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Wheels of Fortune

bikes

Used, rusted bicycles might not make most of us see dollar signs, but to an enterprising merchant shipping America's discards to the Vietnamese countryside, they may as well be made of gold.

By Traci Hukill

Before Phillip DeLeon Sr. and his grandson headed out to Faber's Cyclery today to buy the boy some Schwinn pedals for his low-rider, Phillip the Elder told him they were going to the Schwinn ghost store. A more fitting epithet was never coined. Rusted frames hang from pegs in the ceiling like skeletons. Spare rims--some arthritic, some gleaming--collapse in sagging rows against the wall. Ropes of old dry bicycle chain nestle among greasy, clinking heaps of bolts, brake calipers, and sprockets piled like knucklebones. The interior of the old building at 702 S. First Street, the oldest bike shop in San Jose and operable since 1912, truly looks like a place where old bicycles go to die.

But in fact, owner Anthony LaRiviere has, probably without intending to, given form to one of the first principles of metaphysics: in every end is a beginning. LaRiviere builds his bikes from scratch. People bring him bicycle parts from frenetically cleaned sheds, apartment complexes and garages. LaRiviere, a solid, placid man who might have been a brontosaurus in another life, hangs the frames up, leans the rims against the impossible ranks of wheels awaiting resurrection, drops the bolts and brake levers and sprockets in a bucket or a pile. He can pretty well remember where everything is and which parts go with what. Then he builds bicycles. Or he repairs them. His specialty, not surprisingly, is Schwinns. He repairs wheelchairs, too--one of the few bike mechanics in town who does.

A restored Schwinn has the same palpable gravity about it that a well-cared-for '56 Thunderbird does. Both machines are made for cruising in comfort, weighty with dignity and taste. The most popular Schwinn is the 1964--the first year they were made with high handlebars and banana seats. The low-rider kids love them.

Not everyone can be so picky, though. In Vietnam, where bicycles are the primary mode of transportation and bike mechanics set up shop along the streets, brand names count for little. Parts, on the other hand, are precious, especially in the countryside, where the poorer people make do with cheap used bikes. Vietnam is exactly where Faber's surplus stock is heading after an enterprising Vietnamese merchant named Can Linh loads it onto a 40-foot Matson container leaving Oakland this week.

Used bicycles like the scores heaped in Faber's side yard are just the parsley on Linh's steak plate. The merchant mainly traffics in automobile engines. This time around, he just happens to have enough room left over in his container to add a tangle of bicycles in various stages of decay. He's paying $2500 to transport his little ship of gold across the Pacific. Once in Vietnam, the used bikes will sell for $10 to $50 each.

Bear in mind, of course, that this shrewd man bought the golden bicycles at aluminum-foil prices. Faber's side yard splits more or less evenly into presentable and chaotic, the presentable side facing First Street and comprising racks of bike frames as bright and varied in color as old-fashioned candy sticks. The chaotic side consists of three distinct heaps of bicycles--over 100 bicycles in all totaling probably $1,000 in value. Faber's sold the whole kit and caboodle for $250.

"I know what he's thinking," observes LaRiviere in his considerate way. "He's thinking he can make use of every single bolt out there. I think he was surprised we gave him what he asked for right away. He usually likes to barter." He shrugs. "You can't be greedy your whole life." Besides, as he's quick to point out, they'll replenish those stockpiles in no time, and this way they'll save on having to move the stock themselves.

Like rabbits left alone, those piles of broken bicycles have a way of multiplying and threatening to take over the decrepit brick building. "This is nothing," assures 16-year-old Chris Durnya, who spends his afternoons hanging out at the shop and sweeping up once in a while. "It used to be up to here." He holds his hand at an improbable height, near his head. "This whole place."

So the heaps of metal in the side yard come and go. Meanwhile, little changes inside Faber's Cyclery, where customers drift in and shoot the breeze, time slips easily into some bygone era and the global market keeps spinning far away, or at least outside the door.

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From the February 27-March 5, 1997 issue of Metro

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