On the staircase leading to the upper floor of the Blatt Billiards showroom on West 38th Street in Manhattan, a succession of framed black-and-white photos line the walls. For Steve Roeder, the faces in each tableau represent a journey into the history of Blatt Billiards.
"I remember that guy from when I was a kid," he says, singling out a serious-looking gentleman peering out from one of the images. Steve and his brothers Bruce and Dave each began working at the company, then owned by their father, Eric, from age 12. "My father was an old European," Roeder explains. "People went to camp; we went to work."
Steve Roeder, partner at Blatt Billiards
The Blatt Billiards legacy is an (almost) century-long lesson in being nimble enough in business to adapt to changing times. The brand began as a pool table repair company in the early 1920s—an era when New York City was heaving with pool hall parlors—and for a while added bowling supplies and alley installation to its repertoire, until that pastime became less popular.
[pullquote showtweet="false" alignment="center"]We've taken the legacy that my father built to the next step. We worked very hard to get it to this point.
—Steve Roeder, partner, Blatt Billiards[/pullquote]
Eric Roeder joined the company in 1947, working alongside one of its original founders, Maurice Blatt. When the billiard room industry began closing down during and after the war, the duo seized an opportunity and began buying up pool tables, forming the beginnings what is now a collection of about 3,000 antique tables. (Many of these are housed at the company's second location, in Wood-Ridge, New Jersey.) In the '60s and '70s, they grew their retail arm to also include inventory for other social games, like checkers, backgammon, poker and darts.
Roeder's nephew Jeff (pictured left) works at Blatt Billiards, along with Roeder's brothers Bruce and Dave, and his son, Brian.
But it's the art of handcrafted pool tables that has earned Blatt Billiards its respected name (not to mention a place in the homes of its customers). "It's very unique for our industry to build handmade pool tables to the extent that we do," Roeder says. "People come in with requests, designs, inlays, shapes, golds, brasses and we can custom-build a table to anyone's specifications." The company is known for being painstakingly particular. About 90 percent of their pool tables feature some handmade aspect, and they can customize everything from the cloth color and wood finish to the lighting and playing equipment. Their dyes and finishes are exclusive to the Blatt Billiards brand, in addition to its "secret" blends of varnishes and finishes. "A table not only has to look good, but it has to play even better than it looks," Roeder says.
Roeder looks on while craftsman Pedro Baracaldo works.
The three brothers now helm the company as equal partners. A third generation of Roeders—Steve's son Brian and Bruce's son Jeff—has also joined in recent years, injecting a youthful spirit that has helped the near-centenarian company stay modern.
Blatt Billiards is known for its custom-built pool tables.
Of course, working with family isn't always easy. "It's always hard to separate the business relationship from the emotional relationship we have," Roeder says. "We all have our weaknesses and our strengths and we always have to keep that in mind. What happens between six in the morning and six at night is business—and we leave it at the office."
The fact that Steve and Bruce are neighbors provides extra incentive to keep work and home life separate. "The most important thing is respect. We don't fight or argue—we take a vote on everything and we have a 'two-man rule,' so if two men vote one way, the third must follow for the benefit of the company."
In business for nearly 100 years, the company has a location in Manhattan and Wood-Ridge, New Jersey.
Aside from the usual challenges—the economic downturn in 2009, updating to digital inventory and accounting systems, ensuring adequate health insurance for employees—Roeder says the hardest part of their business is finding new talent within a trade that's diminishing. "We're always looking for the best of the best—the finest cabinetmakers and finishers, which aren't easy to find," he says. "Those sorts of trades are dying out so we're constantly training and hiring to build the next generation." Ads in local woodworking magazines have proven to be the best means of finding new employees, who then go through a training period of about two years.
Despite its long history, the company has modernized thanks to the help of the newest generation to join the team.
He adds that having the third generation of Roeders join the business has helped Blatt Billiards stay relevant in the face of changing customer preferences. "Our younger generation is really opening our eyes to how the younger buyers are purchasing. The products now are more sleek and 'out there'—it's a different mindset. Instead of more formal billiard rooms, people are creating game rooms with pool tables, pingpong tables, air hockey, shuffleboard, foosball tables and dart boards." Brian and Jeff also recently revamped the Blatt Billiards website, which, though not an e-commerce portal, has increased sales by 20 percent.
Roeder and warehouse manager George Loveless inspect a piece in the company's Wood-Ridge, NJ facility.
Seeing the enthusiasm of his son and nephew, and the positive impact they've already had on the business, is an ongoing source of inspiration for Roeder. "The thing I'm most proud of is that we've been able to pass this business on to our sons," he says. "We've taken the legacy that my father built to the next step. We worked very hard to get it to this point."
Photos: Christopher Lane