David Peacock, Peacock Billiards & James Joyce Bistro

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He runs a sharp pool hall, David Peacock does. The adjoining bistro is pretty natty, too. Located below sidewalk level at the corner of Douglas and View streets, Peacock Billiards and the James Joyce Bistro are an odd confluence of worlds. Entire, the configuration is an L-shape with Peacock Billiards being the longer line. It is a kaleidoscope of massive murals, and the tables are not the dinky beer-parlour models; rather, these are full, nine-foot tables, finished in beautiful woods. Peacock Billiards is the last remaining pool hall in Victoria proper. Ten pool halls bit the dust since 1994, and this establishment faces financial challenges, too.

Adjoining is the James Joyce Bistro, a lovely hideaway with good food served on tables hand-painted by artist and Times Colonist art writer Robert Amos. The paintings depict scenes from the works of the Irish modernist author, primarily his masterpiece, Ulysses.

This novel has confounded readers since its initial publication in serial installments in The Little Review in 1918 and was banned from the U.S. in 1920 on grounds of obscenity, though only the truly committed could delve through the tome’s obscurantist verbiage and esoteric wordplay to divine any sort of plot, naughty or otherwise. The completed work was published by the small imprint Shakespeare and Company in 1922.

Puttering around the place, often carrying a volume of Ulysses and expounding on Joycean scholarship to anyone who will listen, is David Peacock. Born in Fresno, California in 1945, Peacock attended University of California at Berkeley where he took a degree in psychology. In 1972, two years after the Kent State incident in which the Ohio National Guard killed four Americans protesting the invasion of Cambodia, Peacock had a bad dream that spurred him to move to Canada.

His fortunes as a businessman have been up and down, largely because of his sense of esthetics. He has never allowed smoking in his establishments as he values carpeted or hardwood floors, art on the walls, and, most of all, fine pool tables unmarred by burns. Before smoking was banned in all establishments, his stand put him at a financial disadvantage. Then there is the liquor problem. Pool players like to have a drink while shooting stick. Yet, the only places that can permit drinking are bars where the tables, because of hard use, are unsophisticated at best. While the James Joyce Bistro sells liquor, it cannot be taken into the pool area. By law, neither can they be left unattended at the bar, so there is no slipping back and forth between areas. These prohibitions profoundly dampen Peacock’s business, a situation he is trying to rectify with the city.

So what was this dream that brought you to Canada?

My dream was that my wife and I and our baby were rushing to the Canadian border to escape the new American Iron Curtain which was about to slam down. So off we went. I had a friend who arranged for a job as a carpenter’s helper. A few years later, I went to work for a fellow who was making particle-board pool tables, but there were only two months left in the business, so I launched myself into the billiards business thinking I’d be building pool tables and found out quickly that there was already plenty of tables in the American market to choose from and there wasn’t any money from building them anyway.

I was mostly selling pool tables, darts, custom woodworking into homes, but this was 1981 and the beginning of a recession, so selling big-ticket items was not going to do well. Those first years, I wasn’t making any money at all. Fortunately, my wife had a job as a draftsman that was reliable.

How did you turn your business around to make it viable?

I gave up woodworking and moved downtown and started a pool hall at 834 Johnson Street. The front half of the building had 11 tables and eventually we had the whole building with 20 tables. I was finally making a wage. We moved there in 1986 and moved here in 2007. With an inheritance, we bought the land on Johnson Street and then, two years later, sold it and made a profit and invested here. I’m not really making money here. This was very expensive to set up. It’s worth — I won’t say, but — a lot. Now, I’m ready to make a profit here, but without alcohol… [He shrugs].

{advertisement} What is the problem with getting the hall licensed a few feet away from a restaurant that serves alcohol?

The Liquor Control Board is agreeable to that sort of thing, where part of a pool hall is licensed, but it’s the city, which wants no more alcohol seats in Victoria, that has to approve it. Ninety per cent of A-level and B-level players would like to have a beer. It’s a civilized adjunct to the game. They don’t get drunk; they’re playing pool and they keep their pharmacology in line with their game. If you go into a bar in the afternoon when it’s quiet, they’ll open a table for you as long as you buy a pitcher. But, you’re playing on eight-foot tables that are junk. Yet guys with $3,000 cues are playing on these tables because they can have a beer. Players like it here, but they can’t have a beer while they’re playing, so it costs me money.

How does the restaurant do?

It pays the staff. I would be better off renting the whole restaurant facility out to somebody, but I like the restaurant the way it is. I don’t want to share this. The restaurant keeps people coming in and playing longer. [Food and soft drinks are allowed on the pool side.] Lunch is the big meal; it’s local business people, and the over-60 crowd loves it. They know who James Joyce is, for God’s sake. Anyone 30 years old doesn’t know who Joyce is unless he was a lit major.

It seems from what you’re saying that, while everybody likes money, for you, it’s more important to have a really nice place.

There may be a story in the fact that I don’t do business properly, that I’m not motivated by money, that I really am that ’60s hippie that is content with enough. It’s my philosophy that I’m content with being able to breathe comfortably. The part in which I’m not a good businessman is all the ways that virtually everybody is a good businessman: keeping a close eye on cost, making decisions overwhelmingly on cost, rather than my esthetic preferences.

Who is your pool clientele?

ESL students are vital to the business. There are lots of ESL schools nearby and Asians don’t expect to take their friends home and sit around the rec room. They’re entirely used to socializing in the outside world. Starting at 2:30 in the afternoon, they start swarming in here and the place is jumpin’.

Why Joyce?

I started listening to books on tape driving in from Metchosin and I came across Ulysses. I had tried and failed to read it at university. I read every sentence four times and was going to the dictionary five times a page. But, listening to it — Joyce rewrote everything for an ear for how it sounded — it is poetry, it sounds so good. The beauty of it as read out loud dragged me right in and the mystery of the story and the complexity of the story and that he doesn’t hand it to you. And you have to put it all together and you have to do it by yourself.