It's Tuesday night at Smitty's in Westwood, where Joel Cutts and Tracey Mason are about to mix business with pleasure.
Cutts and Mason are members of the Aactive Pool League, a multi-team circuit that stages matches in bars and lounges all over Winnipeg. They are also the owners of AVO Home Recreation, a games-room store that specializes in pool tables and pool accessories, including more than 200 types of cues. Which leads us to our first question: given that most of Cutts' and Mason's league opponents are also their customers, does anybody ever give them a different kind of business when they're lining up over a cue ball?
"Oh yeah, every once in a while we'll hear comments like, 'How can someone who runs a pool place miss that?'" Cutts says, admitting that one of the perks of the job is having a table at work that he and Mason can practise on whenever they want to. "We're not superstars, but I do like to think that our games are strong enough that we don't embarrass ourselves too often."
Next year, AVO Home Recreation, which also sells dart boards, shuffleboard tables and bubble hockey games, will turn 50 -- a benchmark that makes the store, located at 619 Ferry Rd., a household name, right? Wrong.
"At least once a day, somebody comes through the doors and says, 'Jeez, I had no idea this place existed,'" Mason says.
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Twenty years ago, Sam Smith was a would-be music promoter with hair down to his waist.
One day, Smith was offered a job to go on the road with Horace Pinker, a punk rock group from Arizona. The tour was expected to last three months and would include stops across the U.S. and Europe. The only glitch was that Smith, then 19, had to come up with his own airfare when the time came to fly overseas.
Smith asked his father, who co-owned AVO Home Recreation with Jack Kinsley at the time, if he would help out with his plane ticket. Dennis Smith said he would, on one condition: when his son returned to Winnipeg, he had to get a haircut, register for university and start working part-time at AVO.
"I did everything except the school part; I sort of thought AVO was where my life was going to be, career-wise," says Smith, whose job description consisted of sales, set-up and working on his sidespin.
"As far as selling consumer goods goes, it was a lot of fun to work with families who felt that a pool table would complete their home -- that it would be something they could pass on to their kids and grandkids."
Smith left the store about eight years ago, just before his father and Kinsley sold it to Cutts. (Smith is now a promoter and talent buyer who books bands at venues across Winnipeg.)
"I was pretty upset when I left," Smith says. "Playing 9-ball with your dad all day kind of spoils the mind for an average workday. But with some distance, it's not too hard to see how special that place is."
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AVO is an acronym for Albert, Vern and Orville -- the original owners' first names. (Smith and Kinsley took over in 1992.)
The founding trio got into billiards after trying out some high-end Brunswick tables at a trade show they attended for AVO Marine, their primary business. (Brunswick is the parent company of Mercury outboard motors and Lund boats, for which AVO Marine was a dealer.)
AVO's initial customer base wasn't the home market, but the plethora of smoke-filled pool halls that sprang up in Winnipeg in the 1960s, after films like The Hustler popularized the pastime.
"Places like Las Vegas (Amusements), Crystal Casino and Sportsman's (Pool Hall) -- they all had 5-by-10 (foot) Brunswicks and AVO was the only place selling them," Cutts says.
Cutts, 45, grew up in Selkirk. He got a job at Dufferin Game Room Store in St. Vital Centre not long after pool got a second cinematic shot in the arm, thanks to Tom Cruise and The Color of Money.
In 2004, Cutts was managing Dufferin's St. James Street location when he heard that Smith and Kinsley were thinking about retiring. The timing was perfect: Cutts moved over to AVO on a Friday and on the following Monday, Dufferin shut its doors in Winnipeg for good. (Mason used to manage a Dufferin store in Edmonton. She met Cutts at a conference in the Bahamas, and joined him in Winnipeg four years ago.)
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Two of AVO's customers are better known for their slapshots than their bankshots.
Not long after the Atlanta Thashers relocated to Winnipeg, Dustin Byfuglien and Evander Kane popped into the store's 4,000-square-foot showroom. Byfuglien was in the market for a new pool table, while Kane wanted to recloth a table he was having shipped from Georgia. (AVO also supplies the Jets locker room with a ping-pong table, which the players use to warm up on before games.)
Better than the Jets, somewhere in Winnipeg is an AVO snooker table that was autographed by the "World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band."
The Rolling Stones played Winnipeg Stadium in 1997, back when Smith was still working at AVO. Smith says that the entire first floor of the Winnipeg Arena served as the band's "hospitality suite." One of the pre-concert items provided to the Stones was a snooker table, on loan from AVO.
Somebody -- Smith thinks it was Kinsley -- got the bright idea to leave a felt pen behind, along with a note asking Mick and the boys to autograph the table, when they were done their game.
"They all signed it," Smith says, mentioning that Keith Richards added the postscript, "Nice rag" in reference to the table's cloth.
"We picked the table up the day after the concert and that's when the story took off, with an FM station eventually acquiring it and auctioning it off for charity."
"There are a lot of pool players in Winnipeg," says Joel Cutts, owner of AVO Home Recreation. "Check that -- a lot of really good pool players."
Many of them play in the Winnipeg Veterans' English Billiard League, a circuit that turned 80 years old, last year.
"If we're not the oldest organized (pool) league in Canada, then I don't know who is," says league president Jon Miller. (Every Thursday night, Miller takes on all comers with the same cue he bought from AVO 30 years ago.)
Except for one squad that calls Eddie's Place on Selkirk Avenue home, the 10-team snooker league is based out of Royal Canadian Legion Halls across the city. Members range in age from 20 to 80-plus.
"It's very competitive, but I've never seen money -- or even a beer -- change hands after a match," says Jim Simm, 79, a league member since 1957. "We play for trophies and for pride."
In October, the league raised money so that its two top players could participate in the World Billiards Championship, which was held in Leeds, England.