Pool halls have aged gracefully into the new age. Having had a bad-boy reputation of booze and hustlers in the past, they have grown wholesome and wise as the demographic got older—but they didn’t lose their edge.
The spaces themselves are pretty standard: a dozen or so tables and a bar in a low-lit environment with the air of competitive comradery, and sometimes cigarette smoke, around the felt tops. Traditional and unpretentious, pool halls rarely advertise or play into the social media marketing of the day, as their customer base is built on regular clientele and word of mouth.
What defines a pool hall is the community that it builds; the characters who come through and the bonds that they form.
Being the oldest continually-running pool hall in Jacksonville, Blanding Billiards embodies this culture and carries a rich history. The dynamic, geometric motions of a million spinning spheres lingers along with the presence of regulars who have played there since the doors opened in 1989.
Over the years, Blanding Billiards has hosted several world-renowned pool players, including Allison Fisher and Grady Matthews. Players have practiced and formed leagues there to compete in tournaments across the nation—though even the most competitive of them say they mostly participate for the fun of it.
The pool hall has seen shifts in culture, remodels and changes in ownership.
People who weren’t there themselves have learned about Blanding Billiards’ history in oral tradition: Glenn and Gibby opened the pool hall and ran it for a year. Then Marty Goldberg bought it, and his girlfriend at the time, lovingly called “Mrs. Peach,” took over for the next 26 years. To long-time regulars, she was and still is the face of the pool hall.
Eddie Miller is the owner now. He grew up in the area and frequented the spot with his family. His father, Jim, took over after Mrs. Peach. When his father died three years ago, Miller dropped his lifelong career in the grocery business to carry the legacy of the memories and relationships in Blanding. He’s currently working on renovations.
He spoke with Folio about the history of the business before calling a long-time patron, “Kitkat,” on the fly to fill in the gaps. She was there within minutes with her mug in-hand, ready to sing praises to the place she calls her second home.
Kitkat is quietly recognized as Blanding Billiards’ mother and keeper, along with Allison, her best friend and Mrs. Peach’s daughter. She’s been a regular since the beginning, and most everyone who walks through the doors greets her right away.
With the graceful intensity that defines her, she speaks of all that she’s seen (and photographed) in 30 years. The local and professional players who have entered the space, those who came in with their parents as babies and are now adults, and the memorials they’ve helped organize for regulars who passed away.
Much has changed at the Blanding Billiards since it first opened. Being open 24 hours a day used to be a major selling point for the young and debaucherous, but these days, it closes up around midnight, making players feel like they’re in a restaurant with pool tables instead of pool hall with food.
The game is the same as it’s always been. It’s psychological more than anything, says Kitkat. Players must use subtle manipulation to distract opponents and focus when they’re up. Pool teaches lessons of sportsmanship, physics and friendship.
The regulars remain close-knit, too. Whether they’re giving pointers to beginners or competing against each other in tournaments, their love and familiarity for the sport and of one another is evident.
Oral tradition over the pool ritual tells the story of Blanding Billiards and of the pool hall - the game, the characters, and the synchronicities among them.