Ebony smoke billowed from the bicycle shop as rain beat against the ground.
From a mile away, Bob Biscari saw the flashing lights of fire trucks and police vehicles accent the night sky.
When Biscari pulled up to the family business on Independence Avenue, he stared in disbelief. Flames overwhelmed the structure and fire hoses cut through every exit. At least six fire trucks were parked outside the building as swarms of firefighters battled the blaze.
"I was just lost," Biscari said. "Everything was blackened."
Hours earlier, a UPS employee told Biscari that today – 7/11 – was the luckiest day of the year. Even luckier, it was the New Millennium.
That night, lightning struck the building. As Biscari stood in the rain, surrounded by the stench of burning rubber, he didn't feel so lucky. His eyes surveyed the business as the flames licked away at memories, at years of hard work. Everything his family had worked for was now gone.
"The intensity of the heat just melted everything," he said. "We were down to the bare walls.
"The huge turning point in life was do we continue the bicycle shop or do we just close and do something else?"
Biscari and his two other brothers, Alex and Dave, were stubborn, he said. They refused to give up.
"We rebuilt and just kept on going," Biscari said. "We bounced back from that and life went on."
Biscari and his two brothers grew up in Historic Northeast during an era where people "weren't in that constant hurry." Biscari still remembers cruising down St. John and Independence Avenues, hanging out at the Concourse and hitting up Smaks, the local hamburger joint.
"Gas was 79 cents and we still struggled to put gas in the car," he said. "So, we didn't make a lot of money, but we all got by."
Growing up, Biscari and his brothers competed in bicycle races, and it seemed natural when their parents purchased "Sunshine Bicycle" (formerly Monarch Bicycle) on Independence Avenue in 1979.
The original business located at 4708 Independence Ave. dated back to the 1950s, Biscari said. Then, in 1982 O'Reilly Auto Parts bought the building which the Biscaris rented, and the search was on for a new bicycle shop building.
"At the time, there was nothing on the Avenue available. Zero. There was nothing for sale," Biscari said.
Every commercial storefront was full, but one lone house for sale along the Avenue caught their eye.
"We sat down with the architects and came up with this concept," he said. "It's different, it's off the wall, but it worked. You're sitting in the old kitchen right now."
Now known as Biscari Brothers Bicycles, the bicycle shop at 5116 Independence Ave. hardly resembles a house. Inside, bicycles of various sizes line the walls, along with an assortment of bicycle accessories. There's everything from neon attire to bicycle handles to "I love my bike" bells and more. If it's bike related, they have it.
"A lot of people say bicycle shop bicycles are so expensive. Do we have expensive bikes? Sure, we do. But, we also have bikes that the average person can afford to buy," Biscari said. "Oh, yeah, we've sold some pretty crazy bikes. They can get into the thousands – more than your laptop and phone costs. Sometimes you can buy a car cheaper than a bicycle, but it's not everyday (we sell those) and it's not for everybody."
For Biscari Brothers, it's all about family, and that's exactly what sets them apart from other bicycle stores, he said. In addition to the Historic Northeast location, the family also owns and operates a Biscari Brothers in Liberty and one in Independence. The Historic Northeast location is considered the main store and Biscari can be found at all three stores throughout the day. Alex also helps at the Northeast store, Dave is in charge of the Liberty store and their lifelong friend, Rick Frazier, who's considered family, runs the Independence store.
"We get along," Dave said of his brothers. "We argue, but in the next 10 minutes, we get along again and everything goes back to normal. Our friends ask the same thing – 'How do you work with your brothers day in and day out?' It's real simple. We have a tight bond. We always visit one another. We have dinners together. It's not strictly a business deal; we have a good family relationship together."
As for family, Dave is raising his 12-year-old twin boys in his footsteps. During the summers, customers can find them helping out at the store, working from the bottom up.
"Everybody starts at the bottom – cleaning, keeping the stores presentable, helping out with a bike if someone needs help loading it," Dave said. "My customers up there know my guys by name."
When it comes to bicycle repairs, Biscari Brothers doesn't turn anything away and making an appointment is unnecessary.
