Pedal Peddlers

Whether riding their own tandems or selling bicycle wheel snow chains, the Browns enjoy their "cyclic" business

by Pip Vaughan-Hughes

Essex Junction Bicycles, a full-service bike shop on Vermont 15 in Essex Junction, is the kind of place people who are serious about cycling love to visit. A simple errand like buying a new pair of gloves or a spoke wrench feels like socializing with old friends. The owners, Ray and Sue Brown, and their staff are warm, welcoming and knowledgeable, and the array of bikes on sale is enough to tempt even the die-hard couch potato with visions of winning the yellow jersey. So it's a surprise to learn that the Browns had no experience in cycling or in retail when they purchased the business in 1992.

Ray and Sue Brown, owners of Essex Junction Bicycles, were looking to buy a small business in 1992. "We didn't want to do something traditional like manufacturing or running a bed-and-breakfast," Ray says. They had no experience with either cycling or retail when they purchased the shop that year.

"We came to Vermont looking for a small business to buy, something fun," says Ray. "We didn't want to do something traditional like manufacturing or running a bed and breakfast." Essex Junction Bicycles, which was established in 1988, was for sale. "It was perfect for us," says Ray. "We would be dealing with people who were happy and health-conscious. There were two managers here already, so it was quite an easy transition."

"I came and took over the bookkeeping," says Sue. "I'd never done it before."

"It all worked out," Ray laughs. "And it's kept us both healthy!"

The Browns were attracted to the bike business because "Cycling is a way for people to get out and enjoy themselves with somebody," says Ray. "You can be competitive; you can be relaxed. Plus it's such a great way for families to spend time together." "Everyone who comes in here is interested in staying in shape," Ray points out, "or they are buying a bike for their kids. It's all very positive. We don't get angry people," he adds. "It makes it easy to come to work every day."

"We deal with a lot of families here," says Sue. "We have kids who we started off on 16-inch wheels who are now on mountain bikes or at college!"

The Browns enjoyed the variety of customers, from serious racers and triathletes to the customers looking for the cruiser reproductions of the bikes they rode as children. "You'd be surprised how many people come in asking for racks for their dogs," Sue says. "We have a couple of customers who are in their 80s," Ray continues. "Recently, we started selling electric bikes, which we thought would be big with seniors. But we ended up selling them to all sorts of people: a businessman who commutes to Burlington from Jericho, for instance."

The electric bikes are impressive-looking steeds. They do have to be pedaled, but the small, electric motor does the work, particularly helpful for getting up hills. They also sell an occasional recumbent bike or unicycle. "All we sell are bikes, so our business is seasonal," admits Ray. Fall keeps the repair shop at the store busy; and for those who don't believe in letting a Vermont winter get in the way of their cycling pleasure, there are racks of high-tech outerwear.

"People buy studded tires and wheel chains for riding in snow," Sue says. "Then things start picking up in March."

"We employ about 12 people in the summer, and three or four in the winter," adds Ray. The Browns attend Interbike, the largest cycling trade show every fall in Las Vegas to select the shop's inventory for the upcoming year. Vendors from all over the world display the latest models and styles. The Browns elect not to do the actual purchasing at the show but rather bring the materials home and decide after the event. Just like cars, new styles are unveiled every year and last year's model goes down in price. "Fall is one of the best times to buy a bike," Ray says, "You can get last year's models for cheap."

Tim Mathewson, the store's manager, has worked at Essex Junction Bicycles for three years. He likes to help children and families and appreciates the relaxed attitude of the shop's customers. "People who are using bikes instead of cars are the unsung heroes," he says.

"The trend nowadays is towards comfort bikes and mountain bikes," says Ray. "Comfort bikes allow you to sit upright in comfort they have shock absorbers to give you a smooth ride great for biking on dirt roads."

The sale of tandem bikes has increased over the last few years. "This year Santana (a tandem manufacturer) held a tandem rally at the Basin Harbor Club in Ferrisburgh," Ray enthuses. "They had 100 couples down there." The shop rents out a small number of tandems every year to vacationing couples who find Essex Junction Bicycles' web page or are referred through the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce. "We have had people call up from California or the mid-west and ask 'Is it flat or hilly there?' " Ray says, "But people really enjoy themselves."

