SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Since he was 19 years old, bicycle shops have been an integral part of Bob Shields’ life, especially the one he has run on Main Street for the last 40 years.
“I first started in a bike shop in ‘74,” he said from inside Southwest Cycle on Tuesday afternoon. “I was working in a shop when I heard Nixon resign. I was working in a shop when they took hostages in Tehran. I was working in a shop when Reagan was shot.”
Some of those first memories were made in New York before Shields moved to the Maine coast. In the spring of 1981, he opened Southwest Cycle on Main Street in Southwest Harbor and moved into its current location five years later.
“I was in a barn down the street by the laundromat,” he said about the original shop. “I think we had 12 bikes. Half of them were for rental and half of them were for sale.”
At that time, bicycles were considered mainly a children’s toy and most people weren’t interested in investing money in a good one.
“If you told someone a bike was $300, you’d have to resuscitate them,” said Shields, who found himself explaining to many people that a good bike was worth the money. “Five employees later and nearly 100 rental bikes, it’s a whole different ball of wax.”
Before moving into its current location in 1986, a couple of years after it opened for business, Southwest Cycle moved into the spot where Drydock Cafe is now. That was also around the time mountain biking became popular.
“Along came the mountain bike and it changed off-road everything,” said Shields, adding that cycling also became more of a fitness trend during the 1980s and into the ‘90s. “Adults started riding more and more and they realized that bikes weren’t just for kids.”
Shields has seen many different trends within the bicycle industry over the last four decades, including the recent influence of a worldwide pandemic.
“COVID has created a mini bike boom,” he explained. “We worked through the pandemic because we were designated an essential business… In cities, they’re closing streets off and designating them for biking.”
Eban Shook has worked at Southwest Cycle for the last 20 years and was one of the frontline workers throughout last year.
“We sold through almost all of our inventory,” he said from the shop on Tuesday. “August of last year we kind of ran out and it’s been hard to get them ever since.”
For years, the shop mainly focused on sales and repairs, with rentals being the third leg of the business.
“The rentals are up 300 percent this season and there’s no sign of it slowing down,” said Shields. “It is because of the shortage of bikes and with visitation this year it’s become the driving force… We’ve gone to a shop that rents bikes, fixes bikes and sells the bikes when we have them in.”
Shook calls Shields the unofficial mayor of Southwest Harbor, explaining that the shop has a bit of a barbershop feel where people gather to catch up on the latest goings-on in town. Also known to many as Bicycle Bob, Shields and the shop has been a part of many families’ lives for decades.
“I have sold bikes to grandkids of the kids who were my original customers,” he said. “We have a number of customers that repeat every year. I get the idea people are from New York but we’re their bike shop. Regular customers in different states always come back.”
Southwest Cycle is a place where folks can find not only the latest trends in bicycling but also whatever supplies and accessories are needed to complete the experience of hitting the pavement or the nearest carriage road. All the staff at the shop are avid cyclists. Outside of bicycle recommendations and repairs, they also have a bead on cycling events throughout the region, having participated in many of them.
“I try to avoid the carriage roads,” said Shields, who traversed the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia with a group of people for 15 years in a row. “I like riding off the island too. I like riding Newbury Neck, Surry, Hancock, Sorrento… I think a lot of motorists are used to seeing bikes here, most are courteous.”
There are a couple of things that make Shields feel like a giddy little kid – fresh pavement and the UPS delivery driver. He explains the latter often is the bringer of new items for them to try out. His personal bike collection is up to 18, many of which are tucked away in different parts of the country. There are a couple in his shop that have a special place in his heart – a WWII victory bike and a 1966 Schwinn Stingray Orange Krate.
“I wanted one of these in 1966 and my dad said it was too expensive,” said Shields, sitting on the bike’s yellow banana seat and holding on to its wide-set handlebars. “When I became an adult, I bought one in spite of my dad… This is a 25-year-old repro of a 25-year-old bike.”
Southwest Cycle is one of the oldest single owner businesses in Southwest Harbor.
“There are businesses as old as this but there aren’t any businesses run by the same person,” said Shields. “There have been a lot of changes in town. Certainly the town has become gentrified. There were half a dozen apartments on Clark Point Road and now they’re all B&Bs.”
At 66 years old, with health issues that have reduced his weekly riding miles to less than 50 a week, Shields is unsure how much longer he’ll be behind the handlebars.
“I’d like the business to carry on,” he said. “It may not be me carrying it on. I’d like to pass the torch. I’d like to keep a bike shop in the community.”