 36.7 percent attended or graduated from college.

Contrary to its Fred Flintstone, working-class image, most bowlers earn above the national median in household incomes -- topping $33,300 a year, compared with the $25,986 median for the nation. Slightly less than 76 percent own homes, compared with 63.9 percent of the U.S. population.

In the Washington area, Bowl America sees diminished play on Monday nights, compared with the rest of the week. The reason: Football on television.

There are three bowling alleys in the White House -- one for the president and two for the White House hoi polloi. President Bush, insiders say, plays the game.

Most players bowl three games each visit to an alley, taking 2.5 hours to do so.

Bowl America uses 37,000 laminated wood pins a year and keeps them in shape by occasionally putting the pins in plastic bags along with moist sponges. Each pins weighs about 3.5 pounds.

Lanes are a regulation 60 feet long, 42 inches wide and do not slope downward. They are mostly made of maple and pine in combination, though a Formica floor is coming to bowling centers of the future.

Rental shoes are worn by about 7,000 customers before they are replaced. The shoes cost about $12.50 a pair wholesale.