The Browns own a tandem themselves. "We catch bugs in our mouths together," laughs Sue. "I kick back and let him do the work. We have a cottage on the lake in West Swanton," she continues, "and we ride around on the flat lands up there."

"The facilities for cycling are wonderful in this state," adds Ray. "For instance, in St. Albans there are 18 miles of bike path on the old railway."

Keen walkers and cross-country skiers as well as cyclists, the Browns like to spend time outdoors. They have been on camping trips all over the country. "We started with a tent and graduated to a pop-up," Sue says, "but we had a problem with bears they kept clawing the canvas! Once, when we were camping in the Adirondacks, a bear came and drank a glass of Kool-Aid from the picnic table we were using the kids and I were hiding behind the camper, but Ray was standing on the other side of the table from the bear!"

"We've been married for 34 years, and been through I don't know how many moves!" says Sue. She grew up outside Boston, and Ray was born and raised in Swanton. They met at now-defunct Chamberlain Junior College in Boston, where Sue studied retailing and Ray majored in computer technology. "Then Uncle Sam wanted me," Ray says, "so between 1964 and 1969 I was a medic in the Air Force, stationed in Missouri." They were married six months after Ray enlisted. Later, the couple spent time in, among other places, Boston, Schenectady and Chicago. They were living in Nanuet, N.Y., when Ray was laid off from his job with General Electric and the couple decided to move to Vermont. "I'm from here, and I still have family here, so it's probably more home to me," says Ray.

Ray poses with bike repair equipment at the shop. "There are probably more bike shops per head in this area than anywhere else in the country with the possible exception of some parts of Colorado. But it's good competition," he insists.

According to Ray, working with computers in the early '60s was much different that it is today. "There was lots of card-handling," he says. He used these skills in various jobs during his time with the Air Force. Following his stint in the military, Ray worked at General Electric from 1978 to 1992. "They moved me around a lot," he says of the multiple transfers he was handed in that time. He was with a division called GE Information Services, and after a series of promotions managed the company's Data Center in New York City. Of his job experience, Ray thinks his management skills are most relevant to running Essex Junction Bicycles. He welcomed the lifestyle change of owning a local business. "The other jobs were very intense," he says, "and required a lot of travel."

The Browns live in Essex Junction. "It is like living in the country," says Sue, who is a keen gardener. Sue's mother lives nearby. "She's 92," Sue says, "and very independent. Family is the key to longevity," she states.

The Browns have three children. Eric, 31, lives in Norway. "He works for a large Norwegian car dealer. He met Monica, his wife, in New York City she's Norwegian, and she studied at Vermont Tech. They live on an island to the south of Oslo, and just had a baby daughter." Sue and Ray visited Norway last year, "and next year we're bringing bikes over for them!" Todd, 30, lives in Kissimmee, Fla., and their youngest, Sonia, graduated from Trinity College and works for Transitional Services in Winooski.

The emphasis on family is apparent at the business as well. "We're not interested in just making a sale and nothing else," says Ray. "We can take a person who has never ridden a bike, and get them going on something which is reasonable and very good quality. We tell them, 'If you're not happy, not satisfied, not having fun, come in and we'll take care of you. We've had people returning bikes after a couple of months because it wasn't working out for them, and that's OK with us."

"We sold over a thousand bikes this year," says Ray, "even though competition here is very fierce. There are probably more bike shops per head in this area than anywhere else in the country with the possible exception of some parts of Colorado. But it's good competition," he insists. "We help each other out. It isn't 'dog-eat-dog.' And there isn't too much overlapping. For instance, we're the only people around here who sell Marin bikes. We all have our own clienteles and niches; and for us, families are our niche."

"Kids bring us their bikes to fix, and we give them a bill," he continues. "Their parents will come in and pay a few days later. Trust is a good way to do business. Like those farm stands that trust you to leave the right money for the produce you take. This town this state is still very much that kind of place."

"Trust is a good way to do business. Like those farm stands that trust you to leave the right money for the produce you take. This town this state is still very much that kind of place." Ray Brown