Looking back on... Russell's Bike Shop

DOWNEY - Christmastime was always the busiest season of the year for Russell Wagy.With a line of eager patrons streaming out the front door of his modest business, Wagy would need help from every member of his family to accommodate the demand. Wagy even solicited his wife, Freda, to cook up a pot of her famous chili for the famished workers who spent hours each day gearing up for the holiday season. It was the 1950s, and the ultimate Christmas gift for every child growing up in Southern California was a balloon-tired Schwinn bicycle; for parents all across the community of Downey there was only one place to find such a fashionable item: Russell's Bike Shop. Founded by Russell and Freda Wagy in 1944, Russell's Bike Shop, located at 8027 Firestone Blvd., represents a unique piece of Downey's history, grounded in fitness, family and fun. Through the years, generations of Downey residents have purchased bicycles from the shop and today, the store stands as a living legacy of the Wagy family's dedication to one of the community's most basic needs: recreation. Looking to start a new life together in California, Russell and Freda Wagy came to Downey in the mid-1930s. Mrs. Wagy, a licensed nurse, worked at Downey Community Hospital for many years before later nursing children at a local Downey elementary school. A carpenter by trade, Mr. Wagy designed and built a quaint home for the couple, clearing dozens of orange trees to make space for the one-story house, which still stands near the corner of Downey Avenue and Gallatin Road. Hoping to establish a thriving business in the community, Wagy bought property on Firestone Boulevard and contracted with Schwinn Bicycles, the dominant manufacturer of American bicycles during the majority of the 20th century. "Schwinn was growing - he wanted to get in at the start of something," said Vicky Minamyer, granddaughter of Russell Wagy. "It was all Schwinn. That's it - but it was very profitable. There was a big bike boom during that time so it was a very good business for our family." After Schwinn introduced the 1963 Stingray, one of its most successful models, Russell's Bike Shop won several national awards for outstanding achievement in sales as the bikes proved popular among Downey teenagers. In 1961, Russell Wagy died, leaving his store to his son, James, a Downey native, who owned and operated the bike shop until 1981. Although just a young man after taking ownership of the store, James successfully managed the business along with two other bike shops in Las Vegas. During his ownership, James Wagy worked with his son, Russell, teaching him the family business. Russell, now 49, remembers building and fixing thousands of bicycles as a teenager while an employee at Russell's Bike Shop. "I started when I was 15 and a half - and honestly, back then, it wasn't my most favorite thing to do," said Russell, with a laugh. "But I wouldn't trade it for anything else in the world…My father was always even-tempered at the bike shop, dedicated to the customers - he just had that nice, easy-going personality." In 1981, James Wagy was paralyzed in a major car accident and wasn't able to manage the shop any longer. Still a teenager at the time, Russell says he wasn't prepared to permanently take over the bike shop following the incident. "I took over the shop for a while after my dad's accident," he said. "But I was just 18-years-old - I was too young. It was a great experience, but I just wasn't ready." Subsequently, James Wagy sold the business and later moved to Northern California where he lived until his death earlier this year in February. Today, the Wagy family still owns the property and leases the building to the current owner Jeff Flynn, who decided six years ago to keep the original name of the shop. In addition to Russell's Bike Shop, Flynn owns Bellflower Bicycles on Woodruff Avenue in Bellflower. Currently, both locations sell several bicycle brands and offer repair services seven days a week. Moreover, Russell's Bike Shop is no doubt a unique historical treasure. Established by pioneers, the store has provided both transportation and recreation to countless residents for more than 65 years. Russell Wagy, who still resides in Downey, probably summed up his family's legacy best. "It was just a family business," he said. "Today - I think everybody in Downey has a little piece of Russell's Bike Shop in them."

********** Published: July 15, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 13