Friday, December 01, 2006

Bikes and Squirrels

On pleasant days, Emey Hoffman sits in a nylon folding chair outside of his bike shop, feeding peanuts to a plump grey squirrel named Elliot. Hoffmann is sixty-three and tends to wear over-sized navy blue cotton t-shirts that hang loosely over his Santa Claus belly, long black Bermuda shorts and black leather sneakers with black socks pulled just above the ankles. Last year, he built a tiny wooden “condo” for Elliot and mounted it on a ledge above the shop’s front window, underneath the hand-painted blue and bright yellow sign that reads “Busy Bee East Village Bikes.”

Elliot (named for Elliot Ness) was a scraggly, sickly animal when he came into Hoffmann’s life about a year ago, appearing with a pack of healthy squirrels that the bike shop owner regularly fed. When Hoffmann threw peanuts to the pack, the bigger animals jostled little Elliot away. “He was skinny, scrawny, patches of hair missing,” Hoffmann recalled. “I didn’t even know if he was going to make it.” But Hoffmann gave Elliot special attention and soon he was on the mend and eating from Hoffmann’s hand. Now he lives in his little wooden home when he’s not scampering around the neighborhood. He comes into the shop occasionally, but can’t venture too far inside because bikes rule the roost at Busy Bee.

On a recent afternoon, one could barely bring a single bike inside the 22- by 60-foot shop because the place was wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling bikes. Used bikes, new bikes, and bikes in various states of disrepair were parked handlebar-to-handlebar on two levels of racks that flanked the western wall from the front of the store to the back. Metal wheels and rubber tires hung in three long rows from the black ceiling. On the dust-laden, uneven floorboards were bikes and bike parts, jammed several rows deep from the back wall to the front counter, in no discernable order. Hoffmann or one of his young mechanics would have had to tear the store apart to get to the bikes near the back wall, because there was no path through this metal-and-rubber jungle.

Hoffmann explained that there was a method to this madness, that they were in the process of reorganizing to accommodate the end-of-season influx of used bicycles. Most of the used bikes Busy Bee sells arrive at the shop in pieces and have to be repaired before they are in riding condition. Hoffmann and his staff clear away the clutter by fixing up each bike, one by one, from the front of the mass before selling it or storing it in the basement. On this particular day, the abundance of “stuff” in the shop was overwhelming.

The following day, progress had been made. The shop was airier, with enough space for customers to bring at least two bikes inside at a time.

He doesn’t advertise, he refuses to train his mechanics, and he thinks that too much business is a bad thing. He is something of an anomaly in an industry where customers routinely shell out thousands of dollars for high-end racing bikes, and in a city where spandex-clad, amateur Lance Armstrongs can be found speeding through the streets and park lanes at any time of day or night. Hoffman caters to cyclists like these, but knows that most people just need reliable bicycles to get around town or to get some low-key recreation. Rejecting the credo, “the customer is always right,” he only sells people what he thinks they need, even if it is not consistent with what they want.

“I’m not a yes-man. I don’t believe in it,” Hoffmann said. “And any professional that ‘yesses’ a customer—he’s a liar, because he knows ten times more than they do.” For example, Hoffmann often recommends that bike commuters buy used bicycles instead of new ones, because they cost less and tend to be less attractive to thieves.

A master bike mechanic, Hoffmann has been working in the industry since he apprenticed at a Manhattan bike shop as a teenager in the 1950s. He was born and raised in Lower Manhattan, which is clear when he opens up his mouth, his accent reminiscent of one of the Jets from West Side Story. “I ride every day,” he said. “Rain, shine or snow, it don’t matter.” His bike of choice is a Legnano—“an old, professional Italian bike converted into three speeds,” he explained. “That’s all I need for New York City. It doesn’t look like much, but it’s better than 99 percent of the bikes that come into the store.”

Busy Bee is a cash-only enterprise, without a computer in sight, and with a single rotary phone into whose mouthpiece Hoffman clips, almost begrudgingly, “bike shop!” when it rings. (Like a true curmudgeon, his initially terse manner of speech when addressing a stranger softens after he lets down his defenses). The lack of advertising, the draconian cash register, the impenetrable mountain of machinery, and the I’ll-sell-you-only-what-you-need-and-you’ll-like-it attitude are factors that might dissuade customers who expect to be flattered by a salesman in a pristine, roomy showroom. But Hoffmann does not want those kinds of customers.

If he has learned anything in his nearly fifty years in the industry, it’s that honesty and quality service ensure loyal customers. “If someone buys a new or used bike,” Hoffmann said, “we want them to come back several times over the next month for little free checkups here to make sure there’s not going to be problems later. Once you’ve got the customer’s money and you’re still telling them to come back for freebies, that gets out and they tell their friends.”

This golden-rule strategy has worked “all my life,” Hoffmann said. Over the years, he has owned seven shops in the New York area, never concurrently. It is not always financial success or failure that drives him to close up shop and move to another part of town. About four years ago, Hoffmann closed his previous store, Emey’s Bike Shop on East 17th Street, where “business was good,” he said. He opened up Busy Bee with a partner because he wanted to have more time for what he calls “my calling”—designing advanced defense weapons that he plans to sell to companies that work with the U.S. military. Hoffmann’s crystal-blue eyes light up when he discusses his “inventions,” and it is clear that he could talk endlessly about designing armor for Humvees in Iraq. This fascination with advanced weaponry seems uncharacteristic for a man who spends his days befriending squirrels and his evenings with a wife, two grown children, and four dachshunds. But Hoffmann’s hobby—which he believes will prove lucrative once he sells his plans—is for him a chance to “use my imagination,” he said.

Hoffmann brushes off talk of money. He wouldn’t reveal the exact amount of Busy Bee’s rent, but admits that it’s “not cheap” in the East Village. Yet his bike expertise is so vast that “whenever I move into a neighborhood, it won’t take long before customers are loyal to me,” he said. In the dead of winter, even the most loyal customers don’t frequent the shop as much as during the warmer months, but Busy Bee always brings in enough business to pay the rent on time.

Every so often, a young bike fanatic comes in asking to work for Hoffmann without pay, just to learn his mechanical skills, the way he did as a teenage apprentice. But he refuses to train anyone anymore, because “I don’t want that many people working for me,” he said. He likes to get to know his customers, and believes that “If I’m not there, it doesn’t count,” which could be why he spends seven days a week, 10 hours a day at the store, in the company of a couple young mechanics, a cheerful squirrel, and lots and lots of bikes. Sitting on his nylon chair, sipping coffee from a worn red Starbucks thermos, surrounded by these works of machinery, Hoffmann was in his element, and took a moment to wax poetic. “I believe bikes almost have souls,” he said. “they each have their own personalities.”

Busy Bee Bikes's cheerful exterior (photo courtesy of author)

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