The blog

Oldest bike shops in the world survived challenge from ‘the internet’ of the 1890s

If you sell your horse, buy a bicycle: Sears Roebuck catalogue, 1897

I’m writing a book about the US and UK cyclist organisations of the 1880s and 1890s which lobbied for good roads – and got them – before the motorcar came along and stole their thunder. ‘Roads Were Not Built For Cars’ will be a social history of the bicycle’s contribution to public life, arguing that cars are the johnny-come-latelies on the highways of Britain and America.

The role of bike shops in the spread of the popularity of cycling is underplayed, or not mentioned, in pretty much all of the bicycle history books I’ve consulted so far.

To research the book (which will be a free e-book, supported by trade advertising, as well as an all-singing, all-dancing paid-for e-book and print title) I’m reading widely, including poring over bicycle trade journals, yellowed with age. As a bike trade mag veteran I’m finding this research illuminates the present.

Bicycle retailers have been fighting against sellers of cheap Bicycle Shaped Objects for at least 120 years. Tescos and Wal-Mart muscling in on bike shop sales isn’t a new phenomenon: the cycle retailers of the 1890s also railed against the supermarkets of their day. When Specialized and other specialty-channel brands talk about protecting independent dealers, they’re echoing the concerns and sales pitches of equivalent bike brands in the 1890s.


Outing Bicycle said in an 1897 ad: “We don’t want our machines disgraced by associating them with sour kraut, pig iron and cheese sandwich dealers.”

An editorial in US weekly trade magazine Cycling Life, also in 1897, railed against department stores. It was necessary to “check the evil before it becomes too great for suppression.”

The magazine recommended the creation of a “separate classification to the bicycle sold by the department stores and thereby distinguish it from other machines”, adding “it is clear that if supply houses and bicycle makers do not mutually assist each other in crushing out the competition of department stores the stores will swallow up the reputation of both.”

Cycling Life had little to say on the challenge posed by Sears Roebuck & Co. Perhaps bicycles-by-mail were deemed too uncouth to even mention? Sales via independent bicycle dealers would soon be lost to the early mail order specialists.

Just as bike sales over the the internet have impinged on many modern dealers, the bike shops of the late 1890s faced similar challenges. In 1895, Sears, Roebuck & Co. of the US was producing a 532-page catalogue.

Who could resist Dr. Chaise’s Nerve And Brain Pills? This was a patent medicine cure for those with “overworked sexual excesses.” There were also items such as shoes, fishing tackle, glassware, guns (lots of guns, including specialist ones for cyclists) and, of course, bicycles and bike parts, such as wheels, valve stems, child seats, horns, clothing and pumps.

Cyclists in the US even helped such a trade to flourish not only because they bought mail order but because their championing of better roads to ride on led, in turn, to the ability for postal services to reach into the far reaches of the US. Bad rural roads had previously kept many communities cut off from the rest of society for much of the year: railroads weren’t everywhere. Today, Chain Reaction Cycles sends bike kit all over the world; in the 1890s, so did Sears Roebuck & Co. It claimed it was “The Cheapest Supply House On Earth” and that “Our Trade Reaches Around The World'”. (However, despite its grandiose claim, the only shipping rates in the Sears Roebuck catalogues of the 1890s are for American States).

The late 1890s were a golden age for bicycles. They were seen as technological marvels and were ridden by Royals and rich young blades. In 1891, entry level bicycles were sold for at least $100 a piece. Fancier bicycles sold for $150 or more. To put this into perspective, a worker in one of the many factories producing bicycles in 1891 would have to work for six months to be able to afford one of the items he was assembling.

Prior to the boom of 1895-7, bicycles were the red Ferraris of the day: fast playthings of the rich.

When bicycles were luxury items, there were few bicycle retailers. When the middle classes started buying bicycles in big numbers, the number of specialist bicycle retailers increased to cope with demand. There were 100,000 visitors to a cycle show in New York in 1896, of which 2000 were ‘cycle agents’, such as bike shops, and hardware stores which sold bikes. In 1897 America manufactured 1 million bicycles; England made 600,000. American and English bicycles were exported around the world but, until the bubble bursting required “dumping” product overseas, the biggest markets were domestic markets.

wrightbrothersworkshop

Bicycle shop owners made a tidy living. The Wright Brothers – they who, in 1903, perfected powered flight (one of the brothers is seen in the shop’s workshop, above) – paid for their aviation experiments from the profits generated in their bicycle shop, founded in 1892. The Wright Cycle Co. of Dayton, Ohio, was profitable for many years. In 1897, their best year, they made $3000 between them at a time when a very respectable white-collar wage was $500 per year.

