Sunday, August 28, 2011

J.T. Brown

This funky little store on Prince of Wales Island once saved a trip for me.

POW is in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. Years ago, my friend Sue and I rode a ferry to the island for a five-day bike tour through the forests and clearcuts between old logging communities and fishing towns.

When I realized in the town of Craig that my rear sidewalls were going tits up, I thought I might have to find a house with a bike outside and talk the owner into selling me a used tire. But then I spotted J.T. Brown, the general store near an old dock.

This is the kind of store where you’re far more likely to encounter a grizzled commercial fisherman than bicyclist, but back in those days, there was a glowing “TREK” dealer sign in the front window. I was relieved to go in and find a good-enough tire to carry me through the trip. As I mounted it on the rim a few minutes later, a local character walked out of the store and happily said, “Welcome to Craig!”

The whole experience left me with fond memories of the place, so when I was back on the island last week, I walked down to see if J.T. Brown was still in business.

The Trek sign was gone, and there wasn’t a complete bike to be found in the store, but there were wheels hanging from the ceiling, and tires crammed under shelves of fishing gear. Zip-Loc bags of new brake pads and QR skewers hung from pegs on the wall, and a whole bucket of seatposts sat next to a dusty hummingbird feeder beneath the spare tubes.

Most bike junkies can’t imagine living in a place without a real bike shop, but stores like J.T. Brown are as good as it gets in a lot of remote places. Many towns aren’t even lucky enough to have such a bare-minimum store.

If you live on POW these days and you need a new bike, you bring it back with you from a trip to the mainland, or have it flown in by floatplane. On Friday, I helped unload a brand-new bike from the old de Havilland Beaver that was bringing in the mail and a few passengers before hauling me and four other people back to Ketchikan.

When that bike starts wearing out, I suspect its owner will head down to the store and search for parts among the fishing gear, paper towels and canned food.

And he can be sure that the person who rings up his purchase will never be a fixie-riding hipster.

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