Celebrating the Bike Shop: The Wright Brothers were bicycle retailers!

Words by Jay Townley, Gluskin Townley Group jaytown

Why doesn’t the bicycle business celebrate the American bike shop? I just spent a month researching and preparing the sixteenth consecutive annual overview report on the U.S. bicycle market and realized that it didn’t come close to addressing this question.

The data and statistics, and more importantly the sixteen year bicycle market trend-lines are interesting to an analyst like me and perhaps some others, but they aren’t very exciting and they – quite frankly aren’t really compelling or inspiring!

The real story that the American bicycle business has to tell, that is both compelling and inspiring is the story of the bike shop.

The rest of the world has bike shops and over the years I have had the opportunity to visit bike shops in Canada, Hungary, Poland, France, Italy, Holland, Belgium, Germany, the UK, Switzerland, Japan, Taiwan and China.

Each country has their own story about their bike shops and some even claim they are the home of the first bike shop – but the story of the American bike shop is unique and stands out among the bike shops of the world.

I know I am often looked at as blaming American bike shops for the current problems many of them have…but trying to place blame is a waste of time, just like complaining is (remember, complaining is not a strategy). What we need are inspiring stories to celebrate and tell over-and-over again.
What I truly don’t understand is why bike shops and the associated channel of trade don’t celebrate the story of the American bike shop – and use that story as part of promoting bicycles and bicycling to the general public both locally and nationally.

What am I talking about? Let’s start with the historical fact that powered-flight, the airplane – and more importantly the art and science of “flying” that is still employed today was invented – in an American bike shop!

The “occupation” listed for Orville and Wilbur Wright leave no doubt about this – and the underlining and bolding is mine.

bike shopOrville Wright

Printer/publisher, bicycle retailer/manufacturer, airplane inventor/manufacturer, pilot trainer

Wilbur Wright

Editor, bicycle retailer/manufacturer, airplane inventor/manufacturer, pilot trainer

Orville and Wilbur Wright were brilliant, but they were high school graduates, who learned the skills that went into the invention of power-flight, and later the manufacturing of airplanes and training of airplane pilots not in the class room or the printing business, but in their bike shops (they were in several locations) and as manufacturers of locally-made bicycles!

Why doesn’t the National Bicycle Dealers Association (NBDA), The Bike Coop, the US trade press or the rest of the bike shop channel of trade, including the advocates celebrate and promote to the American public the fact that “…the airplane was invented in a bike shop!”

While this is an outward facing question – the inward facing question that I also have is: Why aren’t the historical facts about the role a bike shop played in the invention and development of arguably one of the handful of innovations that have profoundly impacted and changed the world promoted to American bike shop owners and employees…and potential owners and employees?

I didn’t know there was a connection between the Wright Brothers and the bike shop where I started my working life in 1957 – and I didn’t really learn the facts until I was working at Arnold Schwinn & Company (the name was changed to Schwinn Bicycle Company), and later when I traveled to Dayton, Ohio to work with the Schwinn training film producer that I was able to visit the replica of the Wright Brothers bike shop and learned the historical and factual details.

The American bike shop business has a lot to be proud of – but we need stories that are truly compelling and inspiring to the greater pubic and to young people and potential bike shop owners and employees.

I submit that the story of bicycle retailers and bike shop owners Orville and Wilbur Wright, who played a major role in forever changing the world we live in is multiple orders of magnitude more interesting and inspiring than the bicycle market and business data, statistics and trend lines of the last sixteen years – although I can tell you where to get them if you are at all interested!

Next time I will celebrate and share the story of George Garner who inspired a generation of American bike shop owners and employees and helped take bike shops out of the back alleys and moved them to the high-shopping streets across the country.

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