One of the reasons bike shops made so much money – apart from the crazed cravings of customers, who had to have the buzz product of the day – was because of manufacturer’s sales tactics that would later be taken up with gusto by automobile manufacturers. Bikes were bought on credit, with instalment payments a novelty at the time. Bicycle manufacturers also innovated with “planned obsolescence”, creating models with short lifespans before another, improved model came out (it was manufacturers who most benefitted from this; bike shops had to offer trade-in deals and then offload “dated” bicycles as secondhand machines, these went for as low as $15, making bicycles more affordable for the masses, the bicycle was soon to become, truly, the “peoples’ nag”).

1897 was to be the peak year for the upper and middle class bicycle boom, in both America and England, with America witnessing the bursting of the bubble first. After 1897 trade in the US started going downhill, prices plummeted.

In England, the boom was also over by 1897 but it took at least another year before it was obvious the craze was at an end. Travel writing husband and wife team Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell said 1899 “was as bad a year as the (bicycle) trade has ever seen.”

wrightlettersmithsonian

As bicycle retailing became less profitable, the numbers of bicycle retailers fell through the floor. Bad for bicycle manufacturers, good for aviation. After 1897, sales – and profits – at the Wright Cycle Co. were much reduced. On May 30th 1899, Wilbur Wright wrote to the Smithsonian Institution, asking for papers on man’s attempt to fly. He paid for the papers from his and his brother’s bicycle business. The accounts for the Wright Cycle Co. includes an 1899 entry of $5.50 “for books on flying.” (Wright Cycle Co. stopped producing own-label bikes in 1904. The bike store continued to sell branded bikes and P&A but was converted to a machine shop in 1909 when the Wright Company, an aircraft manufacturing business, started producing bicycle-inspired parts for aeroplane engines).


Sears Roebuck & Co. didn’t cause the bicycle crash of post-1897 but it made life much more difficult for bicycle retailers. The mail order giant was selling bicycles for as low as $7.50 by 1900.

Retailers of every stripe were impacted by price-cutting by department stores and mail order merchants. Manhattan’s Siegel-Cooper department store sold $100 bicycles for just $22 in 1897. The Sears Roebuck catalogue boasted:

“This book tells just what your storekeeper at home pays for everything he buys and will prevent him from overcharging you on anything you buy from him.”

Yet despite the market-warping power of the department stores and early mail order giants – they were the Amazon.com’s of their day – some bike shops founded before the Great War still exist today.

Pearson Cycles of Sutton, West London, was founded in 1860. Howes of Cambridge was founded twenty years earlier. Both pre-date the modern bicycle. Pearson’s started life as a blacksmiths; John Howes was a wheelright and carriage maker.


Pearson Cycles – seen above, on the right – is still in the same building as the original blacksmith’s forge, albeit much renovated. Brothers Guy and Will Pearson – the fifth generation from the family to run the shop – recently opened a new branch, a few miles away in Sheen.

“We have a slow roll-out programme; one store every 150 years,” Will jokes. The shop is now very high tech (the new ‘concept store’ is a bicycle fitting specialist and was opened by Sean Kelly, the dominant classics rider of the 1980s) but, when needed, an item from the 1860 forge is still used in the workshop:

“The anvil still gets dragged out for occasional stubborn workshop jobs, or customers.”

According to the website for Howes Cycles, the business has “traded in the heart of Cambridge in Regent Street for over one and a half centuries.”

Store and family historian Richard Howes says:

“Family legend has it that one of the [Howes family] went to Paris to an exposition in 1868, saw this strange two wheeled thing and thought ‘I could make that with the equipment we already have in Cambridge.’ So he did. We still have one of the high wheelers we made back then.”

