Friday, February 14, 2014


Wiki Images
by Robert Giles

The Schwartzes had a bicycle shop on an alley at the edge of Byersdale.

Byers Alley ran one-half block east of Duss Avenue north across Dearborn Street between Nick’s produce stand and Vicki’s Tavern. There was a trailer sales lot on the left. The bike shop was across the gravel from the trailers just before you got to Club 88. It was a white stucco building with a clapboard frame second floor.

I haven’t seen it in twenty-five years. It may look completely different now. Then again, some things don’t change.

The bicycle shop closed in the late 60s or the early 70s. Right about then, people stopped riding bikes until interest returned in the 80s.

Mr. and Mrs. Schwartz lived in the flat above the shop. Mr. had a full-time job in a factory and only worked at the shop evenings and weekends. Nine times out of ten it was Mrs. Schwartz who answered the bell and opened the door, slightly out of breath from hustling down stairs.

Mrs. Schwartz was a large woman with frizzy red hair and a face to match. You have to give her credit - she was patient with her customers, most of them kids. Whether you were a kid or not didn’t matter to “Schwartzie”. She treated everyone about the same.

If you needed a new tire or inner tube for your bike, she was the person to see. She and her husband carried a full line of bicycle accessories. They also sold bicycles, mostly used ones that Mr. Schwartz had refurbished.

The modern equivalent of taking your bike to Mr. Schwartz would be taking your automobile to the dealer’s repair shop. Too expensive. If you needed to repair your bike, you did it yourself or asked an older brother or another neighborhood kid to help. Mr. Schwartz did repair somebodies' bikes - we saw him working in his shop or outside on the walk. Maybe up on the heights there were kids who could afford Mr. Schwartz’s prices (or was it their parents who footed the bill?).

Mostly we knew enough about bikes to trust to our own wits. We didn’t have English racers with caliper brakes and three-speed gears. We had plain American bikes. Model Ts. Coaster brakes. Bendix. About the only thing I couldn’t fix on an American bike by age twelve was a rim that had gone out of line. That was something that you would only make worse if you tried to do it on the cheap.

Mr. Schwarz had a good eye for knowing which spokes to tighten and which to loosen.  He had one of those special wrenches that you placed over a spoke just where it exited the rim. I forget how many spokes there were on a bicycle wheel – too many. Each one had to be tightened to the right tension to bring a rim into alignment.

Mr. Schwartz had the stump of a pipe mounted vertically on his bench. He put an errant wheel on his "axle" and gave it a spin. Then he tightened and loosened spokes and spun the wheel until he got rid of the wobble. He made a chunk of change tightening spokes – his personal wheel of fortune.

Repairing a flat tire was simple. Most riders today prefer tubeless tires. Back then they had inner tubes.

First you had to turn the bike over on its seat and handlebars and remove the wheel.  Then you had to pry the tire part way off the rim so you could remove the tube.  Step three was to inflate the tube so you could identify the source of the leak. If the leak was “quick” you could feel it with your palm. If slow, you had to immerse the tube in water. The bubbles told the tale. 

Schwartzie sold tube repair kits. You had to roughen the surface of the tube before it would take a patch. There was a silver thingy with raised sharp bumps on it for abrading the rubber. When ready you applied the glue and the patch, the patch cut big to cover the hole with a half-inch to spare all around.  Time to borrow your Dad’s No. 142 - 2 inch C-clamp to hold the patch until the glue dried (maybe twenty minutes to be safe.)

Once the glue dried you deflated the tube completely so you could fit it back under the tire, making sure you inserted the valve stem cleanly through the hole in the rim of the wheel. Then you mounted the tire on the rim and inflated the tube with a hand pump.

Time to put the wheel back on, tighten the nuts and right the bike. Good as new. I fixed a flat tire many times.

Once you patched a tube too often, you had to break down and buy a new one - big expense for a kid self-financing his own repairs. No wonder I delivered newspapers.

About the worst thing that could happen to your bike was a bent fork. If it was bent too badly, the front tire would rub against the frame. Obviously, that made it difficult to ride and had to be fixed. There was a temporary workaround – you could ride with the wheel turned around and the handlebars facing out.

A “quick-and-dirty” fix was to run into a tree or wall with the wheel reversed and bend it back the other way. My brother Chuck had a professional solution. He took the fork off the bike and heated it red hot over the kitchen stove. Then he straightened it by whacking it with a hammer.

Before you try blacksmithing on your Mom’s kitchen stove, I have a suggestion – take as much of the paint off the fork as you can. It smells to high heaven when it melts in the fire.

Schwartz’s Bike Shop was the place to go if you wanted to add doodads to make your bike look spiffy. Handle bar grips were mandatory. I kind of liked those streamer things that you inserted so that they came out of the vents in the grips, but doodads were for other kids. I preferred the stripped-down look, no fenders, baskets, lights, bells or whistles.

I ought to explain how I came by my bike in the first place. Dad brought home five or six bikes in pieces – it may be that he found them in the Ambridge dump. Maybe he had answered a classified ad in the Times. Dumpster-diving didn’t come into vogue until the 70s so he didn’t get them that way.

We boys took them apart completely and washed down all the internal brake parts and ball bearings and gears. We soaked the chains in kerosene. We picked out the best tires and wheels and threw out the others.

We removed the seats and handlebars and the sprockets and pedals. We rubbed down the frames with steel wool and hung them from the joists in the garage. We painted them with cans of spray paint from the Baden Hardware.

When the paint dried, we re-assembled the bikes, using Vaseline to lubricate the ball bearings and other moving parts. The fenders were bent and rusty and beyond saving so we threw them away too.

In a couple of days, we had three good-looking serviceable bicycles. Dad had laid them at our doorstep. We had done the rest. 

Wheels. Time to ride.

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