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Century-Old Jamaica Bike Shop Rolls Along by Keeping Ahead of the Times

By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska | November 5, 2013 8:49am
 Bellitte Bicycles opened in Jamaica in 1918.
Bellitte Bicycles on Jamaica Avenue
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QUEENS — Bellitte Bicycles opened on Jamaica Avenue at the end of World War I. Since then, the store, established by a Sicilian immigrant Salvatore Bellitte, has become part of the neighborhood's fabric.

Filled with more than 300 bikes set in rows along the walls, it’s always busy with cycling enthusiasts looking for the latest novelties as well as neighborhood kids getting a quick tune-up.

Almost a century old, the shop — which the owners claim is the oldest bicycle store continuously owned by the same family in the country — may have an old-fashioned sign at its entrance, but inside it’s the center of the latest cycling trends.

Frenil Dand, 40, came to Bellitte Bicycles on a recent Wednesday to look for a road bike. Four years ago he bought his first bike at the store. The IT expert from Bellerose liked his new hybrid so much that he started using it for his daily commute to his job in Midtown, a one and a half hour ride.

“Now, I’m ready for an upgrade,” said Dand, who, with the help of the store's employees was trying to pick the most suitable model.

Dand belongs to a growing group of bike lovers in the neighborhood who use their bicycles to get to work, said Sal Bellitte, 50, one of the store owners and a grandson of its founder.

“There are a lot more commuters than ever before,” he said. “There are more bike lanes being made every year in the city so it’s much easier and safer for commuters to travel on their bicycles.”

Bellitte said that these days about 30 percent of his customers use “their bikes primarily for transportation instead of recreation or just exercise” with many biking to be “green.”

Patrice Herzer, 56, Sal’s sister — who works at the shop with her husband Karl, 56, a co-owner, and son Derek, 23 — said that after World War II bicycles became very popular, but the peak in demand occurred during the oil crisis in the 1970s.

At that time, “on a typical Saturday, we would sell 100 bikes and the door would have to be locked because there was just too many people in the store,” Herzer said.  “We couldn’t handle it all.”

But when Herzer’s grandfather, who arrived in New York as a child, opened the store at Jamaica Avenue and 170th Street, the place did not look like it was going to last long.

On his first day of business he sold only two flashlight batteries for 65 cents, according to Herzer.

Upset, he complained to his wife, Josephine, who he told him: “don’t worry, things will pick up." "And obviously they did,” Herzer said.

In 1948, according to an article included in a scrap book about Bellitte Bicycles put together by the family, the store was selling about 5,000 bikes a year.

Back then, a Columbia bicycle ran $36.95. A Schwinn bike was $39.95.

Today, the prices at the store start at $79 for a children’s bike. But some models, like a Cannondale Synapse road bike, cost more than $2,000.

Among the shiny new bikes, the store has kept souvenirs from its long history. 

There is an original cash register from 1918 and a kids' bike that family members used decades ago. There is also an original chainless Pierce Arrow from 1893.

Over the years the store, which also offers bike repairs, built its reputation and a vast clientele based on its service and selection.

Mike Myrick, 64, an avid bike enthusiast from Springfield Gardens and customer of 30 years, said he comes every couple of months to get a tune-up. “They have the best mechanics in town,” said Myrick who was in the shop with his 30-year old Raleigh for some minor repairs.

The store has also become a hangout in the neighborhood where customers come just to chat.

“But if they hang out for too long, then I start to put them to work,” said Patrice Herzer, laughing.