Wednesday, October 17, 2007

"I got a great deal..." Or did you?

Thanks to recent events in the bike shop, I think it's time for another little educational moment on my blog, relating to bikes.

It seems that lately I've had a lot of folks come to me with a bike they "got a great deal on"... either at a yard sale, from a neighbor, online, or a thrift store. And on the surface, they often are great deals. I mean, who can pass up a free bike? Or a bike that "only" cost $10? Or... or...or...? There are so many possibilities!

The problem is, the bike isn't always such a great deal after all. And the fact that you are bringing it to me is the first hint. Chances are, if you've brought it to me, or to any bike mechanic, there's a reason. It might be as simple as "I don't know that much about bikes, and I just want to be sure it's safe." Or maybe you bought a new bike online, and the manufacturer tells you that you have to have it checked over by a shop to validate the warranty. Or maybe it's just not working right. Or maybe it's in pieces. Whatever the reason, the bike's not ready to ride, at least in your mind.

Right away, this pretty much guarantees that the "great deal" will become less great. Unless it's just a "safety check" and it passes, you will have to spend some more money on the bike. Even if it is just a checkover, many shops, including ours, will charge some sort of nominal fee. Twenty-five dollars or so isn't out of line for such a service, so your "10-dollar bike" just about tripled in cost right there. But if you think about it... assuming the bike is a basically decent bike to start with, and it passes a safety check with flying colors, you've gotten a bike for $35 now... not a bad deal at all.

Where it gets dicey is when you've paid a lot more to start with, and/or the bike needs real work. This is especially a problem when the basic quality of the bike isn't too high... for example, a bike that might have originally sold at Wal-Mart or some other mass merchandiser. I've seen a few of those lately, and it's tough to know how to advise the owner, without making them feel like you think they made a dumb move.

Folks have brought me older bikes that were clearly of the quality level sold in discount department stores like K-Mart (or Woolco... anyone remember Woolco?) or auto parts stores or catalog showrooms like Best or department stores like Sears or JC Penney or Montgomery Ward (whatever happened to them?). Most of those bikes were pretty terrible, honestly, even when new. But when someone comes in and proudly tells me of the "great deal" they got on the bike, I don't want to scoff and say "well, you wasted your money, it's crap". But I also don't want them to waste more money if I can help them avoid that. So, I typically go over the bike thoroughly and spell out for them all the things that need to be put right on the bike, and what that will cost. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, I explain to them what can't be fixed or improved on the bike, at least not without unreasonable expense.

Now at this point, it goes one of two ways... Sometimes they decide that it really isn't worth putting all that money into a bike they got for next to nothing. And in those cases, the customer generally seems a mixture of crestfallen and grateful... bummed that it really didn't turn out the way they'd hoped, but happy to avoid a money pit. Other folks will decide "heck, it was only $10, even if I do put another $125 into it, I'm still ahead". I'm not kidding, that's a a real example, with real numbers. At this point, I've done what I can, and after making absolutely certain they understand what they are asking me to do, I'll do the work to the best of my ability, and make the bike as good as I can. It's hard to be enthused about those projects though. When you start with a fundamentally cheap (not inexpensive, cheap) bike, it's never going to become a good one.

Actually, there's one other path the conversation sometimes takes. Sometimes the customer hesitates... torn between the two options. At this point, I'll generally bring up the idea of them either considering a new bike, or looking at one of our refurbished used bikes. It's a lot easier to convince someone that $135 for a tuned up used bike is a good deal, after you've shown them how their "10 dollar bike" is really a $135 bike, and still won't be as good a bike as the one you can sell them. I bring it up tactfully, and try to make it clear I'm not just trying to make a sale... I'm trying to get them the best bike they can get for the money. Even if that means telling them they could try another shop, or Craig's List or something.

Which brings me to another sticky situation.... the bike someone "got a great deal on online". This can be a used or new bike, purchased through Ebay or Craig's List, or it can be a new bike bought direct from the manufacturer, or other distributor or shop that uses the 'net to unload bikes. In the case of the latter, you often have to take the new bike to a shop for inspection or even assembly in order to activate the manufacturers warranty. And in the case of any bike bought sight unseen, you run the risk of getting something that isn't quite what you expected, or that might need work you didn't anticipate. It's not at all uncommon for me to have to finish assembling a new or used bike bought online, because the new owner really didn't know what they were getting into.