"We will service any type of bicycle." Biscari said. "Some stores only want to work on the high-end bicycles, whereas we will work on anything and everything – from a kiddie trike all the way up that that $1,000-plus bicycle."
They even repair wheelchairs, a side business they started in the 1980s.
"We had a customer that lived behind the original store and was in a wheelchair," Biscari said. "He came over and asked if we could help fix his chair and that's kind of how it started, and we're still friends today. He was here just last week, just to hang out."
Adapting bicycles for individual customers is also their speciality. They've added electrical assist buttons to bicycles for customers needing that extra oomph biking up a hill and have fabricated bicycles for customers with missing legs or arms, or other physical challenges.
"We push to make the effort, so everyone's equal when they're out riding," Dave said. "They're shocked we're even willing to put the extra effort into making these things happen."
Some may question how a bicycle shop competes with a box store like Walmart, but Biscari welcomes the competition. Bicycles at box stores are masked with flashy colors and features to distract from the poor quality of materials; they're not meant to last, he said. They may cost less, but customers will spend more in repairs than they would if they bought a nice bicycle to begin with, he said.
"You may feel like you might save up front, but you're going to pay for it in the long run, and then you still have a box store bicycle," Biscari said. "Do I ever want them to go away? No, because that's how we make a good living, repairing bikes from the box stores."
Being in business for 34 years, Biscari Brothers has seen its share of repeat customers.
"We've dealt with generations of families," Dave said. "Now, we're dealing with great-great-grandkids, and we started with their parents or grandparents. Over the years, it's been good quality people and we get return customers constantly."
Their customers have also formed bonds with each other, thanks to the Biscari Brothers' weekly evening and morning rides.
"They've created a family over the last 10 years," Dave said of the riders. "These customers are traveling with one another's families on vacation. They've formed a bond that would have never happened unless they came to the store."
During the early 1980s, Biscari met Ed Chasteen, a professor at William Jewell, through a friend who was retiring and closing his bicycle shop business.
"He told Ed, 'I'm closing but I want to introduce you to Bob Biscari. They've got a couple of stores and you start patronizing them.'"
At the time, Chasteen had been recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) and wanted to remain physically active.
"Ed takes no medicine for his MS," Biscari said. "His only medicine is his bicycle. They (doctors) told him he couldn't walk, yet he rides every day."
Eleven years ago, a group of the weekly riders and the Biscari brothers organized a ride in Chasteen's honor called the "Greater Liberty Ride for MS" to raise funds for MS research. For 10 years, the ride went strong and raised about $100,000 for the National MS Society. During the fall, Biscari Brothers organizes a team to participate in the local "Bike MS" ride.
"As time has gone on, we have found there's a lot of people out there that have MS, a lot of customers that are on the team, or customers who have a spouse or family member that has MS," Biscari said. "We've got a couple of people in the family that have MS now. It's huge to give back to an organization knowing you're trying to help someway."
Biscari paused as a customer walked in the door for a bicycle repair. When he returned to the back office, he made it clear running the store doesn't feel like work.
"It's not a job," he said. "It's fun. Some people hate getting up going to work, but I get up, I come and I have a good day. I laugh, I smile and I go home. I may have a home somewhere else, but I live in Northeast. Yeah, Northeast has got its challenges. The clientele, the people, the environment, is it the same as it was in the '80s? No, it's changed. It's got a lot of diversity. But, we're still at it and we've got a lot of people in Northeast that support us."
Family business. Brothers Alex, Dave and Bob Biscari show off the diverse range of bicycles at their Biscari Brothers Bicycles Historic Northeast location, 5116 Independence Ave. The brothers also own two other bicycle stores, one in Liberty and in Independence. The Biscari family has been in the bicycle shop business since 1979. Leslie Collins
Bicycle safety. Biscari Brothers keeps riders safe with a selection of helmets. The store also offers a variety of accessories and gear ranging from colorful attire to bicycle seats to bicycle cables and more. Biscari Brothers also repairs bicycles and wheelchairs and fulfills custom orders. Leslie Collins