Friday, March 29, 2013

Schwinn Bikes and Good Friday, 1972


Schwinn bicycles were THE bike to have at one time. The Cadillac of bicycles. Built like tanks. Always stylish, innovative in design, and built right here in the good ol' USA, in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. They were a top shelf product.

Pittsfield Hardware, the store my grandpa and dad owned and operated for years, had been affiliated with at least a couple of hardware wholesalers. Witte, in St. Louis, was one. Later, Hardware Wholesalers Incorporated (HWI), in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

But, the store was able to choose outside vendors. Selling Schwinns was one such arrangement. The relationship between Pittsfield Hardware and Schwinn had been ongoing for several years.

The store moved a lot of bikes. We usually had six to eight models sitting on the floor. More in the warehouse. Those on the floor sat right under the front windows of the north room of the store. High visibility for those walking past on the sidewalk.

When I was little, I'd grab a "Pixie" model, (one with training wheels), and race it up and down the aisles of the store. If the hardwood floors had been oiled, I could spin the rear wheel moving forward, or skid for a few feet if I locked the rear brake. No customers were harmed during these exercises.

Donald "Peachy" Foreman was dad's right hand man. He could fix anything, assemble anything, and even engineer things. He was the "bike man," no doubt. Kids needing their bikes fixed came looking for Peachy.

The bikes arrived in cardboard boxes. I can still smell the combination of metal and cardboard. I'd be anxious to see what Peachy and dad had ordered. What model, what color? Assembly generally meant attaching seats, handlebars, pedals, and a few more accessories. The five and ten speed models required a bit of "gear tweaking." and setting the alignment of the brake pads.

In the 1960's, "sissy bars" were popular. They were seat post extensions, rising three feet or so above the normal seat post. "Banana" seats, "Rams Horn" handlebars... Peachy gave some items his own stamp. He called handlebar tape, "ape tape." and toe clips for pedals, "rat traps."

Schwinn used to put out high quality catalogs. Lots of the bike photography was done at Knotts Berry Farm. There were descriptions, color options, and costs listed.

In the late 60's, 1969 I think, Schwinn hit a grand slam with the introduction of a model called the "Orange Krate." A slick rear wheel, small front wheel with a drum brake. A shifter on the center post. Banana seat. Made to look like a top fuel dragster. It was a revolutionary bike, listing for the huge sum at that time of $100.

The store got one. The bike was so exotic, so special, I was told up front, there'd be no "test riding" this one. It sold to a classmate of mine. He was the envy of the town.

Dad had a special deal with paper boys. The guys who delivered the Quincy and Jacksonville papers  could buy bikes on credit. Make payments just like people do with cars. They could put $5 down, and make payments of $1 a week. Dad wanted to sell bikes. He also wanted to teach kids responsibility.

The Schwinn and Pittsfield Hardware relationship went on for years. A win-win situation for both parties.

In the spring of 1972, the success of the Schwinn brand apparently gave the company a big head. They were huge, they were the best. They decided to change the rules of the game with whom they dealt with. Out of nowhere, with no warning, dad got a call from them, telling him that, in order to keep his Schwinn franchise, the store would have to meet at least two conditions. 1. Be able to sell something like 200 bikes a year. 2. Build a free standing, independent bike shop, separate from the hardware store.

Pittsfield's population is around 4,000 people. There was no way we could sell that many bikes. And, even if we could, there was no way dad would, or could, invest the kind of money it would take to build the separate shop.

The marriage between bike company and hardware store fell apart quickly. Dad was going to lose his long standing Schwinn franchise. All because of Schwinn's greed and arrogance. Dad was genuinely hurt. He was a little bit angry, and mostly bitter.

The final conversation he had with the company, was a phone call on Good Friday of that year. The store phone was mounted on a post near the back of the store. Right by the steps that led up to his little loft office, and near the catalog area.

Mom and Aunt Betty happened to be at the store that day. They were standing around, listening to the conversation. The exchange grew heated. Dad's anger and frustration were obvious to the two women.

Finally, it was over. Schwinn hung up first. But mom and Aunt Betty didn't know this. This is when dad's sense of humor kicked in. Mom and Aunt Betty still stood listening, thinking the conversation was still ongoing.

Dad offered one final comment to "Schwinn" ( a dead line at this point).

"There's just one more thing I want to tell you." Dad paused for the affect.

"I hope every one of you sons of bitches drops dead on Easter Sunday," he said in a calm voice.

The women were horrified. "Oh, Virg," they said in unison.

It's true. A legendary Virg Kriegshauser story.

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