My primary advice to those who wish to score a "great deal" on a bike, especially online, is to make sure YOU know enough about bicycle service and repair to handle any of the issues that may come up, so you don't end up paying someone else to do it for you. That really narrows down the pool of folks who should be shopping that way, huh? It may seem harsh, but I think it's a pretty good rule of thumb. If you don't have the knowledge yourself, please avail yourself of a friend, or even talk to your local shop BEFORE you commit to buying something. Better to go in armed with knowledge, even if it's borrowed knowledge, than to spend good money on a bike, then discover you must invest a lot more to make it right.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

I Am My Father's Son

To start with, that's my dad in the middle there. And my sister Nancy on the left, Louise in the middle, and my big brother Stephen on the right. I don't know if I was even on the planet at this point. If I was, I was an infant. The story behind the picture is that my dad was a union printer for the New York Daily Mirror back when I was born. The reason you probably don't know the paper is because it's long gone. At the time of the photo, my dad and his fellow union members had been "locked out" by management, as part of a long, painful series of labor disputes, that ultimately ended with many papers closing their doors. But that's another story.

This topic came to me recently as I was setting up a new work space in the house. I've never really had my own work bench and pro-quality repair stand for working on bikes. Now that I'm going to try to do some bicycle frame building and bike assembly, I figured it was time to set something up. In the process of transferring tools from my several small tool boxes to one new large tool chest, I discovered that over the years I have squirreled away something like 13 or 14 old toothbrushes. You know... they come in handy for cleaning things.

The funny part is, that's exactly the kind of thing my dad would say. And exactly the kind of stuff he would save. As a matter of fact, when he passed away at age 77, my mom found a collection of, I believe, 23 old toothbrushes. Twenty-three... at age 77. I'm 46, and I seem to have set aside 14 of the suckers. It makes you wonder just how many I'll have at 77! But.. but they do come in handy... no, really...

Now that got me thinking... not for the first time, but for the most recent time... about the ways in which my father shaped who I am today. We're all shaped by our families in some way (although I've met at least one person who insisted that that was not true in their case), and I find it kind of interesting to examine how. So here goes... how I am my father's son...

A few years back, when I had just moved back into the DC area near my family, I was outside at my mom's house talking to her and my sister Nancy. I heard the sound of a light airplane overhead, and glanced up to see what it was. Nancy laughed and said "You're just like Dad. I bet you can tell us exactly what kind of airplane that is too." It hadn't really occurred to me before that day, but it's true... just like my father, I am drawn to the sound and sight of airplanes, and have always looked to the sky when I hear one. And for the record, I seem to recall it was a Cessna 172 that day, but it might have been one of the other similar Cessnas.

Then there's my love of the outdoors, and all of the creatures (well, okay, I could live without mosquitoes and yellowjackets) that inhabit the outdoors. Now, my dad was a hunter, and hoped that his two sons would come to enjoy that activity as well. That didn't really work out for him, as neither my brother nor I have ever taken to hunting at all. But I did learn to love the woods and fields and the whole outside world, in large part due to spending a lot of time outside with my dad, either on his hunting or fishing trips or on days where he just wanted to check out some hunting or fishing location. Actually, he did a LOT of that... scouting out a place that he thought he might like to hunt of fish one day. Funny thing is, I think he might have done more scouting than actual hunting or fishing. Maybe that's typical, I don't know, but my dad did have a penchant for "going to do" a lot of things. Truth be told, I can see how I got a little of that too.

Anyway, I love being outdoors, especially in woods and forests. And when I'm out there with other people, more often than not, I'm the first one who notices things. I'll hear the call of a bird or animal, or a rustling in the brush, before anyone else does. Or I'll see movement out of the corner of my eye and be able to immediately focus and spot whatever it is that caused it. Again, that's my dad coming through. I don't know if it's genes, or just something I picked up from all those times walking with him, but it's there. I just have an awareness outdoors that seems more finely tuned than others.

And finally, I see echoes of my dad when I'm working with my hands, whether it's fixing bicycles, or in the past when I built theatrical scenery and such, or worked on my old VWs. Dad didn't have a higher education, barely graduating high school, but he had a real knack for the kind of analytical/practical thinking that would have probably made him good at something like engineering. He could look at the parts of a mechanism, and just understand how it worked and how to approach working on it. I seem to have the same sort of thing too, and maybe that's why I gravitated to the things I did in my life.

So, I'm a packrat-airplane-buff-lover-of-the-outdoors-with-a-mechanical-knack, all thanks to my dad. And I'm grateful for that. And for having him as my dad.

Vincent B. Fricker
1918 - 1994