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The Impulse Buyer Strikes Again

Published April 20, 2011

Birthdays are dangerous for impulse buyers. My most recent one found me shivering in the alcove entryway at Elliott Bay Bicycles in downtown Seattle, waiting for them to open. A bitter February wind was blowing in off the Sound. An empty sixteen ounce malt liquor can rattled around at my feet. When Bob Freeman rode up on his classic Schwinn Paramount to open the store, he seemed surprised to see me huddled there by the front door. “It’s not mine,” I said when he glanced down at the empty can. “I haven’t had a drink in over a year,” I continued, sounding exactly like the kind of righteous jerk I was afraid of becoming when I quit. “Stumbling around in a hopeless fog of sobriety is no picnic,” I added, hoping to lighten the mood, as he unlocked the door.

“Actually, Steve, studies show a glass or two of wine in the evening are o.k. Moderate drinking is good for you.”

“Yeah, but I hate moderation. For me, one glass of wine is like a drop of blood on a leopard’s tongue. Anyway, it’s my birthday and I’m not leaving here empty handed,” I said as he unlocked the door, which I held open as he rolled his bike over the threshold.

“My father had a birthday a couple of weeks ago,” Bob said. “He just turned ninety and you’ll never guess how he celebrated?”

“With a bike ride?”

“With a ninety mile bike ride,” he said.  “He didn’t even start cycling until he was seventy-four.”

I wasn’t about to celebrate mine with a sixty-four mile ride. Six point four would have been plenty. In fact, I was hoping to find an excellent bakery even closer than that. The only question was what I’d be riding to get there. There were plenty of intriguing choices in the Elliott Bay showroom, some of them built by store owner and legendary builder Bill Davidson. Bob had also put together a couple of show stoppers, including a striking white Masi with Super Record Gruppo and custom red accents and polishing that Bob had applied by hand. 

Predictably, the most beautiful bikes either weren’t for sale or weren’t my size. Of course, I could get measured up for a custom titanium beauty, but if I had patience, I wouldn’t be an impulse buyer. As I scanned a line of sleek bikes in a long display stand, my eye stopped at an anomalous form at the far end. It was a classic Raleigh city bike, moss green with gold pin-striping and cream colored fenders. Being the coveted Superbe model, it was equipped with the seldom seen Sturmey Archer four speed rear hub and the dynamo front hub wired to a chrome headlamp. It was a remarkably original example of what we used to call “English racers” growing up in the fifties. 

“That can’t possibly still work,” I said, nodding at the headlight.

“Give the wheel a spin,” Bob said as he lifted the front end by the handlebars. Crouching down, I gave the wheel a whirl. The filament began to glow. I spun it again even harder and the lens took on a pale yellow cast, emitting perhaps two candlepower. Fiat luce!  As the owner of two old British motorcycles, neither of which I would ever ride at night, I could appreciate the miracle now glowing faintly before my eyes. My pulse quickened and my breath came in shallow rasps. Standing up too quickly, my head started to spin. I was in the terminal stages of impulse buying fever. I glanced around the store to make sure no  interlopers had witnessed the miracle. The last thing an impulse buyer needs is to become embroiled in a bidding war. 

Not realizing he had me at “Give the wheel a spin”, Bob continued the pitch. “Haven’t seen one of these in years,” he said, patting the capacious seat pack fastened to the well broken-in Brooks saddle. Burnished by exposure, time and honest use, the pack had authentic patina, which would be redundant were it not for the existence of “distressed” jeans and leather jackets. Unbuckling the leather closure straps, Bob opened the flap. “ Look at this,” he said, pointing to a key Scotch taped to the bottom of the bag, “here’s the original key to the fork lock.” 

“Uh, the bag comes with the bike, right?” I asked, needlessly, as I glanced at the price tag hanging from the handlebar. It was over, and we both knew it. Even token haggling, at this stage, would have been ungentlemanly.

“Shall I air up the tires?”, Bob asked. He was already rolling it into the service area. “I’ll raise the saddle a couple of inches for you, too.” It was a subtle but classic “assumptive close”. Well played!

While the bike was on the work stand we discovered that one of the leather anchor straps had come adrift from the bag. “Just needs a new pop rivet to set it right,” Bob noted. Knowing that I could procrastinate for months if I tried to do it myself, I decided to leave the bike with Bob for the weekend, so he could find the right rivet and do it for me. I could wait a couple of days to pick up the bike. 

I handed over my debit card, consummating the deal.  Enjoying the rush of ownership without the burden of possession, I took a brisk walk through the Pike Place Market and headed downtown toward the International District, honing a keen edge on my appetite as I closed in on my next impulse purchase...the elusive perfect scone.

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