Gamache's Cyclery, 65 Laurel Street, Fitchburg, Massachusetts
I am weirdly nostalgic about many things. Even when I was young I saw greater meaning in objects or events than most kids my age. This really comes to the surface when I think about the lives that some bikes have lived. In my mind, a good number of them have achieved "Velveteen Rabbit" status. Much like the Gitane track bike pictured to the left that had it's life snuffed out when I let someone borrow it and he painted it yellow and returned it without wheels. I am still gobsmacked over that one.
When I was in high school I worked at Gamache's Cyclery in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. The shop sparkled with chrome and glossy paint on every inch of the floor. I can still fondly smell the chain lube, the plastic handlebar tape, and the tires off-gassing.
The owner George Gamache was omnipresent in the shop and would literally run from the sales floor to the back of the building to either get a bike, a tire, or some random bit. You had to keep clear of the doors because he would come flying through in the other direction seconds later. George was always in a good mood and truly loved what he did. A few days a week he would bring in his dad. John Gamache was in his 80s at this time and he was a man of few words. Once his shop apron was on he got to the business of methodically assembling new bikes. There were three mechanics and two of them were right out of a sitcom. Their banter was pure gold, especially for a wide-eyed freshman like myself. Ernie and Mark recently graduated from the local trade high school in automotive repair. Parked in the back corner of the lot sat their two show-ready muscle cars covered in metal flake and multiple layers of clear coat. Ernie was slightly shorter, older, and the Alpha in this relationship. The other mechanic Mark was a cross between Bevis and Spicoli from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Scott Kinsman was the third mechanic and he was quiet by comparison and his bench was impeccably clean. Scott also went on to become quite the bike racer and Iver Johnson collector. I worked on repairs and also spent time on the sales floor.
On a random, relatively normal day the piston on the automatic side door announced the arrival of a repair. Our heads turned to see what mechanical challenge was coming in. On this particular day, a solidly built gent came through the doors dragging an old bike with upright handlebars and fenders. He had on a well-worn plaid shirt, proper button suspenders, and work pants tucked into his mud-caked rubber boots. I met him at the repair counter and brought the bike into the light of the shop. I could tell it was a Schwinn but wasn’t quite sure what model it was. It was absolutely covered in mud and rust. The tiniest glimpse of red paint showed through a patina that consisted of, what I now smelled, was a form of sprayed-on cow poo, mud, straw and rust. The man said that he would like to have the bike repaired and get it running again. After quickly looking it over I followed George’s shop guidelines and suggested a complete overhaul along with some new tires and cables. My estimate was that it would cost about $100 to get fixed. I was sure he would balk at this but much to my surprise he said “That sounds fine.” I filled out the work order, tore off his claim ticket, and after consulting the schedule told him it would be ready in a week. As I put the ticket in the slot on the metal wall holder I wondered who would get stuck with that mess. Rather than wheel it through the shop I picked it up and carried it. I didn’t want the chunks of mud to fall off. I would be the one sweeping them up if that happened so it was self-preservation more than anything. The boys all saw the bike come in and quickly joked about who was going to get stuck with that one. For the next week, after every ticket was finished it would be accompanied by a countdown. The ticket stayed in the same slot but there were certainly some shenanigans in the speed at which some repairs were done. Ernie crushed out three repairs in an unbelievably short amount of time to set up Mark who was destined to pick the ticket and proverbial short straw. Ernie, Scott and I chuckled as he headed out back and even harder as his complaints reverberated from behind the door. By the time he returned from the storage racks, he was a tirade of complaints and chaos. This entire affair and setup was completely lost on George. He was oblivious to our weeklong game and was concerned by all the commotion. Mark kept blathering on unaware of George until it was too late. Then something truly out of character caught us all by surprise.
George completely lost his shit.
Swearing, which he never did, he flashed over to Marks’s bench, tore the bike away and clamped it into his dad’s stand in the back corner of the shop. With a constant cascade of muttering, and murmurings under his breath about young kids, respect, hard work, and getting shit done, George dug into the bike with a speed of a pit crew. The rest of us went quiet as Mark slunk out back and grabbed another bike to be fixed. In record time George disappeared outside with a frame and fork in hand to hit it with the pressure washer.
When he came back inside he put the frame back in the stand and drenched it in wax. George buffed the frame clean and a deep red reemerged from the beyond. The next time I looked over he was using pink wax and steel wool to remove rust from the now glistening chrome. George was now quiet after solvent washing all the parts and the bike was coming back together quickly. I was out front helping customers when George appeared by my side and began cashing out the register at the end of the day. He didn’t say a word about what had happened.
A few days later I saw a mass of plaid from the corner of my eye and rushed over to greet “The Farmer” as he was now affectionally called. I took his ticket and headed out back as I yelled to George that "the gentleman was here to pick up his overhaul." I exchanged glances with the boys and there were smiles all around. We had obviously gone out back to see George’s impressive handy work before it was picked up. As I rolled the bike toward the exit I could already see the farmer's eyebrows knit as he looked at the bike. While I put it on the kickstand George appeared and took over. George was his smiling self as he mentioned the new condition, second hand cables and tires he had used to keep the cost down but the farmer quietly interrupted.
“I am sorry, but this isn’t my bike?”
“This is your bike,” George replied.
“It can’t be.” He said again shaking his head.
“That is your bike. I know it is yours because I did the work. It cleaned up really nice didn’t it?”
The farmer stood there quietly and his eyes welled up. An actual tear appeared and slowly headed down his cheek.*
“I can’t believe this is my bike.” He said as he handed over the cash. He thanked George again and slowly took the handlebar and wheeled it out the door. He was still shaking his head in disbelief.
I watched through the big shop windows as the farmer walked the bike down the side of the building and reverently put it in the back of his pickup. That bike had far more meaning than we had guessed when he brought it in and George had just added more. Velveteen Rabbit status achieved.
When I looked over at George he threw me a small smile, raised his eyebrows, spun on his heels, and was off to help someone else.
Life lessons come in all shapes and sizes and this was a big one that I carry with me to this day.
Thank you George.
*( I know you think I made that detail up but I did not, even my wife gave me crap while questioning this detail. I have been know to "embellish" a story from time to time.)
After I finished the first draft of this story, I called George to fill a few gaps in my memory and to say hello. George recently turned 89 and lives in Maine with his second wife MaryLee. He closed the shop in 2009. Sadly, It is now a Pizza Parlor. It was great to talk with him and he regaled me with stories about the beginnings of the shop and his brothers. I was happy to hear, and not at all surprised, to find out that George has a full repair shop in his garage. Last year he did quite a few complete overhauls for friends and neighbors.
He still rides too and enjoys putting the hurt of the 60 year olds while on his E-bike.