In business for 43 years, John’s is the city’s oldest black-owned hardware store, and it’s an oasis in a bike shop desert. If you study the Chicago Bike Map, there are almost 50 bike stores marked with a wheel icon on the denser, generally wealthier North Side of the city, usually spaced within a mile, or even just a couple of blocks, from each other. While the South Side has roughly twice the area, it has only about a dozen shops. John’s is about three miles from the nearest bike store, and in some underserved neighborhoods there is no bike store for almost five miles in any direction.
As I enter the hardware shop R. Kelly’s percolating R&B hit “I Just Want to Share My Love” is playing on the sound system. A few older men sit at the front of the store eating Harold’s and conversing, barbershop-style. A hundred or so bike wheels hang from the ceiling above racks of plumbers pipe, buckets of paint, electrical supplies, toilets and galvanized washtubs. On one side of the shop two dozen used road, mountain and kids’ BMX bikes are for sale. At the back, cranks, chainrings, cassettes, brake pads and pedals hang from pegboard. Whenever someone comes in the front door a loud schoolbell-type alarm rings to alert the employees.
John’s son, Johnny, 41, is manning the front counter, wearing work pants, a striped light blue shirt and eye protectors. He’s been working here since he was a kid helping patch inner tubes. “My dad always said, ‘If you’re old enough to walk you’re old enough to work,’” he tells me. I ask Johnny why he thinks there aren’t more bike shops on the South Side. “Walmart did major damage to the bicycle community here,” he says. “They’re able to sell so cheap that people choose to buy a $99 bike instead of investing $99 in a $500 bike that they have.”
Folks are getting keys made and buying rolls of duct tape. A mom brings her young daughter in to buy a new white tire for her purple BMX, followed by a pre-teen boy with a fauxhawk who rolls in his ride with purple anodized pegs on the front and rear wheels and pictures of skulls on the saddle. The bike has loose handlebars but he doesn’t have enough to pay to get them tightened, so he asks one of the old-timers for fifty cents. “Here you go,” says a man, with a long, white beard and a camouflage cap. “Enjoy yourself.”
When John, 67, arrives, I see his beard is a bit grayer than in the portrait on his shop sign and in the photo on the bottles of his house brand carpet shampoo, paint strip-