Johnny and John Stallworth at John’s Hardware & Bicycle Shop.
[This piece also runs in Urban Velo magazine.]
Pedaling down Halsted Street into Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, I smell the unmistakable aroma of Harold’s Chicken as I pass an outpost of the South Side chain whose logo features a chef chasing a rooster with a hatchet. After an SUV speeds by me booming hip-hop, I pull up to John’s Hardware & Bicycle Shop, 7350 S. Halsted, and admire the old-fashioned, hand-painted sign, featuring John Stallworth’s smiling, bearded face and his no-nonsense slogan, “If we don’t have it you don’t need it.”
In business for 43 years, John’s is the city’s oldest African-American-owned hardware store, and it’s an oasis in a bike shop desert. If you study the Chicago Bike Map, there are almost 50 bikes stores marked with a wheel icon on the denser, generally wealthier North Side of the city, usually located within a mile, or even just a couple of blocks, of each other. While the South Side has roughly twice the area, it has only about a dozen shops. John’s is about three miles from the nearest bike store, and in some underserved neighborhoods there is no shop for almost five miles in any direction.
The North Side, bike shops highlighted in pink.
The South Side.
As I enter the hardware store, R. Kelly’s percolating R & B hit “I Just Want to Share My Love” plays on the sound system. Four older men sit at the front of the store eating Harold’s and conversing, barbershop-style. A hundred or so bike wheels hang from the ceiling above racks of plumber’s pipe, buckets of paint, electrical supplies, toilets and galvanized washtubs. On one side of the shop two dozen used road, mountain and kids’ BMX bikes are for sale. There are a couple of work stands at the back, and cranks, chainrings, cassettes, break pads and pedals hang from pegboard. Whenever someone comes in the front door, a loud schoolbell-type alarm rings to alert the employees.
John’s son, Johnny, 41, mans the front counter, wearing Dickies, a light blue striped work shirt with his name on a patch and eye protectors. He’s been working here since he was a young kid helping patch inner tubes. “My dad always said, ‘If you’re old enough to walk you’re old enough to work,’” he tells me.”
Folks come in to get keys made and buy rolls of duct tape. A mom brings her young daughter in to purchase a new white tire for her purple BMX, followed by a pre-teen boy with a fauxhawk who rolls in his ride with purple anodized pegs on the front and rear wheels and pictures of skulls on the saddle. The bike has loose handlebars but he doesn’t have enough to pay to get them tightened, so he asks one of the old-timers for fifty cents. “Here you go,” says the man with a long, white beard, wearing a green jumpsuit and a camouflage cap. “Enjoy yourself.”
When John, 67, arrives, I see his beard’s a bit grayer than in the portrait on his shop’s sign and in the photos on the bottles of his house brand carpet shampoo, paint stripper and floor wax. But he’s still a youthful man with big, calloused hands and a gentle voice who does most of the bike repairs himself. In addition to the sixty hours a week he puts in at the shop and his contracting business, he’s also a deacon at the Rock of Ages Baptist Church in the south suburbs.
Sitting on a spool of wire, John tells me the history of the shop. After working here as a teen, he bought the hardware business in 1969 and started selling bikes a year later. “Kids kept coming in asking for bike repairs,” he explains. “My brother had a bicycle shop in Englewood, California and he suggested I get into the business.” Ever since a Home Depot opened nearby a few years ago it’s been tougher to sell hardware, but John says bikes help him keep the shop open because no one else around here fixes them.
Asked why there aren’t more bike shops on the South Side John says, “Most bike shops don’t like to work on low-end bikes. Here that’s all we get. With a department store bike you fix it and a couple days later the customer brings it back with another issue.” But he adds that more people are riding bikes on the South Side then ever before because of rising gas prices. “Last year we couldn’t keep up,” he says. “Sometimes I had to stay hours after closing time.”
Bicycling offers a slew of benefits for people who live in low-income communities: cheap recreation and transportation to jobs and schools, improved physical and mental health, and a positive activity for youth. But when these neighborhoods lack places buy a dependable bike or get a flat fixed, it’s a major deterrent.
For more clues on what’s keeping entrepreneurs from opening shops on the South Side, I contacted Ron Kozy, owner of a local chain of bike stores, all in the more affluent half of the city. His father opened the first Kozy’s Cyclery in 1944 in the working-class, South Side McKinley park neighborhood. Ron grew up two blocks away and took over the business around 1960, but decided to close the original store in the Nineties. “By the time we closed the store most people on the South Side were buying their bikes from K-Mart,” he explains. “We were still making money but not as much as my stores on the North Side. It was slowing us down. There’s no question in my mind that it was a good business decision, but it was hard for me because it was my dad’s store.”
West Town Bikes / Ciclo Urbano in Chicago’s Humboldt Park.
Quality bikes can be a hard-sell in low-income neighborhoods, agrees Alex Wilson, director of West Town Bikes / Ciclo Urbano, a bicycle education center and retail shop in Chicago’s Humboldt Park, a largely low-income neighborhood on the North Side. It’s one of five nonprofit community bike shops and bike ed centers spread across the city, helping to get inner-city youth interested in bicycling. West Town serves about 1,000 kids annually, largely through classes on safe cycling and mechanics taught offsite at schools and community centers, and also offers maintenance classes for adults at its headquarters.
