When Ben Hanoski began repairing bicycles in his basement in 1928, he started the long and storied history of Ben’s Cycle in Milwaukee. Ben built the business through ingenuity, and eye for good deal, and professional customer service, traits Ben’s grandson Vince carries on today.
Ben’s parents, Anton and Frances, moved to Milwaukee from Bessemer, Michigan in 1928. Ben, whose real name was Blosser, Hanoski worked at Globe Steel Tubes as a tool and die maker but was soon laid off. In the late 20s, the Second District Milwaukee Police station had not yet been built, and the land was a city dump. Ben went to the dump and found a bicycle and the parts he needed to repair it. After fixing the bike in the basement of 1004A W. Lincoln Avenue, he rode it a few blocks, someone asked to buy it, and the Ben’s Cycle business began.
After that first sale, Ben went to the dump every day to find parts. Fixing things was easy for him as a tool and die maker, so in his basement workshop, Ben started the business of building bikes and fixing them.
Ben’s Cycle Began in a Basement
It didn’t take long for word to get out that Ben made solid usable bikes from old parts, and he had a good business running. He would make trips to Chicago every other week, buying up used bikes to bring back, fix, and sell at a reasonable price. With more than a dozen bicycle manufacturers, Chicago was the bicycle manufacturing capital at the time, and that meant a lot of bikes for Ben.
In front of the Ben’s building was a barbershop at 1004 W. Lincoln Avenue which faced Lincoln. When the owner of the business died, Ben bought the building. And in 1933, Ben’s Cycle became a Schwinn dealer.
The depression was tough on everyone, and Ben’s became a real family business. Ben’s father worked for Ben, and Ben’s 60-year-old father-in-law became Ben’s head mechanic.
During World War 2, Schwinn stopped bicycle production for the war effort. Ben and his son Larry started cutting up junk 26-inch bikes and make 20-inch bikes, welding them together, and painting them. There was a waiting list for these bikes.
“We never had a single bike break on us,” Larry remembers. “Everything we made was sold before it was built.”
Ironically, Ben didn’t believe in sports. He was a workaholic who taught Larry to do the same. Larry worked in the shop at age 8, and he quickly learned to fix coaster brakes. By 12, he had learned to weld.
Larry and Roman Hanoski Buy Ben’s Cycle
Ben worked alongside his sons Larry and Roman until 1956 when the brothers bought the business from their father. They stayed at 1004 Lincoln until 1960 when Larry Hanoski bought the property at 1018 W. Lincoln for $23,500. Prior to Ben’s Cycle, the 1018 W. Lincoln Building had been the Lincoln Dance Hall, operating in the back, Grabowski Hardware, the Chatterbox, and Orient Ice Cream Shop.
Blosser “Ben” Hanoski died in 1987. Larry bought Roman’s share of the business in 1970.
Larry showed the same penchant for finding profitable deals as his father before him and his son and current owner, Vince. During the 70s, Larry drove to Elk Grove, Illinois, where the Schwinn had their warehouse of closeouts and seconds. He bought all the returns since very little was wrong with the bikes and parts. Once Larry bought all of Schwinn’s old Goodyear bike tires since Schwinn now wanted to use only their own tires. He drove down several times to fill up a station wagon with tires to bring back to Milwaukee. A Milwaukee County sheriff deputy stopped him once.
“What are you doing with all the tires,” he asked Larry.
“I own Ben’s Cycle in Milwaukee. Schwinn sold me all these tires, and I’m bringing them back to sell in Milwaukee.”
Larry made regular and numerous trips to Elk Grove to pick up returns, seconds, and slightly damaged bikes and products. He borrowed a furniture truck from a neighbor and had to move the tires to the shop basement because his wife didn’t like the smell of rubber in the house. He sold the tires to other shops in Milwaukee.
He once bought 5,000 jars of Schwinn touch-up paint, and a man sold them at Seven Mile Fair. Without touching the bottles, Larry got a pretty healthy commission.
In 1976, Schwinn came out with the iconic Varsity bicycle. Larry bought 40 of them and sold them all within a month. He was the first Schwinn dealer to sell 500, then 1,000 bikes in one year. Larry described how the Schwinn brand began to decline. The Schwinns were heavy, and even the Traveler, made in Japan, could not compete with the lighter aluminum and lighter-weight steel bikes. And when the quality of the Schwinn brand declined, and the lifetime warranty stayed in place, the recipe was there for bankruptcy.
Larry ran the shop for over 30 years. Larry said one of his best memories from the bike shop was making a bike for a boy who had multiple sclerosis. Larry closed up the shop at 6, went to the basement, and made a Schwinn Stingray tricycle with a Stingray seat.
Vince Ushers In Expansion at Ben’s Cycle
In 1992 his son Vince took over the business and began expanding Ben’s Cycle. Vince bought the vacant Riviera Theater right across the street in 1999 to add a larger retail space. When he bought the theater, which had closed in 1955, it was being used as a lighting storage space by Goldman’s department store with massive pallet racking from floor to ceiling. In an effort to restore the building as close to the original as possible, he took out dump trucks full of garbage in a year-long renovation project that included restoring the exterior brick work as well.
Vince, in 2008, purchased the building at 1013 W. Lincoln that had been a Salvation Army store and before that a furniture store. The 1013 W. Lincoln shop sold commuter, recreational, and mountain bike bicycles and gear, while the 1018 W. Lincoln store was the Pro Shop, selling the road and racing bikes.
He created a walkway between 1013 W. Lincoln and the theater, which is now used primarily as warehouse space for some of the over 10,000 parts stocked by Ben’s Cycle. In 2000, Vince hired staff to sell products on eBay, then a new service. The internet business grew quickly to the point where it is now a several million dollar sales operation.
In 2001, Vince Hanoski created the Milwaukee Bicycle Company (see separate article) which sells hand-built, high-quality steel frames.
In 2014, Vince purchased the building at 1017 W. Lincoln and spent several months gutting the interior. In 2015, the Pro Shop moved to the south side of the street so that the entire business was linked.