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Longtime retailer Mark Mattei preparing to close Chicago's Cycle Smithy

Published August 3, 2022

CHICAGO (BRAIN) — For Mark Mattei, it's simply time.

"Being 71 and still having reasonable mental faculties, I thought it would be wise to retire when I could still consciously appreciate retiring," said Mattei, Cycle Smithy owner since 1973. "And I wouldn't mind a little time off."

Mattei said he won't renew his lease when it's up at the end of September and has a "very aggressive sale" ongoing at his shop to clear inventory.

Unofficially getting his start as a teenager building bike frames, Mattei also said the industry's challenges in the past couple of years also weighed on his decision.

"A lot of the points brought up in Bicycle Retailer in some of the opinion columns — especially the more recent ones — really hit it on the head about the supply chain, the major players changing the rules a bit here and there, and what the dealers may or may not be able to do," he said. "Ordering items with an indefinite ETA ..."

He hasn't ruled out seeking a buyer for his location at 2468½ N. Clark St., which he's been at since 1978. His first Cycle Smithy location, opened in 1973 with the help of his father, was about 700 square feet. About a block away, the current location, formerly Park West Schwinn where Mattei worked in 1972, is 4,000 square feet.

Mattei said he did have a brief conversation with Specialized Bicycles but it opted not to buy the shop.

"I understand the survival of a company is important," Mattei said. "If they can secure their future by doing some of these corporate stores, and indeed they bring a wonderful presence to the marketplace, it's understandable."

Mattei also understands the shift to direct-to-consumer sales as he was an early adopter to selling online, creating a Cycle Smithy eBay store in the late 1990s. This allowed him to sell overstocks and closeouts in the dead of the Chicago winter.

His eBay store, which still is active, also proved good for his health as the extra income lessened a growing issue with ulcers brought on by winter worrying over debt.

"As the stakes went up and I went to a larger store, my annual purchases were greater and the amount of debt I was carrying over the winter became a little higher. As I got into the mid- to late-1980s, it started to bother me again in the winter. It's that lack of control. I've got five months with nothing going on. And that (eBay) income, it was like a panacea. (The ulcers) never bothered me in the last 20-some years."

Mattei became familiar with eBay when he purchased an antique bike in the late 1990s. Many of his prized antiques — including 1880s high-wheel, pre-pneumatic tire, and racing bikes — decorate the Cycle Smithy shop. He intends to take his antique bikes with him into retirement. He has been collecting since 1983 — including Frank Schwinn Sr.'s Paramount from the mid-1950s. He also has an 1890 Columbia hard-tire safety bike, and an American-made World War II prototype.

"I look forward to having the spare time to tend to (my collection) better than I have in the past," he said.

When asked about any advice he'd give aspiring retailers, Mattei said either possess mechanical skills in the shop or be sharp with figures behind the desk.

"I got into this business because I liked working with my hands. As a teenager, I acquired my own torch set to figure out how to build bike frames. I even built a couple bikes for people. Geez, this is really hard. I got little tiny slivers of chromoly in my knuckles from mitering tubes on a homemade lathe I made.

"And I said I could just buy bikes wholesale, and it's a whole lot less drama. And so I went that route. But I realize a lot of people approach this as a business, and there's an advantage to being a business person. Not a bad way to go. You hire the people with mechanical aptitude and you reign from the position on high with a longer view and probably become very wealthy in the process. Either way, be good at something. Be a real honest-to-God businessman, or at least be a good mechanic, if you want to start a little shop."

Mark Mattei, right, with longtime employee Earl Russell.

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