In my travels on motorcycles, I often stopped at motorcycle shops in small towns, sometimes because I needed something, or just to look around and talk with the owner and folks inside.

Shops in those days, the 1960’s and 70’s and on up into some of the 80’s, were typically single line, small affairs, with the smell of oil and grease and chain lube all mixed together.

The people who ran them were enthusiasts who were trying to make a living out of something they loved to do. I tried that myself with a small dealership for a couple of years in my early 20’s, but found I was too much an enthusiast and not enough of a business person to make it a go.

A rider could stop at one of these, even if it was a different brand from the one he or she was riding, and be welcomed (though sometimes with some good-natured ribbing about choices) and spend a pleasant hour or so. Often you could find the thing you needed in the glass case under the counter or hanging on the wall and sometimes end up with something you didn’t know you needed until you saw it.

There are few motorcycle shops left. We have “power sports centers” that have multiple lines and four-wheelers, ATV’s and jet skis, in huge buildings or even complexes of buildings around a parking lot. One can’t see the mechanic area and parts are seldom available “but we can order that for you”. I understand the reasons for much of this and a lot of it is our own fault, we motorcycle consumers. We buy things on line now, clothing and accessories and tires, etc, because it is nearly impossible for a small local business to compete with the volume of choices found at the internet suppliers. Dealers don’t make their day-to-day money on motorcycle sales, but rather on the peripherals and service. So the day of the small local shop isn’t going to come back.

That means today’s riders, the young ones, will never know the experience of parking a bike a few feet from the door in a gravel lot, walking up to the front of the shop past other bikes of various kinds parked in a row, some for sale, some just visitors, and going inside, inhaling the blended aromas of oil, gasoline, cosmoline, leather, an old dog and, in those days, stale tobacco smoke. Often in cold weather such a shop was heated by a wood stove or a coal burner, adding that to the mix. The walls are strewn with an array of clothing items, gloves, jackets, maybe hats and vests. There are parts and accessories, some brand specific, some not but of brands that don’t exist in their original form anymore. Langlitz and Bates leathers, Buco and Bell helmets, Full Bore two stroke oil, maybe a Vetter fairing hanging from the ceiling. And a very useful invention, the Snuf-R-Not. Some of those names are still there, but now the original company has been absorbed into a conglomerate somewhere else other than the US.

If you had a question, the parts guy, who may also have been the owner and the mechanic, knew what you were talking about and what you needed, even if you didn’t.

In my teen years, when I had a somewhat dilapidated Ducati 250 Monza, I could go to the shop above Huntington, West Va and the owner Leon would let me borrow his tools and disassemble the shifter cassette in his “showroom” so that he could again sell me the $1.00 return spring that had broken. Leon once took me for a ride on his deep red Norton, though he knew without doubt that I could not afford one and wasn’t a prospect for a sale.

In those years I often hung out at Jim Stewart’s Harley shop a few miles from Ashland, when it was a small cinderblock building off what was then a two-lane Rt. 60. Jim was the “real deal”, a man melded with motorcycling as an integral part of his life. He had raced flat-track with factory teams, wrestling the brakeless, no rear suspension motorcycles around dusty half mile ovals all over the country and rode the heavy bikes of the 40’s and 50’s everywhere they could be taken. Now he made his living from this shop, selling and repairing Harleys. Despite his gruff exterior, Jim was an avuncular figure to we teenagers who lurked his shop, like dogs at a Paleolithic campfire hoping to be thrown a scrap of motorcycle knowledge. We bought cans of evil-smelling Gunk, motor oil, and small things we could afford just to have an excuse to be there. There were stories told of adventures, legal and otherwise, that titillated for some of us our urge to wander and in others, a sense of fear of venturing outside the comfort of the familiar.

Jim’s shop dog, Topper, was a constant presence, an enormous German Shepard who mainly slept in the corner…or wherever he wanted…most of the day. He was a fierce protector of the shop and Jim. While he was calm as long as you kept your distance, we knew not to rile him. I recall once coming to the shop and finding it closed. I went to the window to peer inside and then heard the pounding of paws headed my way. I made it up on top of a parked car just in time to avoid being eaten on the spot. It took some talking before Topper would accept that I was someone he knew well enough to let me down.

Jim told the story of one night in the shop, working late with two other men and adding considerably to the pile of brown long-necked beer bottles out back. After a while, as men often do, the alcohol led to boasting and one of the guys showed off his strength by lifting a heavy engine off the floor. The other responded by hoisting something heavier and it went from there. Jim watched calmly and then said, “there’s something in here I can lift that both of you together cannot”. They protested their superiority until Jim strode over to the corner, picked up the sleeping Topper and deposited the big dog, blinking, onto the workbench. Jim then stood back and said, “your turn”.

I don’t think that sort of thing happens much at the Power Sports Center.

About johngrice

Retired small town lawyer, lifelong motorcyclist, traveler and old guy sitting around thinking.
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