View Full Version : Pool cues, balls - and tradition

02-22-2005, 07:57 AM
Pool cues, balls - and tradition
Published February 22, 2005

Fire destroyed a warehouse, but Robertson Billiard turns out pool sticks that are like no others.

TAMPA - Sometimes you grow to love an object so much that it feels like part of you. For Sam Darden, pool cues are like that.

A week and a half ago, someone stole both of hers out of her truck.

"I cried like a baby," she says.

So she came here, to Robertson Billiard, where pool cues live before their real lives begin, before they shape themselves to fit a player's hand, become good luck charms and disappear out of the back seats of trucks. For a pool player like Darden, who has been shooting balls across felt since she was 7, coming to Robertson is like coming home.

Here, the customers are as familiar as siblings and the people behind the counter know the pleasures and strains of working with relatives. A photograph of Charles Robertson, who took over the business from his father and ran it until he died in September, sits beside a picture of Jesus and a big bottle of Bayer aspirin. The showroom - cluttered with pool tables, boxes of balls and racks of cues - feels like an oversized basement game room.

Darde n admires a fancy, mass-produced pool stick in a catalog, an American Indian design with turquoise inlay along the shaft. She thinks she could get it for $1,100, more than she can afford right now.

Nearby, Mike Miller, a fellow pool player in a black Harley Davidson T-shirt, commiserates, noting the appeal of a good stick.

"Shooting with your own stick is ..." Miller begins.

"Totally awesome," says Darden, a 47-year-old housewife from Thonotosassa who swears that her long, blood-red fingernails never get in the way of a good shot.

Robertson Billiard Supplies Inc., a 75-year-old family business in a nondescript brown building on N Franklin Street near downtown Tampa, lost one of its warehouses to a fire in December. It burned right before Christmas, when people flock to it to buy balls and chalk, slot machines and pool tables, juke boxes and bar stools for home game rooms.

Tom Rodgers, whose wife's grandfather started the business in 1930, says customers thought the fire would be the end of Robertson.

"It was a devastating blow for them to learn we were out of business," Rodgers says. "That couldn't be further from the truth."

In fact, the fire destroyed only a quarter of Robertson's warehouse space: the place where they built custom pool tables for retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and others. They have stopped making pool tables, but that was only 20 percent of their business, Rodgers says. They hope to start the workshop again someday, but it will take a while to rebuy the tools and equipment they lost.

Meanwhile, the main warehouse and showroom are filled with all the things they still sell to locals and ship to billiard clubs across the country: boxes of chalk and pingpong balls, jukeboxes and glow-in-the-dark balls, games of shuffleboard and signs that say "Pool - the most fun you can have with your pants on." They have rolls of colored felt - they sold 27 miles of pool table cloth last year - and ornate billiard tables, carved with elephant tusks and lion heads.

And then there are the pool cues.

In a narrow back room that smells of wood shavings and grease, they've made cues with birthstones and gold charms locked in transparent epoxy. One man wanted his Purple Heart embedded in his cue; another wanted a bracelet worn by his son, who died of an illness, wrapped around the shaft. One stick was studded with diamonds and rubies and cost $8,500.

Good pool sticks are unique, like fingerprints. Darden's missing cues turn up a week after she loses them, in the hands of a man in a Busch Boulevard bar. Her friends recognize one and buy both on the spot for $75, minus a shaft signed by champion pool player Jeanette Lee. It's too late. Darden still longs for the new stick she saw at Robertson's.

Wayne Ball, an Arkansas-born craftsman with a neat gray beard and a package of cigarillos in his shirt pocket, works in the back room, carving, whittling, polishing. He has his own line, Killer Cues, and his own logo, a shark. At first, this was his hobby. Now he builds four or five sticks a year for customers and does repairs. Except for a set he made for former Buccanee r Brad Culpepper, no two are alike.

"I don't ever like letting them go," Ball says. "I'm a pack rat."

He keeps his own set of handmade cues in a black leather bag that was a gift from Buddy Hall, the champion 9-ball player, who is a regular customer. He has one inlaid with ivory hogs to commemorate his love for the Arkansas Razorbacks and one made of reddish wood wrapped in black leather. There is a cue made of feathery aircraft plywood and another of solid, plum-colored wood signed in gold.

When T.E. Robertson started this business decades ago, custom-made pool tables and cues weren't part of it. In those days, people didn't have pool tables in their houses, and Robertson's main customers were Florida's bars and billiard clubs. He would load a pool table or a juke box into the back of his station wagon and drive it to Miami to sell or ferry parts out to bars in Orlando and do repairs.

T.E. Robertson's son, Charles, turned it into a wholesale business, importing balls and cue sticks from Taiwan. He wanted to build a billiard players hall of fame near his shop in Tampa, but it ended up in Colorado. He pioneered billiard trade shows that continue today.

Charles' daughter, Debra Rodgers, today a 46-year-old blonde in rhinestone-studded jeans, started doing Robertson's books in 1984, bringing her infant son to work and dropping him in a playpen. Her son, now 20, works in the shop, along with the Rodgers' daughter, Alana Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, 23, is a slight but commanding presence, telling the male employees which orders to fill, dashing out to the warehouse, counting out gaming chips for customers and making small talk at the register. She grew up here, running the length of her grandfather's warehouses and dressing up to attend induction ceremonies for the Billiard Congress of America Hall of Fame. She was majoring in English at the University of Tampa until she dropped out to devote more time to work and her 4-year-old daughter, Aliya.

"If the alternative was that my parents were going to retire and someone else would take over, that would not have been okay with me," Alana says.

Aliya, who represents the fifth generation of T.E. Robertson descendants, is nearly as busy as her mother. A small, solemn-looking girl with big eyes, she sometimes denies rude customers the use of the copy machine. She runs around handing out envelopes and wrapping packages: bits of wood and scraps of fabric tied up with tape.

Sometimes, Aliya talks about wanting to work at Bob Evans, where she likes the french fries. On a recent afternoon, a visitor asked whether she wants to work at Robertson when she grows up. Aliya eyed the questioner with mild disdain, as if anyone with half a brain would know better.

"I am working here," she said.
[Last modified February 22, 2005, 01:12:18]

02-22-2005, 08:31 AM
Good to hear they are still in business. They make nice tables.

02-22-2005, 05:45 PM
i 2nd that..i have played on Robertson tables ..very well constructed ..and the pockets are great..