Popular Petaluma hangout has years of pool-playing history

If you pass by Buffalo Billiards on an afternoon or evening and you’ll notice the mix of individuals young and old, men and women, novices and experts gathered around the pool tables enjoying one of America’s favorite pastimes. The airy, well-lit game room welcomes everyone, regardless of age or skill level, to come in, chalk up a cue stick and play pool.

But life around pool halls hasn’t always been this inviting.

Not that long ago they carried a sordid reputation as a male-dominated territory where low-lifes and ne’er-do-wells gathered to loiter, smoke, fight, bet and, of course, shoot pool. Lee Simon, proprietor of Buffalo Billiards, has spent decades disproving those old beliefs. To his credit, as evidenced by the soaring popularity of pool halls today, they’ve transformed into a fun and relaxing, family-friendly venue.

“I’ve spent my life overcoming the negative stereotypes associated with pool halls,” Simon said. “Those dark, smoke-filled rooms where ladies weren’t allowed to set foot.”

His introduction came early, as a 5-year-old in Wells, Nevada, where his father, Harry Simon, opened one in the basement of a casino. It was a challenge, overcoming the viewpoint embraced in movies like “The Hustler” and popularized in “The Music Man” by lovable con artist Harold Hill, who proclaimed, “Oh you’ve got trouble! Right here in River City! With a capital “T” and that rhymes with “P” and that stands for pool!”

“In 1977,” Simon continued, “I created an outline of what I thought a pool hall could be and should be, erasing all the negative connotations and making ladies welcome.”

Almost two decades earlier, Harry Simon moved his family to Novato and bought the Napa-Val fishing resort on the Napa River, near Mare Island, where he rented boats and cabins, and sold beer, bait and gas. Several years later, he bought Redwood City’s Sequoia Billiards from Dorothy Wise, a legendary professional who is considered by many to be one of the greatest pool players of all time. A year later he sold the business to big-time pool player Sax dal Porto.

“I played straight pool with Dorothy Wise every day, then with Evelyn dal Porto,” Simon went on. “I got quite an education in pool playing.”

He also learned the business by brushing the felt tables, stocking shelves and replacing tips on pool cues.

“My father was pretty much into indentured servitude,” he said. “All work and no pay. I had a whole different view of the pool hall business. We were also a quasi-pawn shop specializing in gold and silver coins.”

Harry then opened a pool hall in Sonoma, where his son continued to help out.

“I spent hours, hours and hours in the pool room. I was the best player in town,” said Simon. “My dad then opened a pool hall near Hamilton Air Force Base, which I ran, and another one in downtown Novato, which included his coin shop gig. He once paid me $70 for 10 months work, but I had a substantial income from playing pool on the side. I made my income in quarters.”

After graduating from high school, Simon attended the College of Marin before accepting a job as a lineman in the nascent cable television business. Drafted into the Army, he was serving in Germany when his father opened a bigger pool hall, Harry’s Novato Billiards, in 1973. Simon returned to help his father while attending San Francisco State and Sonoma State universities. He also started a billiard supply business, offering new, refurbished and antique tables, cues, lighting, accessories and more.

In 1986, after his parents died, Simon closed the Novato pool hall. He sold the lighting fixtures to Rich Croci, who installed them in the pool room at Boulevard Bowl, and moved to Petaluma. In 1992, Simon sold his father’s coin collection to Croci and opened Buffalo Billiards in Cotati, following the outline he’d written in 1977.

“Everything I wrote came to fruition,” he said. “We offered a family-friendly environment that was well-lit and clean, offering good food, good beer, a friendly staff and top-notch equipment. Thank God, smoking got outlawed.”

The business flourished but Simon, the single parent of two teenage daughters, had trouble keeping up with his pool table sales. He found it too difficult to work in Cotati and live in Petaluma, so in 2005, he closed the Cotati location.

“Running the pool hall and the billiard supply store, along with getting the kids to school and to soccer, wore me out,” he said.

By 2011, he was ready to get back into business, purchasing Bankshot Billiards, opened in 1996 by Ray Allena and Mike Giacomini in the historic building at 246 Petaluma Blvd. N., remembered by longtime residents as the longtime location of Herold Mahoney Tires.

“I equipped this place when Ray and Mike opened,” said Simon. “I partnered with my brother-in-law, who I later bought out, and transformed my entire vision here, renaming it Buffalo Billiards. We’ve gotten very busy and we’re doing really well with birthday and wedding parties. We were an island up here. When Brewster’s came in, it was a godsend, and Hotel Petaluma gives us a big boost. Downtown Petaluma is thriving.”

What the pool hall offers its visitors, Simon pointed out, is a sense of “ambiance.”

“We make it a memorable experience,” he said. “I still have some of the equipment we purchased in 1964. I think we have the best chicken wings in town and we advertise the best Reuben sandwich this side of Wells, Nevada.”

Along with pool, food and beer, Buffalo Billiards offers ping-pong, darts, shuffleboard and air hockey games. As for a comparison between modern pool halls and those dangerous institutions of years ago?

“There’s probably more violence at an ice cream parlor than there is here,” Simon finished with a smile.

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