In America, the oldest still-trading bike shop is Bishop’s Bicycles of Milford, Ohio, founded in 1890. Kopp’s Cycle of Princeton, New Jersey, was founded by E.C. Kopp in 1891 at the tail-end of the high-wheeler era. Safety bicycles, with two equal sized wheels and later shod with new-fangled pneumatic tyres, were disparagingly known as “jiggers” by the gentlemen on their elevated steeds but soon dominated the scene, leading to increased business for specialist retailers such as Bishop’s and Kopp’s.


The father of Charles Kuhn, the current owner of Kopp’s, bought the business from the founder’s wife in the 1940s.

Kuhn Snr and Englishman Dick Swann – who I knew, and who I’ve mentioned previously – pioneered the US import of Italian racing bicycles and parts in the 1960s.


The oldest retail bike shop in the United States still owned by the same family is the wonderfully named Greenlees Bicycle Hospital of Knoxville, TN. The second oldest still owned by the same family is Bumstead’s Bicycles of Ontario, California, founded in 1909.

Guthrie Bikes of Salt Lake City was founded as a bicycle manufacturer in 1888, converting to retail in 1907.

In the book – due to be published early in 2013 – I’ll delve deeper into the important role of bike shops in the development of cycle sport, cycle touring and, later, motoring.

23 thoughts on “Oldest bike shops in the world survived challenge from ‘the internet’ of the 1890s

  1. Michal_grau / Reply January 19, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    Bishops’s Bicycles, since 1890, 313 main street, Milford Ohio 45150 513-831-2521

    • carltonreid / Reply January 20, 2012 at 6:44 pm

      Thanks. I’ll check them out.

    • carltonreid / Reply January 20, 2012 at 6:58 pm

      Thanks. Now added Bishop’s. I’ve also emailed them for some more info and maybe a pic.

  2. Karl Moscrip / Reply January 30, 2012 at 11:08 pm

    Hall Bicycle, in Cedar Rapids Iowa was started in 1898. I am curious as to how this compares. How many other shops are older?

    • carltonreid / Reply February 1, 2012 at 7:49 pm

      The two US shops mentioned in the piece, and the UK ones are very much older. But any shop that survived the end of the boom and then the onslaught of mail-order discounting has done incredibly well to survive.

  3. Shaun / Reply March 22, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    Strauss Skates and Bicycles started in 1887 in St Paul as a bicycle manufacturer, and is still owned by the grandson of John Strauss.
    Now a retail ice skating, cycling, and lacrosse store, Strauss is proud to be amongst some of the oldest family owned businesses in the United States.
    Keep up the good work America, and remember to shop local.

    • carltonreid / Reply March 22, 2012 at 2:45 pm

      That looks like the oldest so far…

      • CJ / Reply March 16, 2014 at 3:26 pm

        Just a shop to add the the list . “Hearns cycling and fitness. ” est. 1896. Located in Asheville North Carolina. I was under the assumption they where the oldest continually running bike shop in the U.S. Very cool shop mostly used bikes now lots of awesome old bikes you can’t find anywhere else. Worth a visit if you in the area and love bikes. Lots of parts as well.

  4. ktowndude / Reply November 16, 2012 at 4:44 am

    Greenlee’s bicycle shop in Knoxville was started in 1899 and is still family owned.

  5. oldasdirt / Reply November 30, 2012 at 7:20 pm

    http://greenleesbicycle.com/

    Bishops, Kopps, then Greenlee’s – The Great Depresion and WWII rationing took most of the old shops out.

    Greenlee’s is the oldest retail bike shop in the United States still owned by the same family.

  6. Cptbfhrt / Reply January 29, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    Rick’s Bike Shop in Buffalo, NY claims to have opened for business in 1898.

    • carltonreid / Reply January 30, 2013 at 1:02 am

      Thanks. Amazing, really, that any bike shops from that era survived at all. The sales slump after 1898 was pretty severe, and margins after that were very slim indeed.

  7. Hawkeye / Reply January 30, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    I hope you won’t forget to include the tremendous impact that Fred Kuhn (aka Fritzy as he was known by his friends) had on racing. Not only by being the first to import fine cinelli’s and “campy” parts but for the countless youth he exposed to the sport. His right hand man Scwanny was also a very dear friend of mine and my families. We still sing and chant many of his famous limericks. He too was a truly remarkable man and we were blessed for knowing him.

    • carltonreid / Reply January 30, 2013 at 1:14 pm

      That’s an sweet anecdote, thanks.

