Just across the street from Kickstand, at 1402 North Broadway on the corner of East Glenwood and Broadway, sits one of the oldest bike shops in the country and certainly the oldest in continuous operation in Knoxville.
The beginnings are a bit murky, but it began operation sometime around the turn of the last century. It has been in the current location for fifty-two years, so they are just getting settled into their new home. Started by William Greenlee and passed to Roy Greenlee, it is now operated by his great-grandson Conrad Major.
While I’d consider it a downtown operation today, it has its origins very much in the heart of downtown. If I read my map correctly, it started just about where the Market Square Garage sits today, with the now defunct address of 402 Walnut Street which would have been just about across the street from Peter Kern’s old home place.
Former Mayor Kern died in 1907, so it is possible he looked across the street from him porch to the Knoxville Bicycle Hospital/Greenlee’s Bicycle Shop. Ironically, both the Peter Kern’s home as well as the bicycle shop would ultimately be buried under warehouses for automobiles.
The store moved to 500 Western Avenue, which also no longer exists. It sat near the intersection of Western and Walnut, though that section later became Summit Hill Avenue and lost its retail presence. Conrad thinks he remembers that Mayo Garden Center was nearby on Western, though it started on Gay Street in 1878 and is the oldest family-owned business in the city.
In the early days they did a big business in bicycle rentals downtown and they serviced bikes for Western Union and Market House boys who, I presume, delivered vegetables around the downtown area. It was probably the last era in which the primary vehicle downtown was anything other than an automobile.
Around 1949 the business moved to 209 East Magnolia where it resided for thirteen years. This is the first location Conrad remembers as he’d hang out around the store as a child. In 1962 it moved to its current location and Conrad worked there after school. Later he would work after his hours as a teacher and summers when he was between academic years.
Retired from teaching, now, he operates the store as has generations of his family before him and seems to find it rewarding. He points out that the bicycle business is itself cyclical. He points to the 1930s as the peak in cycling, but notes that it their volume of business is about as good as it has been since that time, with more of a demand for commuter bikes. Of course, I’d say Old North and Fourth and Gill likely has the highest concentration of commuter cyclists in the city if I had to guess, which puts their current location at the perfect spot for the renaissance in cycling.
He points to the mid-seventies as a time when demand really spiked due to the gas shortage and rise in prices. He makes his point about the burst in sales for all the potential commuters with a wry tone suggesting he doesn’t believe many of them actually followed through. He also notes that the recession in 2008 precipitated a serious decline in his business.
Now, approximately 80% of their business comes in the form of repairs. It seems a number of people buy their first bikes at Walmart and when they tear up the business comes to him. He has a tone of inevitability about the whole thing. Eventually, many of the same people buy a better bike from Greenlee’s or another bike shop in town.
One of the best things Conrad says about the job is that every day he hears someone say, “My Dad brought me in here.” He now sees great-grandchildren of customers from the early days and that has to be gratifying. They aren’t the only bike shop in town, and some of the others are very good, but you’ll not find a place with more experience fitting the right bike with the right cyclist. It’s worth the trip from the heart of downtown.