By M. Scott Morris
PONTOTOC – About three years ago, James Allen set about earning a new nickname.
“They call me ‘The Bike Man,” he said. “That seems reasonable.”
Allen had a bike as a kid in Pontotoc County. It was light blue and made for a girl.
“My dad was a sawmill man and a farmer, so he didn’t have money,” Allen, 76, said. “He went to the Western Auto and bought a girl’s bike. He said, ‘Son, you’ll have to ride a girl’s bike so your sister can ride, too.’”
Not long after, one of the family’s work horses stepped on a wheel.
“We rode that bicycle with the warped wheel until it was worn out because he didn’t have the money for anything else,” Allen said. “All the boys, we’d go riding. They’d have their boy’s bikes, then I’d have my girl’s bike, but they never made fun of me.”
That about summed up Allen’s experience with bicycles, except for the few years he shipped mail-order bikes and other merchandise for Sears, Roebuck & Co.
He’s the kind of guy who needs to be active, so after he retired from some 30 years in the insurance business in Pontotoc and New Albany, he was looking for ways to keep busy.
“I was driving out in the country and saw all these bicycles piled up. I decided I needed me something to do,” he said. “I never was interested in bicycles until I got into them then.”
He said he wasn’t mechanically inclined, but taught himself how to bring busted bikes back to life. He sold them almost as quickly as he fixed them.
“If it ever gets in your blood to be a salesman – I don’t care if you make a dime off it – if you sell it, you have accomplished something,” he said. “That’s how I feel every time.”
Buy, sell, trade
He and his wife live on Highway 9 South, three-quarters of a mile from the Pontotoc city limits and near where his father farmed 100 acres years ago.
It’s hard to miss the place because bikes for all ages sit out front. He’s got a workshop where he breaks bikes down before building them up again.
Behind the workshop and hidden from highway traffic is a tangled and colorful mess of old bikes in various states of disrepair. Some will be refreshed and sold, and others will be scavenged for parts.
“I buy, sell and trade, and I sell parts,” he said. “Something that might cost you $20 from a distributor, I’ve got for $5. I’ve got tires, wheels, inner tubes, pedals, gears, whatever.”
The gold standard in his hobby is a coaster bike, and Allen said he can sell every one he gets.
“A coaster bike is the old kind with the break on the back wheel,” he said. “I can’t keep them. I can’t keep wheels for them.”
He had more repairs to make on an old Schwinn from the 1960s before it was ready to go, but a Huffy with a banana seat from the 1970s was among those for sale in the front yard.
He’s working on a Murray for a man who came in and traded a bunch of bikes in exchange for getting one repaired.
Allen once heard about someone who had a three-wheeled bike. He hurried over and haggled with the owner, then brought it home and sold it the next day.
A bicycle built for two was at a Salvation Army store. It lacked a chain and needed other work. Allen got it for half price, fixed it and sold it to a veterinarian and her family.
“Her husband told me they were having so much fun with that bicycle built for two,” Allen said. “He said those girls and their mother just ride that thing everywhere.”
Many of his bikes sell for $25 to $45, and a few of them are new that he buys from overstocked stores.
It’s a hobby, so he’s not out to make a bunch of money, just enough to cover his gas, he said. Some people get special deals, depending on their circumstances.
“If I can tell by a person’s appearance that he doesn’t have a job, or lacks what the most of us got, you know, I’m selling him the bicycle for what I have in it, or I’ll take a loss and make it up on the next one. Now, some just want whatever they can get for free, and I don’t do that.”
Allen’s bike business took a hit a few months ago, but that was the least of his problems. He said he was driving home one day and fell asleep behind the wheel for the first time in his life.
“I looked up and thought I was going to make it. It was a smooth place,” he said, then shook his head. “There was a culvert there and I hit it going 60.”
His spine collapsed. Doctors used a balloon to open it back up, then “poured cement in there,” he said. He’s up and moving now, but doctors told him the pain could last another year and a half to two years. Or it could last the rest of his life.
“I have a boy that helps me. He’s going to help me until I get to where I can work like I did,” Allen said. “I can’t work on a bicycle unless I’m sitting down in a chair. I need some kind of support.”
He’s making progress. While he was in the hospital, Allen’s wife, Lola, sold all but three of the bikes he had ready. There’s a fresh assortment of bikes in front of the house these days.
“My wife thinks I’m too energetic for my own good,” he said, “but I’m afraid if I get to where I can’t do what I want to do, I might go down fast. It’s better to be up and going.”
He’s a big fan of Tanglefoot Trail, a converted railway that runs from Houston to Pontotoc to New Albany.
His granddaddy knew a man with the railroad, and Allen was about 10 years old when he took an impromptu ride from Pontotoc to New Albany.
“That train came through all the time. I could see it from the house,” he said. “I can remember seeing the smoke, that engine going from Algoma to New Albany. I can still remember that.”
Of course, he’s happy to see customers who’ve been inspired to get healthier by riding new or new-to-them bikes on the trail. The transactions can take as long as they need to take.
“I like talking to people and people like talking to me,” he said. “That’s the problem with today, people aren’t getting enough fellowship, just getting together and talking.”
In all his buying, selling and trading, he gets plenty of time for conversation. There’s also quiet time in the workshop, where he fiddles with gears and pedals and whatnot. He recently bought a sandblaster, so he’s kicking up the operation a notch.
It’ll remain a tiny business, not the sort he’d recommend to a young man starting out today. But “The Bike Man” said it is a satisfying way to pass the time for a retiree who needs something to do.
“I like taking an old bike and redoing it and sitting it out there a while, then someone can come buy it and enjoy it,” he said. “In the spring, I’m going to take my wife out to Tanglefoot, and I’m going to sit there and see just how many bicycles I’ve worked on or sold that are running on that trail. That’s what I’m going to do.”