The American department store of the 1970s no longer exists. Big names like Montgomery Ward have closed. Others, like Sears, are in such advanced states of entropy that they are more like self-contained ghost towns.
In their heyday, America’s proto retailers were the shiny face of advanced capitalism, row upon row of shiny merchandise, great cavernous echo chambers of consumption. They set the bar for our daily consumption, and none of us (well, almost none of us) could imagine the buying of things could be made better.
Back then, it was a normal and rational thing to walk the aisles of bicycles and pick one out, likely based on color, pay for it, and maybe ride it home. $100 was a lot of money to spend on a bike, but in the Taj Mahal of shopping, we could stretch to three figures and justify it to ourselves.
It’s all crazy when you think back on it. The captains of industry and distribution have since turned the whole thing upside down like a kid’s piggy bank, shaking it for loose change, the price of goods going up, while the cost to sell them goes down.
Still, the memory of ’70s bike consumption persists, and so many of the Baby Boomers and their Gen X progeny remember that a bike should cost $100, maybe, adjusted for inflation, $200. How many times have I heard a neighbor, just back from the bike shop, marvel that you can spend $500 on a bicycle. “I remember when a good bike was $100,” they say.
Of course, that was a different bike, and this is a different world. The bicycle has moved on, the paradigm shifting 2-3 times since, depending on how you count. Aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber. Manufacturing has moved a few times, too, farther and farther removed from our shores for the most part. Shipping costs have increased. Taxes, duties and tariffs, oh my!
Euphoric recall is problem. The department store bikes of yesteryear weren’t good bikes. We didn’t ride them very far. They mostly hung in the garage to rust, because they were all chromoly steel. But it can be awfully hard to digest everything that’s changed in the meantime and come up with a new and realistic sense of value. We used to pay ten cents to make a payphone call, and now we pay hundreds of dollars a month to send text messages to each other’s pockets.
This week’s Group Ride asks the odd but obvious question, how much should a good bike cost?