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Pioneering retailer George Garner, Sr., dies at 93

Published October 5, 2016
Updated with funeral mass details.

NORTHBROOK, Ill. (BRAIN) — Retailer George Garner, Sr., who owned and operated several stores in California and the Chicagoland area, passed away Sunday, October 2. He was 93. Garner had a huge influence on the way retailers around the country operated their bike shops in the 20th century.

Garner, a WWII veteran who worked in bike shops in his teens before joining the Marines, opened his first store, Valley Cyclery, in Van Nuys, California, in 1947 with $1,500 he had saved and an additional $1,500 he had borrowed.

As a Schwinn dealer, Garner's goal was to create the ultimate bicycle store, with a clean, well-lit and organized sales floor and exceptional customer service — a departure from the typical bike retail model at the time.

"George Garner was the specialty bike retailer responsible for getting shops out of the back alleys and establishing them on the main streets of America," industry veteran Jay Townley told BRAIN in an email. "He was a true change agent who was able to influence the Schwinn Bicycle Company to change the shop paradigm to a whole new level that is just now shifting again. Garner's influence lasted 50 years."

Garner designed and built his own fixtures for professionally displaying bikes and accessories, and prioritized sales and product training for staff, inspiring Schwinn to launch its own Sales and Management School in 1964.

Within a few years, Garner opened four more Los Angeles-area stores and became Schwinn's top dealer. Schwinn company executives were so impressed by Garner's retail and sales model, they created a template — the "total concept store" — for other shop owners to implement. Schwinn later convinced Garner to open a store in Northbrook, Illinois, about 25 miles from its headquarters in Chicago, in 1965. It became a place to test fixtures, merchandising programs and sales floor layout.

Garner was Schwinn's number one dealer for 17 years in a row, and at his peak sold 10,000 bikes per year. He eventually opened three more stores in the Chicagoland area and continued to operate five in California before closing the last location in the late 1990s. He is also credited with coining the term "cyclery," now commonly used in many store names.

Today, the Garner family owns and operates three George Garner Cyclery locations in the Chicago area, including the original Northbrook store. His son, George Garner, Jr., and nephew, Jim O'Connell, now run the business, which has been a Trek dealer since the early 1990s. George Garner, Sr., continued to be involved with the business until very recently.

"Even within the last few years he would stop into the stores to check up on things and offer his two cents on the day-to-day operations of both the front and backend of the business. And my mother, Barbara, who is 81, still comes in just about every day," said George Garner, Jr., who has been involved in bike retail his whole life. "She still enjoys it and takes care of a few things, which she's done since they got married in 1967."

"I know that for years to come I will be wishing I could once again draw on his experience and knowledge of the bike industry. A man's advice with as much a history in the business as my dad had was priceless."

A visitation will be held for George Garner, Sr., Sunday, Oct. 9, from 2 to 6 p.m. at N.H. Scott & Hanekamp Funeral Home in Glenview, Illinois. Funeral mass will be held Monday, Oct. 10, at 10 a.m. at St. Norbert Church in Northbrook, Illinois. 

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