“Quite often bikes are seen as an expensive form of recreation,” Wilson says. He adds that perceiving bikes as a respectable mode of transportation is a privileged point of view. “There’s a lot of stigma associated with riding a bike as transportation, especially in low-income neighborhoods,” he says. “This is where nonprofit bike shops makes a really good bridge.”
Working Bikes Cooperative. Photo by Steven.
Working Bikes Cooperative, another nonprofit store that collects old bikes, fixes some up for sale and uses the proceeds to ship the rest to sister co-ops in developing nations, purposely chose a location on the South Side in the low-income Little Village Neighborhood, says founder Lee Ravenscroft. “We went for cheap rent instead of a high-traffic location,” he says. “We got 30,000 square feet for a good price. At first we were worried that people wouldn’t follow us down here from the North Side but they did.”
Clare Knipper, co-owner of Blue City Cycles, a for-profit shop in the blue collar, South Side Bridgeport community, agrees with Wilson that biking is often frowned upon on the South Side. “If you’re riding a bike, a lot of people assume you got a DUI,” she says. Because people are less likely to spend much on a bike here, it’s harder to make money running a bike shop, she says. “We fix a lot of Huffies, but that’s a $10 hammer job, and it doesn’t exactly pay the rent.”
Mural outside Blue City Cycles featuring bike racing champ Major Taylor.
Leroi Ricks, owner of the for-profit shop The Bicycle Clinic, located in the middle-class South Side neighborhood of South Shore, says there’s a latent demand for bikes on the South Side. “A lot of people don’t know the benefits in terms of health,” he says. “And a lot of people don’t know you can hop on your bike and go down the [bike path along Lake Michigan] downtown to Blues Fest or the Taste of Chicago in an hour. You get exercise and you don’t have to worry about parking or gasoline.”
Bike shop deserts seem to be an issue in New York as well, says Patrick Tomeny, who manages the East Village location for Recycle-A-Bicycle, a nonprofit that runs two community bike shops and youth education programs in all five boroughs. He notes that while the New York City Cycling Map lists 61 shops in Manhattan and 41 in Brooklyn, there are only six in the blue-collar Bronx. Tomeny says one way his organization helps provide repair services to folks who might otherwise not have access is Bike Bonanzas, festivals where kids can swap their rides for larger ones and get free tune-ups.
Students outside a Recycle-A-Bicycle shop in New York. Photo by Flickr user C34.
Martin Lopez-Iu, volunteer and outreach coordinator for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, doesn’t think bike shop deserts are much of a problem in L.A. “We have a pretty good population of stores run by low-income people who have found a way to make it work,” he says. “A large part of that is due to the fixed-gear scene. A lot of kids in underserved neighborhoods are really into it and are willing to save up their money for a cool frame. So there are a good amount of small, family-run shops in East L.A. or South L.A. They don’t necessarily have the nicest stuff but they’re out there.”
One shop that fits this model is Downtown L.A. Bicycles, which does a brisk business in fixed-gears. Why do fixies appeal to inner-city youth? “They like the choice of colors, the sense of acceptance among their peers and the fact that you can go really fast from point A to point B,” says manager Daniel Farahirad. “If someone opened a shop like ours on the South Side of Chicago they’d get really busy really quick.”
A Books on Wheels bus provides bike repair services to kids in Richmond. Photo by John Murden.
In Richmond, Virginia, Books on Wheels addresses the bike shop desert issue by offering free books and free bicycle parts and repairs out of school bus that visits low-income communities. “Our focus is to work with people not living near bicycle stores and those who do not have ways to get to local shops, as well as not being able to afford the expense of repairs,” says co-founder Shelly Briggs.
Wisconsin-based DreamBikes is another nonprofit that provides bike shop services where they otherwise wouldn’t be available, by opening used bike shops in underserved communities, staffed by young people from the neighborhoods. Currently they have locations in Madison and Milwaukee and they are looking into opening stores in Chicago, Cleveland and Washington, D.C.
Demonstrating a right-turn signal at Dreambikes’ two year anniversary party in Madison. Image courtesy of DreamBikes.
I ask Erik Lee, manager of the Madison shop, how DreamBikes is able to open bike shops in neighborhoods that other retailers might reject as unprofitable. “Our business model is quite different from your average bike shop,” he says. “We strategically place our stores in low income, underserved neighborhoods to provide transportation alternatives to our neighbors, but also to be accessible to our kids so they don’t have to hike across town to get to work. Because all of our bikes have been donated to us, we have already eliminated a major cost of doing business.”
Milwaukee employee De’Aundre Lee (no relation), learned to wrench at the Valid Bike Shop, a vocational program run by the Bike Federation of Wisconsin. “DreamBikes is a chance for youth and other individuals to come here to learn the tricks of the trade,” he says. “It’s a learning experience for everybody involved.”
Advertisement for John’s Hardware & Bicycle Shop on a nearby railroad embankment.
Back at the hardware store, John sends me off with a firm handshake and a warm smile. Outside I notice a teen in a White Sox cap straddling a too-tall Diamondback mountain bike, talking to friends by a grocery store. On the next block a little girl in braids rides alongside her mother on a BMX with training wheels. Then a neatly dressed old man rolls past me on the sidewalk pedaling a candy-apple red Schwinn cruiser with big chrome fenders and dice valve caps.
It’s clear that folks on the South Side and other underserved urban areas can benefit from more bike store services. And as cycling grows in popularity and new community initiatives launch, hopefully bike shop deserts will be replaced with blossoming bicycle culture.