A gearhead muses
by Genny G.
It's 16 months since the Bikesmith closed - 16 months - but the storefront where it once stood remains empty. The brown butcher's paper covering the big windows is faded, the glass door empty, the 'For Lease' sign weathered.
Peel back the layers of time and event... a younger (much younger) self holds a battered old fix gear with a sprung rear wheel and gazes into the window of a bike shop. She sees Bendix hubs, toeclips, derailleurs, a pair of Cinelli death pedals, tools. In one window hangs an Orange Krate, in the other a lowslung TT bike.
The door is old, sticks for a moment then gives way with a startling clank! BANG! and I venture into a forest of bikes. A canopy of rims and frames swags overhead, and all around are piles of handlebars, forks, saddles. Behind a big counter at the back of the ship two mechanics are working. 'Broke a spoke, eh?' A tall woman of indeterminate age and apparently laser eyes emerges, wiping her hands on a rag. I ask how long it might take to fix. I tell her that this is my work bike, that if I can't ride, I can't work. I probably sound desperate... I certainly feel desperate. Barely have the words left my mouth when my rear wheel is expertly lofted into a truing stand behind the counter.
While I wait I look around - an ollipodrada of bikehood seemingly from the 19th century to yesterday is stuffed in the narrow confines. A small, long Berry is mounted over the counter, an old hairnet dangling from its handlebars. A placard hanging from the top tube says "Audrey McElmury's World Championship Bicycle, 1968." The tall mechanic is back with my wheel, sees me gazing upward at the bike. 'We used to train together down in
California way back,' she says, 'we still keep in touch.' She hands me the wheel. It looks better than it has since I can remember. I can hardly believe it. I spout gratitude and dollar bills. She only takes five of the bills but smiles at my gratitude. Invites me back any time.
When Val bought the shop from his friend and now mine, Jeanna, he posted a sign up next to the counter, a reprint of the classic '40s "Rosie the Riveter" poster with its determined-looking young woman rolling up her sleeves. "We can fix anything!" it proclaims. The stand right next to the sign is Bob's. Bob is a machinist and a national track champion from the time before I was born, even if he looks only about 10 years older than I and has the walk of an athletic teenager.
Val himself has the distinction of being the world's nattiest mechanic, with a perfectly-turned handlebar mustache and grandee manners. His knowledge encompasses a bewildering variety of topics: not only an encyclopedic grasp of bikes, but also theatre, politics, books, authors, music. A year or two later they're joined by David, an intelligent, meditative man. I once saw David resurrect a bottom bracket that I had reduced to slurry over a season. He remanufactured it in 20 minutes, made it like new. Better than new -- it's been years and it still runs like butter. There is no part so obscure, no problem so vexed, that these guys can't figure it out, fix it, weld it, machine it, make it work.
A video monitor sits next to a large stack of cycling videos. It wears a bumper sticker that says "Dirt is for Potatoes, Asphalt is for Racing" but every conceivable bike for every conceivable sort of riding rolls in and out of the front door. I'm lucky enough to be invited to try the shop's latest acquisitions: a chopped cruiser with a fearsomely long wheelbase and ape-hangers, a two-speed internal hub fixed gear, a Haas recumbent tricycle that would cost me a month's wage, Jeff Lyons' new 'cross frame.
Next door, on the other side of a knife-thin alley, is Swanson's shoe repair. Swanson's has been there since the mid-40s, and Danny came up in the business with his dad. They can fix anything, too. Like The Bikesmith, their busy old shop is filled with all the detritus of their trade--shoes, boots, heavy bags, suitcases. Danny brings his bike into Bikesmith to be worked over, cyclists get sent next door to have their blown-out shoes repaired. Danny can tell you how to fix those too-tight shoes to make them a half size larger, or replace the straps, or mend that big gash in the side from the last mountainbike ride. You can chat about the Tour in both places.
