When Gary Duke watched his family’s century-old business burn to the ground in 2008, he thought the legacy of Duke’s Cycle may be over.
He got the call on a frigid February morning, immediately driving to the store on Queen Street West and pleading with fire crews to let him inside to grab a few things.
“I’m shaking the keys in front of the fire chief going, ‘I can do this, we can do this,'” he said.
“It was a big one. But I just remember the water, and the freezing and just everything was gone.”
Still, the massive six-alarm blaze didn’t spell the end of the business.
Pushing past the emotional toll of losing his father’s old apartment just upstairs from the store, and the financial toll of rebuilding in an expensive city like Toronto, he reopened the shop in the same spot in 2011.
“I didn’t want the fire to to put me out of business, and that’s why we decided to fight hard,” he said.
But now, eight years later, the 63-year-old is calling it quits on his own terms
He plans to retire near the beginning of March, with Duke’s Cycle closing after 105 years serving the city.
“The business side was easy because at a certain point it wasn’t making financial sense,” he said.
“But it was the other side, it was the historical side … that was a difficult part.”
Century-old cycling destination
Duke’s grandparents opened the store in 1914 — known earlier by names like Duke’s Sporting Goods and Duke’s Bicycle Co. — selling everything from furniture to ski equipment to rifles.
“Department stores were very, very big back then,” Duke said. “There was no specialty stores really at that time, at least not here.”
But over the years, those specialty stores landed, forcing the Dukes to narrow their merchandise to one of their best-selling items: bicycles.
“It started to really explode in the late 60s, early 70s,” Duke said.
“One of my favourite memories was the first time I sold a high-end road bike. I went home beaming because it was 1,200 dollars and back in ’76 … for my dad and my mom, it was just like this huge, huge sale.”
Cycling inventory disappeared off the floor, Duke said, with stacks of bicycles being sold.
“It was just phenomenal the amount of traffic and how local it was,” he said.
But as well as feeling the financial hit of the 2008 fire, Duke’s Cycle is now feeling the impacts of the biking boom.
Whereas Duke’s Cycle used to be one of the prime locations for equipment, it’s now one of many fighting for visibility, he said.
“A little bit of fun, if I can say that, has gone out of the industry,” Duke said.
“It’s really become … ‘take what you can, race to the bottom’ on pricing,” he said.
“Consumerism has really made it difficult to make profit margins.”
Those difficulties made it hard for Duke to consider passing the business down to one of his daughters, and his two grandchildren are too young to wait for, he said.
Bike store expected to remain at 625 Queen St. W.
So, with the decision made, one of Duke’s biggest remaining concerns was for his staff, as they’ve taken over as the face of the store, he said.
Although the details are under wraps, Duke said a plan is in the works to keep all of the staff onboard.
“Instead of just shutting down, I’m confident there will be another bicycle store here,” he said.
If all goes as planned, the sales manager of Duke’s Cycle, Steffan Kraiker, is hopeful he’ll have a place at the new store.
He’s worked at Duke’s Cycle for five years, but he also spent the previous two decades as a customer.
“Gary deserves a retirement,” he said.
“It’s a little bit bittersweet that there isn’t immediately another Duke to carry on the tradition, but the reality is that Gary, you know, he gets to retire and that’s the most important part.”
Still, Kraiker said working at the store has felt like being part of a family, with Duke at the forefront.
“We usually have, you know, daily phone calls, and there was one day last week when I told him that I’m probably going to miss these calls,” he said.
“And he told me that there’s no reason why I shouldn’t call him whenever I want.”
Wanting to say an official goodbye to colleagues and customers, Duke said he’ll likely be planning one last party at the store.
“I want to say, ‘thank you very much for all the support over the years, and wherever you are, there’s a huge amount of memories,'” Duke said.
“I mean it’s pretty phenomenal what this little business on Queen Street and lots of other little businesses really do for a community,” he said.
“But the community has changed and we all have to kind of grow and move on.”