      Bike shops have had a largely unsung positive impact on cycling down the ages. Yes, they want to sell more bikes but it’s often much, much deeper than that.

  8. Bennett'sFan / Reply February 21, 2013 at 4:50 am

    Bennett’s Bicycles in Staten Island, NY – around since 1896!!!

  9. shopgeek / Reply October 18, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    Actually, Greenlee’s Knoxville Bicycle Hospital (est.1908 – The Greater Knoxville ) Illustrated 1909) – is different the Wolf’s Knoxville Bicycle Hospital (est.1893 – Mclung Museum, Million Dollar Fire 1897) and later the main Greenlee’s employees reopened the Knoxville Bicycle Hospital, which is still around today. In the 50’s the Greenlee’s opened “Greenlees Bike Shop” and for a brief period in 2012 was known as Greenlee’s Bicycle Hospital (ridding on the coat tails of Knoxville Bicycle Hospital – rumor has it an attorney straightened it all out), and it is known in 2013 as “Edwards/Greenlee Small Engine Repair” and “Greenlee’s Bicycle Shoppe” and does mainly small engine and lawn mower repair, although they do sell a limited number of used and lower quality bicycles and do minor repairs, it is far from a full service “professional” bicycle shop that Knoxville Bicycle Hospital has. KBH has Barnett’s mechanics that includes a frame table and a frame builder / welder on staff. According to the Mclung Museum in Knoxville KBH was established by M.L. Wolf in 1893 and partnered Greenlee (when the automobile was making headway) in 1899. Wolf then changed his name to M.L. Wolf Auto Co. and sold completely to Greenlee / McFadden in 1908 …Greenlee went his way with Greenlee’s until there was a split with employees and Knoxville Bicycle Hospital moniker was resurrected. There has always been confusing history between these two shops mainly due to the misleading history being passed on without any documentation by Greenlee’s eldest owners are in their 80’s and 90’s…as you can imagine, the history becomes more and more convoluted and inaccurate since nothing is documented. Both shops are cool in their own right and both deserve their intertwined place in history, but today…these shops could not be on more different ends of the professional spectrum. KBH has archives of their history and tries to be as ac curate as possible, Greenlee’s history changes every time the same story is told.

    So…actually Greenlee’s Bicycle Hospital has been documented as established in 1908, and Knoxville Bicycle Hospital has been documented as being established in 1893. And let’s no forget Hern’s in Ashville, NC est. 1896…all are still in business as of October 18, 2013 . Remember, if you can’t document it, it is just hearsay!

    So, in this area, at least, the facts are…. Knoxville Bicycle Hospital, (120) WINNER est. 1893, Hearns (117) RUNNER UP est.1896, and Edwards / Greenlee small Engine Repair and Bicycle Shoppe (105) est.1908, Harpers in Knoxville (50) est. 1963

  10. Conrad Majors / Reply December 3, 2013 at 9:43 pm

    The following is written to correct
    misleading information posted by “Shopgeek”: The Greenlee’s Bicycle Hospital name came into
    existence the Spring of 2012 and was used for a website because the Greenlee’s
    Bike Shop name had already been purchased as a website. The Greenlee’s Bicycle Hospital website is
    still being used to confuse people in an attempt to try to direct customers to
    the new bike shop called Knoxville Bicycle Hospital, owned by a former employee
    of Greenlee’s Bicycle Shop.

    Edward-Greenlee
    Small Engine Repair and Greenlee’s Bicycle Shop are two separate businesses
    owned by two different people.
    Edwards-Greenlee provides strictly lawnmower services plus some other
    small engine repairs. Greenlee’s Bicycle
    Shop has a more than one hundred year history of excellence in bicycle sales
    and service to the people of Knoxville and the surrounding counties. The Haro, GT, and Redline brands sold by
    Greenlee’s are highly regarded in the Bicycle Industry. Greenlee’s also has excellent mechanics who
    possess years of experience in bicycle repair.

    As for the
    Barnetts’ mechanic “Shopgeek” refers to in his(her) posting, I am in agreement
    that this particular kind of training is good.
    It is apparent however, Barnetts does not teach a segment on integrity,
    courage or just plain honesty.

