Volume 74, Number 41 | February 16 - 22, 2005

Notebook

A lament for Emey, the grouchy-but-great bike mechanic

By Eliza Nichols
By Michele Herman
A couple of weeks ago I found myself in dire need of metal trouser clips, a biking accessory that most of the normal bike stores have stopped carrying. So I braced myself to call Emey, the man who runs the idiosyncratic — some would say shady — used-bike shop that’s had several East Side locations but settled most recently on E. 17th St. off Third Ave.
Emey Hoffmann, who looks and sounds a little like Edward G. Robinson but in baggy black Bermuda shorts, has this way of refusing to acknowledge that he’s ever heard of me, even though he’s built me two bikes, sold my family members three others, constructed wooden storage racks for two apartment buildings we’ve lived in, and serviced all our bikes for years. This makes for awkward phone conversations. His in-person welcome is no more cheery. If he’s not busy, he can usually be found leaning an elbow on the counter that cuts across the store, just far enough out of reach that he doesn’t have to help me maneuver myself and my bike down the steps and into the miniscule space reserved for customers. His idea of “Hi, haven’t seen you in a while, what can I do for you today?” is a slight upward tilt of the chin and a flick of cigarillo ash into the ashtray. For years his store was decorated with hand-lettered signs on torn scraps of cardboard with messages like (and I quote): “Don’t even ask to use the phone: NO!”
So how do I explain my shock and even grief when I got a recording telling me Emey’s number had been disconnected?
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. In the past, Emey more than made up for his lack of social graces with his encyclopedic knowledge and love of bikes, his huge inventory of old and unusual stuff, and his incredibly fast service. But in recent years, Emey’s consummate charmlessness was compounded by a disturbing new trend: an increasing unwillingness to service my bike and sell me bike parts. When I stopped by with my son, whose handlebars were clearly too low, Emey took a look and pronounced them good enough the way they were. No matter what part I was looking for, he took to referring me to the hardware store around the corner, as if only sissies would buy bike accessories at a bike store.
I don’t know how to account for the slide. Maybe it was something personal, like the absence of his no-nonsense wife Debbie, who used to run the shop with him. Maybe he missed his kids, who always hung around the shop when they were little, pretending to pump air into all the bikes and into Loki the old dachshund. Maybe it was the shift in bicycle fashions from classic racers to mountain bikes that are all loaded up with bells and whistles but far less elegant, or maybe just an economy that’s not kind to tiny second-hand businesses.
I discovered Emey’s not through word of mouth or a “Best Bets” in New York magazine, but by happening upon it one day early in my life here. Manhattan starts out as a big and lonely city for all of us transplants. But then a funny thing starts to happen. The anonymity of the city’s hundreds and hundreds of blocks slowly gives way to pockets of familiarity. Relationships form. You find yourself a doctor, a dentist, a copy shop, a cobbler/watch-battery guy and, if you ride a bike, a mechanic. You stay around long enough and become a regular at a lot of places.
Along with the city’s bike messengers, who came for the fast turnaround, I was one of Emey’s regulars. And if merchants carry around internal maps of their customers, I know I was prominent on his, much as he might never admit it. My loyalty to Emey was cemented after that New York rite of passage, my first bike theft. I went shopping for a replacement, and told Emey that what I’d really always wanted was a white English Raleigh with a girl’s frame, hardly likely since the company had been out of business for years.
Just a minute, he said, and disappeared into his back room. (Cardboard notes to customers: “Do NOT even ask to borrow tools” and “PRIVATE: Do NOT step past the counter!!!”) He emerged with a big brown paper package and a goofily pleased expression. Somehow or other he had managed to stockpile original frames when Raleigh shut down operations in England and sold its name to an Asian manufacturer. He tenderly placed the package on the counter and unwrapped a pristine girl’s white Raleigh frame. He was as excited as I was. We discussed components and my riding habits, he gave me a loaner to get me through that day, and had my new bike ready the next. And when it too was stolen a few years later, he didn’t commiserate but did make me a new one overnight with his last remaining white Raleigh frame and with even better parts, and charged me the same as he had the first time.
Another day I was there when a put-upon publicist for Steven Spielberg came in with a contact sheet and a magnifying glass. She had been told to get a replica of the bike in the photos. Emey took one look and said, “This is a bike that could only have been put together by a kid in his garage in New Jersey in the late ’60s.” He disappeared into his mystery chamber and returned nonchalantly holding the exact same, white, star-spangled banana seat as the one in the photo.
I have many more Emey stories — once he got past the lack of pleasantries, Emey could talk all day. I followed the case of his garage-sale painting that experts thought might be a Titian. I know he’s descended from the personal physician of King Christian IV of Denmark and that his real family name is Bang, Hoffmann being a title meaning “man of the court.” Lately his stories, like his store, had turned a little moribund. When our older son was looking at middle schools, he felt he should alert me to the prostitution that goes on at our local zoned school, information I would have preferred not to know.
After the phone recording, I rode over to the store to see if I could learn anything. I was shocked to see it’s still in operation. The new owners have made some innovations. The place feels brighter and cleaner (but not too clean, which is a sure sign of a bad bike store). What they’ve done is turn Emey’s into a regular bike store, and that feels like a mixed blessing.
Word on the street was that Emey had surfaced in a new shop on E. Sixth St. I’ll have to stop by for a good snubbing.

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