On bright summer days, blinding, disorienting sunny days when the population of Seattle stumbles around blinking like drunks thrown out onto the hard new day, the interior of the Bikesmith still seems dim. It's the busy season, and the clank! BANG! of the sticky door sounds every few minutes. Neighbourhood riders come in with their kids. So do track racers, mountainbikers, tourists, commuters, antique bike collectors, couriers, and the little middle-aged fellow who, despite his chronic alcoholic haze, rides his girl's bike 15 miles each way to his labouring job, kept on the road by the kindness of others.
In the winter it's not so busy, and the stories flow as fast as the cold winter rain. Great jazz is playing, the coffee is fresh and hot, and the chairs by the bike mags and books are occupied with friends and customers, talking about bikes, races, strange commutes, books, movies; philosophy and politics admixing with the clank of tools. The busy little world of Bikesmith rolls along with the seasons and we all roll with it--track season, 'cross, mad messy winters when we need lights by 3:30, the short teasing spring, summer, 'cross season again already...
There comes a time in most people's lives when, if they're fortunate, they feel invincible, that their strength will never fail, their courage never falter, that the world is green and thriving. It used to make me a little drunk. Seattle itself was a bit drunk, too, a pedestrian economy suddenly jolted and riding the crest of the dotcom boom, drowning in venture capital. People with barely the wit to blow their noses were suddenly rolling in dough, buying the biggest McMansion, the most hulking McSUV, picking up $4000 bikes as one might buy so many packs of chewing gum, only to discard them for a pittance when the next toy presented itself a few months later. In the 90s the economy would still float all of the boats instead of just the yachts, and we all prospered from the fallout, even if prospering meant nothing more than a full-time job and enough money to purchase that used bike from the rich guy at Microsoft. At Bikesmith, thriving since the pre-boom times, we laughed about it, agreed that it reminded us of the South Sea Bubble, that immortal financial disaster. It all seemed absurd, a little unreal.
What does it mean when something suddenly vanishes? No explosion, no thundering act of God, simply a vacuum... One day in 2000, it seemed, Seattle's lighter-than-air economy suddenly evaporated - the paper fortunes vanished, the McMansions were sold, the McSUVs traded off. Companies went bankrupt by the dozen, then by the hundred. 9/11, layoffs, more layoffs, outsourcing...
On the day he closed The Bikesmith for good, Val and I could have been mirror images, a couple of near-destitute statistics talking across the counter in a forlorn, half-empty shop, a pushy, noisy scavenger, his junk truck parked out front, pacing the the last of the stock, clacking 'Hey! Hey! How much for this! I'll give you five dollars for this box of chainrings! Hey! Hey!'
I wonder if the landlord misses his monthly rent check, even if it was sometimes late in those last years. His other shop space, two doors down from Swanson's, turns over regularly, each new occupant selling the same kind of blank, generic junk you find in any mall. Nothing that digs into the neighbourhood, anchors itself usefully, stays. Looking at that brown butcher's paper is like looking at a nullity, a negation, and suddenly I feel unspeakably depressed.
It's starting to rain again and I'm bound to get soaked on the way home. I've lived here most of my life, here where it rains all the time, and I still forget my rain gear. I saddle up, go to check the traffic before riding into the street, but something catches my eye, something in its far periphery. Blink and it's gone, but then it comes back -- if I don't look, I can see it, a chimera seen more with the heart than the eyes. The butcher's paper has vanished, and there are the Bendix hubs in the window again, the Orange Krate, the
cruiser bike. Push the latch down on the handle and force open the sticky door with the old slap-clank! A greeting shouted from behind the counter. I feel invincible again, young, thriving. The coffee's hot and the gingersnaps are sweet. Bob is telling me about the masters' nats, the horrible weather at the nats. There's the "Dirt is for Potatoes" sticker on the monitor, the clank of tools, laughter, the stories, that really good
I stand for a moment in the rain before pushing out into the traffic, feeling obscurely better.