    In regard to
    the confusing history “Shopgeek” describes, there was no confusion until
    Knoxville Bicycle Hospital began posting absurd statements about Greenlee’s and
    implying outright lies about its own history.
    Today KBH has no history. It has
    only been in business a little over two months.
    A large portion of their Time
    has been spent trying to steal the past history and the customers of another
    bicycle shop.

    Concerning
    the documentation “Shopgeek” refers to:

    1. He/she did not know Edwards-Greenlee and
    Greenlee’s Bicycle Shop are two separate businesses with two separate owners.

    2. There are no owners at Greenlee’s in
    their 80’s or 90’s.

    3. Greenlee’s was not opened in the
    1950’s as “Shopgeek” implies, but had already been around for close to half a
    century.

    Finally, the
    sentence, “Greenlee’s changes every time the same story is told”, makes
    absolutely no grammatical sense.
    “Shopgeek” must have also learned sentence structure at Barnetts. With all this being said, I’m sure both shops
    can continue to exist along with the twelve or so other bike shops in
    Knoxville. Of course if worst comes to
    worst, KBH can always use its highly regarded “Frame Table” to serve beer on,
    provided, that is, if they are able to get the beer license they said they
    wanted.

    Conrad
    Majors, Greenlee’s Bicycle Shoppe

  11. Gregory Bell / Reply April 28, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    Actually

  12. Gregory Bell / Reply April 28, 2014 at 6:54 pm

    Actually, Greenlees Bike Shoppe is alive and well. The owner is not in his 80’s or 90’s and is in the shop most everyday. The unique thing about this “shop” is you may at any point in time see a “Walmart” bike being serviced on a rack next to my Orbea. I wouldn’t go anywhere else. They have had to tighten up on expenses and bring back the lawn mower shop which had been at a separate location for about 10 years. As for the other shop in Knoxville that is just down the road and calls itself “Knoxville Bicycle Hostpital”, It has ABSOLUTELY ZERO claim to the original one the Greenlees started back in the day. In fact, they MAY BE intentionally misleading people and trying to get people to believe Greenlees is on their way out! That’s just what I hear-so don’t hold me to it legally.

  13. Conrad L. Majors, Jr. / Reply May 2, 2014 at 2:06 am

    The following is written to correct misleading information posted by “Shopgeek”
    “Shopqueek” implies that the Knoxville Bicycle Hospital is “still” around today. This is not true. The KHB of today has nothing to do with M.L. Wolf’s Bicycle Hospital of 1897, nor does it have anything to do with the Knoxville Bicycle Hospital established by Wm. M. Greenlee and George McFadden in 1909. The only connection is the use of some pictures and of a sign that is copied from the same pictures all belonging to Greenlee’s Bicycle Shop and all used without permission.
    “Shopgeek” says Greenlee’s Bicycle Shop was opened in 1950’s. This is not true. Greenlee’s began in 1909 as Knoxville Bicycle Hospital and Greenlee’s Bicycle Shop.
    Both names were used in the early days, but eventually only the name Greenlee’s was and is still being used today.
    “Shopgeek’s statement that “Greenlee’s changes every time the same story is told makes
    absolutenly no grammatical sense.
    “Shopgeek” says that Edwards Greenlee Small Engine Repair and Greenlee’s Bicycle
    Shop are the same business–not true again. They are two separate shops, owned by two
    separate people. Both shops have excellent and experienced mechanics. Each shop
    works on its own product exclusively. Implying that Greenlee’s does minor repairs is simply a lie. In addition, the Redline, GT, Electra, and Haro Bikes sold by Greenlee’s are very highly regarded in the Bicycle Industry.
    The “Shopgeek’s” statement that today’s KBH has archives of history is also false. As stated above, the modern KBH has no history. If only came into existence in the Fall of 2013. Perhaps the “Mysterious Attorney” “Shopgeek” refers to in his posting can explain to him that simply copying another shop’s past history and using some of their pictures does not make it your own.
    In conclusion, “Shopgeek’s” statement that Greenlee’s owners are in their 80’s and 90’s is another incorrect comment. Greenlee’s has only one owner and I assure you that if he is still around when he reaches 80. he will only print postings that are truthful, intelligent, and grammatically correct. Perhaps this is a rule that certain others might find profitable.
    Conrad L. Majors, Jr.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *