San Antonio’s Oldest Bike Shop at Crossroads After 102 Years

For no apparent reason, a pit bull licked my ankle bone—with vicious affection—as I sat cross-legged on the couch in the back room of San Antonio’s oldest bike shop. Over a sleek gray-green coat, the dog wore a khaki harness covered in spiky Velcro flightsuit-style patches. Its owner (and subsequent shop owner) Hank Estrada had a career in the Air Force before returning home to take the handlebars away from his 90-year-old father’s Charles A. James bike shop.

In addition to the relentless but well-meaning animal, my conversation with Estrada was surrounded by a wall of power tools, washers, and wrenches. I’m told their most common repair request is a tire change. How did I get here?

This year, the downtown bike shop celebrated 102 years of existence. Naturally, I had to go investigate.

Meet Mr. James

I first found the repair shop and bike shop tucked away in a small strip of Main Street, surrounded by encroaching construction projects partly initiated by the city and partly by Weston Urban, a private company developing a 32-story residential tower opposite. After wandering around my destination, I noticed the smell — like that section of the Academy near soccer cleats and disposable bicycles — the subtle mix of natural and synthetic rubber and cardboard box.

At Charles A. James Bicycle Shop, every square inch of the walls is unsurprisingly given over to various bike parts. Slippery tire rings, droopy chains, niche gadgets I don’t recognize, ready-to-buy bikes, and sportswear. There are faded blonde posters from the 1980s and a calendar from 2006. In the corner behind the contemporary ledger are two huge wooden filing cabinets (which may be between 50 and 80 years old).

On each surface, handwritten signs are attached with large strips of clear tape. Shop wisdom like “If you don’t have your claim check, you’ll be charged $5 or more” and “Please don’t expect your repairs to be done on the spot.” Also the predictable classic, “no trespassing, no wandering”.

Noise from construction accidents nearby and clamors outside. Apart from the owner, the mechanic and the dog, the store is almost empty.

Meet Charles A. James today: a lifelong mom and pop threatened by San Antonio’s ever-changing downtown.

The Estradas (and all the others)

The eldest Estrada, Henry, Hank’s father, started working for James as a bicycle mechanic in 1938. When James died, he bequeathed the workshop to Estrada in his will. The year was 1968.

Soon after, he took it over, during the recession of the mid-1970s. Gas prices skyrocketed, and as a result, cycling boomed. It was the busiest time for the store in Estrada’s memory.

His father, who oversaw the store when it was on the road from its current location today, officially retired at the age of 91 and died a few years later. He knew everything there was to know about bicycles, according to his son, except how to ride one.

“If we needed a piece and couldn’t get it, he would just make it,” Estrada shares. “The funny thing about him is that he’s never ridden a bike at all.”

Unlike his father, Estrada was a fairly serious cyclist. After returning to San Antonio in the 90s and early 2010s, he will compete in the Texas MS 150, a bicycle race from within the city of Alamo to the beaches of Corpus Christi.

While serving a range of new and old customers, from recreational cyclists to inner city riders, the store has always had a connection to the world of professional cycling. Although he couldn’t drive himself, Henry Estrada oversaw The Grand Fiesta bicycle race when it circled the old Pearl Brewery in the 1970s.

Again this year, when the Tour de France launched its three-year contract in San Antonio with L’Étape, the young Estrada and his mechanic Mark Trejo were on the sidelines, helping participants with minor repairs at pit stops. They also plan to help with next year’s race.

“These were people who were really die-hard runners, professionals and amateurs,” Estrada says. “It was nice.”

A day in the life of San Antonio's oldest bike shop.

A day in the life of San Antonio’s oldest bike shop.

Camille Sauers/MySA
The interior of San Antonio's oldest bike shop.

The interior of San Antonio’s oldest bike shop.

Camille Sauers/MySA
Tire replacements are the most requested repairs at the San Antonio Bike Shop.

Tire replacements are the most requested repairs at the San Antonio Bike Shop.

Camille Sauers/MySA
Charles A. James Bicycle Shop is the oldest in San Antonio.

Charles A. James Bicycle Shop is the oldest in San Antonio.

Camille Sauers/MySA

The oldest bike shop in town.

rules of the road

The bicycle industry is not always easy. There are the usual pitfalls of running a business, like competing with the cheap, almost disposable bike from department stores, and there’s the unique, like the lack of foot traffic that comes from being sandwiched between several large construction projects, a blight on downtown stores. current sales. Then there is the trade in the bicycles themselves.

It’s no secret that San Antonio has had problems with drivers and cyclists in recent years. Earlier this month, a 61-year-old man was killed in a hit-and-run accident while riding a bicycle. Last year, a 43-year-old woman with her group of cyclists was killed when she was hit by a drunk driver near Central Catholic High School.

There is a palpable cultural disconnect between local drivers and cyclists. I can’t help but think that this struggle between the two worlds speaks to a larger community issue. How do we share the road?

Estrada and Trejo, who ride bikes themselves and have been known to fix the mangled bike or two, attest that this kind of rider-related tragedy is on the rise.

“It lasts, but it’s more visible now,” Estrada says. “There’s a city ordinance that says you have to give the bike three feet of clearance and sometimes cars will go right past them. They’ll cut past you.”

The “Safe Passing” ordinance was established in 2010. Trejo echoes Estrada’s concerns and says drivers these days seem to be more distracted, especially by their phones.

“I think people are more distracted. It’s a phone distraction. It’s a radio distraction. It’s a crying child distraction. It’s also an alcohol distraction,” says Trejo, who has lost friends to distracted drivers.

“I almost got hit by a dump truck once,” he told me. “I said, ‘Dude, be careful, I could have been your kid. “”

X and Hank Estrada get to work on their bikes.

X and Hank Estrada get to work on their bikes.

Camille Sauers/MySA

The paths that awaited us

“I’d like to see the city become more safety-conscious, so cyclists can ride without worrying about getting hit,” Estrada says, though he doesn’t think we’ll turn into Denver-style bike-friendly. . city ​​for a few more decades.

However, slowly but surely, changes are taking place. The city’s Greenway Trail, intended to create a “ring” of trails around all of San Antonio, is gradually being built.

And like the mid-1970s, gas prices are on the rise, although the jury is out on whether that will lead to a mass exodus of motorized vehicles and more utilitarian bikers. With triple-digit temperatures in south-central Texas, people seem comfortable with their air-conditioned trucks.

As for the store, financial problems persist. Construction continues in the main downtown corridor – it will be until at least the spring of 2024 until the Weston Urban skyscraper is completed – and Estrada is considering moving the nearly 103-year-old store elsewhere, as well as all the store’s inventory and his affectionate dog. Sales have been drastically reduced since construction began, Estrada says. The city’s installation of new sewer lines and the private tower across the street eliminated nearly 20 nearby parking spots for customers, according to Estrada.

“Our customers sometimes have to park at least four to five blocks away,” Estrada shares.

With other stores in town to turn to, including Bike World and Alamo Bike Shop, some regulars have stayed away, though some still manage to get in. Revenue declined so much that in June, Estrada set up a GoFundMe campaign to help pay the store’s bills.

Cyclists are struggling to share the road with drivers, and now drivers trying to fix their bikes have to share the road with bulldozers and cranes. You might call it a mess.

Although the future of San Antonio’s oldest bike shop remains uncertain, for now you can find it at 319 N Main Ave., Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and Saturday from 8:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. pm

You may need to park a few blocks away.