Milford bike shop owner’s retirement marks end of era

MILFORD — Red, white and blue bicycle wheels spin with a seated Uncle Sam waving to the passersby as the wind blows along Walnut Street.

The decoration has greeted Milford every day Jack Sheaffer opens his doors at Bikes, Etc. located just doors down from the Santa House, next door to the Mispillion Art League and steps away from the Mispillion Riverwalk.

But 32 years after he opened the Milford-mainstay, he is now planning for a retirement his wife might joke is long overdue.

“Everything must go,” he said while staring at a plethora of stock ready for new owners.

Rummaging through items on his desk, he glanced at a cassette tape with a radio commercial dated for his father’s own retirement sale when he closed Economy Auto Supply in the late 1980s.

A scrapbook filled with photos of a heyday gone by at his father’s shop was nearby as Mr. Sheaffer recalled his earliest days working in retail.

“He was a pretty amazing man,” he said.

George Sheaffer found his own retail start when his father-in-law “hooked them up with B.F. Goodridge,” his son recalled. “Goodridge is a tire. In fact, they also had a retail division.”

Solid foundation

It was that retail division that helped the elder Mr. Sheaffer with a solid foundation in sales which he brought back to Milford in the 1930s. Economy Auto Supply offered a little bit of everything, opening in the spring of 1937 where Riverfront Theatre is now located, according to his son.

Economy Auto Supply started with B.F. Goodridge items and branched out to sell everything from tires to refrigerators and other major appliances. Bicycles, tools and, of course, auto supplies were staples at the local family-owned store.

“You name it, we had it. We had waxes, cushions, auto needs, polish. We used to get our refrigerators by rail. We’d have to go over to Harrington to pick them up,” the younger Mr. Sheaffer said.

Expanding became an option and the business grew to include stores in Georgetown and Seaford. In Milford, the family opened a lawn mower shop located at 203 N.E. Front Street near what is now a strip of businesses including a lawyer’s office, Dorey’s Insurance and Uptown Liquors.

Mr. Sheaffer spent years working under his father’s leadership and eventually became the vice president of the company, working through school and into adulthood when he wasn’t serving in the military.

He attended school in Milford but graduated from high school at a private boarding school called Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania.

“This was in ’57/’58. We had burning torches; we had integration. Black people came to the school. All the good teachers left and I thought, I’m going to spend another year at Milford High School? I don’t think so,” he said of the political turmoil students had to cope with at the time.

“Through my mother’s father, Rev. Beck, he knew somebody at Mercersburg Academy. It was a prep school, and they got me in. But, you couldn’t go and just graduate. You had to go for two years. I should have graduated in ’58.

“I ended up graduating in ’59 and from there went into the service. A lot of my friends left Milford High School. Many of my father’s customers were black, and some of those kids were kept from school, too. It was a rough time for Milford, Delaware.”

Mr. Sheaffer attended Gettysburg College, graduating in 1963. He married his sweetheart, Marylou, in 1964 when she was but a freshman in college.

Naval officer’s candidate school claimed him next and the pair were moved to Mayport, Florida where he would be stationed on a destroyer.

Time in the service proved difficult for the Milford-grown business man who was prone to seasickness. He was moved to shore duty in Corpus Cristi, Texas as a line officer taking care of 50 aircraft.

Return to Milford

The Sheaffers returned to Milford where Mr. Sheaffer knew he had a job to return to when he was finished serving the country he loves so dearly.

“Look at that stuff, I mean it’s just amazing,” he said, looking through the scrapbooks from his father’s store.

“He closed in 1986 or 1987. He said he was going to retire and I didn’t have a job. So, I rented this place. The building owner said, ‘Okay, what are you going to do?’

“And I said, ‘I’m going to have a bike shop.’ He said, ‘Well, you have to have bikes.’ I said, ‘Give me a chance, man,’” Mr. Sheaffer said with a smile.

Although he had years of experience in a retail environment, he had no direct experience with bicycles or their repair. But, there was one thing that he knew for sure — bicycles were still a hot item, especially around the holidays.

Mr. Sheaffer opened Bikes, Etc. in December 1986 on Walnut Street across from his father’s old store.

“I guess my dad was mechanically inclined, and he passed that on to me somehow,” he said. “I had tools and stuff from Economy. We sold bikes there; we also sold Vespa scooters. That was a big deal.

“We were the only Vespa dealer in Delaware at the time. And I had a little experience with repair. I just thought there wasn’t a bike shop in town, and it was something that didn’t take a lot of capital. Just a store, some bikes and handywork and you were in.”

More than a career

Selling and repairing bicycles would eventually become more than just a career for Mr. Sheaffer — it saved his life.

A frequent tennis player, friends at Shawnee Country Club asked him if he would participate in a biathlon to support their cause.

“I said, ‘What is that?’ ‘It’s a run-bike-run.’ I said, ‘Okay, what do you want me to do?’ He said, ‘We want you to ride a bike.’ And I thought, 25 miles? I’ve never ridden a bike in my life. I had bikes, but I wasn’t really a bike rider. I was a tennis player,” he recalled.

But, he joined Gary Downes and Don Fisher for the Barnyard Biathon’s only three-man team that year. And then he joined friends for another year, and a year after that.

“Apparently, I was getting better,” he chuckled. “That’s what started my biking.”

Eventually, Mr. Sheaffer would win medals through the Senior Olympics and take his cycling to a national level, meeting fellow cyclists from all over.

“I think my best nationally, I took seventh place and here’s a fifth place. . . Anyway, I did okay,” he said looking through medals from his experiences. “So, thanks to my bike shop and new interest in cycling, it saved my life, really.

“I had a heart attack. I was riding with a friend in Slaughter Beach, and I wasn’t feeling good. And I said something to my friend. He thought I said, ‘Go.’

“So, he went down the road. But, I pulled over, got down off my bike and laid down on the road. A car drove by and didn’t stop.”

When his friend realized what was happening and returned to Mr. Sheaffer, he asked what he should do to help.

“I said, ‘We’re going to ride to the hospital.’ I have seven stints in me. I’m just thankful that I’m here and praise the Lord. My wife gave me hell. She said, ‘You what?’

“Well, I just figured it would have taken them half an hour out there to see me, and I was only five miles out. It wasn’t that far. And I was feeling pretty good right then. Cycling has kept me alive by the grace of the Lord. I’m here. I’ll be 79 in March, and I think it’s time to retire,” he said.

He is looking forward to retirement with his wife who taught children for 25 years between Avenue Preschool at Avenue United Methodist Church and Benjamin Banneker Elementary School, both in Milford.

“I’m proud of him. But we’re going to have so much fun together. It’s time,” she said.

The community will have an opportunity to bid farewell to the bike shop, at 3 N. Walnut St. in Milford today.

Party at the shop

To honor Mr. Sheaffer’s retirement as an entrepreneur, Downtown Milford, Inc. is hosting a party at Bikes Etc. today, from 10 to 11 a.m. Treats will be provided by Dolce Bakery & Coffee Shop, My Sister’s Fault and The Pierogi Spot (a new Milford business set to open soon).

Fellow bicycle enthusiasts Jenn Rowan and Ben Jones, owners of Lifecycle, also plan to celebrate Mr. Sheaffer’s success by hosting a slow cruise from their shop in Milford.

Participants are asked to arrive at 10 a.m. to roll out at 10:15 a.m. for a 20 to 30 minute ride at no more than 10 miles per hour. The community ride will end at Bikes, Etc.

Reach staff writer Jennifer Antonik at jantonik@newszap.com

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