This is something to me that never feels like work. When I wake up in the morning it’s never a thought like ‘I’m going to work.’ It’s just what I do...
On a rainy April day in St. Paul, Selby Ave. is dead quiet. It’s around 6 o’clock in the evening and there are more puddles than people. Crossing the street and dodging the water droplets, I can still see my breath. It’s wet and bone chilling and I see a shop front that I know will give me a reprieve from the elements. A warmer place, glowing, as I hop over that final puddle and arrive at Blue Bicycle where I’m set to meet Paul Johnson, the owner.
I had met Paul a bit earlier. Walking down Selby on a day much the opposite of this April evening. Sun shining and a few beads of sweat on the back of my neck, I sought out Blue Bicycle by accident, pledging to keep the sun away from my fair skin for a second. The first time the vintage shop was a haven for someone like me.
A friendly greeting at the door from Paul (not knowing who he was yet of course), asking if I needed help with anything. “Just looking,” I said, “but I’ll let you know.”
After poking around a bit noticing an old armoire on the side, outfitted with delicate paintings of flowers along its edges, and noticing the brilliant white and black hexagon tile on the floor I had to ask Paul a question. “Why Blue Bicycle as the name for a vintage shop?”
He leaned his left arm on the counter and told me a brief story about the place and how it came to be and like a hook in a good book, I had to ask if he’d be open to being featured. He was, thankfully, and we set up the time. That brisk, rainy day in April.
After hopping that last puddle and crossing from sidewalk to the doormat on top of the hex tile, I do a bit of a shake, say “Hey Paul,” and remove my hat. We shake hands and he points me to a couple of old golden upholstered deep bucket style seats. The perfect sort for smoking a cigar, drinking whisky neat, (yes, we like whisky neat) or settling up with a good book.
Paul sits in an identical chair across from me and we talk.
Growing up in Northern Minnesota, about an hour north of the Twin Cities, he worked in the family's construction business for years but ended up in St. Paul after a rough stint with substance abuse and alcohol, which found him in a halfway house in the city. After a few months of conquering those trials he ended up in a sober house on Marshall Ave and started working in an Ace Hardware. Pulling from his construction experience, it seemed like a natural fit.
“I didn’t really have a plan...I just knew I wanted to stay sober and that was working,” he says. He found St. Paul to be a good place for him to do that and quickly started easing into the city. As I watch him dig his hands into his navy jacket a bit tighter to keep out the cold he starts on about his bicycle. “I was living on Marshall and working on Grand and I’d ride my bicycle through this neighborhood,” he explains.
Constantly, he would ride past a little corner shop, stopping along the way to check out others. Having always been a big collector of vintage items, Paul was on Selby often with the surrounding antique shops popular in the area but he kept noticing the little corner shop. “I never once saw this particular space open and I’d look through the window and there was hardly anything in it and I thought to myself ‘what a waste, y’know, it’s such a good spot.”
And the same story he told me back when I met him the first time began to resurface. “So one day I was standing out on the sidewalk by the mailbox with my bike and this guy shows up to ask me about my bike, because it’s a cool looking bike.” A Felt Beach Cruiser to be exact. “It’s a vintage, cool-looking bike, so we talked for a minute and I told him where I got the bike and stuff and I turned around as I was leaving and saw him come through the door and thought, ‘Oh, he’s got the key’, so I should go talk to him. It’s like I was on autopilot.”
Quickly, Paul was back across the street to talk to the man once more. “I asked him if he would think of hiring someone,” with hopes the man would be interested in being open more often. After some coaxing, the man agreed, yet not for any sort of wage. “He didn’t even pay me,” Paul says. But what he did allow, was Paul to use the good spot as a place to sell his own vintage items.
Soon the shop was open more days. As Paul explains it, his friends have always come up to him to explain that he has a ‘good eye’ when it comes to design. With a place to sell his valuable wares, his good eye started translating into good profit and soon a good idea as a viable business.
Six months rolled by in his role at the corner shop with the man before the owner finally came up to him to say that he wasn’t interested in having the shop anymore, it wasn’t for him, and asked Paul if he’d be interested in taking it over full time, as his own place.
Much like the conversation by the mailbox a half year before, Paul took a bit of time to think about it and decided that it was what he wanted to do. The shop was to be his and within a year, Paul was the sole owner.
But every storefront needs a name. What was this one to be? For Paul it was a rather easy decision. Just as vintage wares are to be a conversation piece, he decided the shop was to be named after the conversation about his bicycle with the previous owner and in January 2012, Blue Bicycle was born.
Paul never thought something like this would ever happen to him. “I never had thoughts of owning my own business,” he says, “It was completely a series of events that led up to it and I think, I was maybe a year into it before I realized ‘oh shit, I should start doing taxes.’” To which he did and slowly started moving the business along, learning on the job. Whether he could have predicted it or not, Blue Bicycle was his and his alone.
It’s that understanding that helps him let go of the mundane traditional work day. He set up the store hours specifically to give him a day of rest and to seek out estate sales, dally on Craigslist or travel to one of the nearby states to pick up a specific piece he’s been stalking for days.
It’s the freedom that keeps the bicycle inspiration going, as he often stocks the store with not only vintage furniture and artifacts but also classic bicycles and mopeds. “In the summer, I’ll usually have a number of vintage bicycles for sale and they’ll be sitting outside. Last summer I had classic Schwinns from the 70s in six different colors,” he happily says taking his hands out of his pockets for a brief second to adjust his beige cabbie hat.
He mentions that arranging things is really what he enjoys. The bikes outside are fun to set up but he’s particularly fond of setting up the front window. “I enjoy the staging of the shop windows. That’s probably my favorite part, the merchandising. I like to change these windows continually... and I like looking for unusual things.”
With his right hand he points over to a section of the store, “Like that wardrobe,” he says. “That’s an old wardrobe from the 1920s from Italy that I found in Madison, Wisconsin.” It’s beautiful, a vibrant laurel green with distinctive markings. “That’s really it for me. It’s the thrill of the hunt that drives me.”
It also gives him satisfaction to find such an item and give it a new loving home, one that will cherish the piece for what it is. Being the connection between the finding and the destination is hugely important to why Paul does what he does.
“That’s really it for me. It’s the thrill of the hunt that drives me.”
Somehow we circle back to the bicycle and he says, “Before you ever drive a car, the bicycle is like your first taste of freedom because you can take off on your own for the first time.” Having the bicycle as his business name is a constant reminder that he can create Blue Bicycle into anything he wants. It has even branched off into a second venture, a rental company that allows people to rent pieces in his shop for staging and events like weddings and banquets.
“The rental company has a lot of potential for growth,” he says. “I didn’t know what it would turn into or what to expect but it’s really turned into something fun and I can steer in it whatever way I want.”
“So how has Blue Bicycle and the rental company changed your future?” I ask.
He tells me how his quality of life has improved a great deal. He doesn’t have a retirement plan, he doesn’t have a 401k but to him, it doesn’t really matter. “This is something to me that never feels like work. When I wake up in the morning it’s never a thought like ‘I’m going to work.’ It’s just what I do, so as long as my health holds out, it’s something I’ll continue to do well past what most people would think of as retirement age.”
Yet somehow, we once again get back to the subject of the bicycle. About how he used it to commute to Ace Hardware or just pop along St. Paul estate sales when he first started Blue Bicycle.
“How’s the commute these days?” I ask him.
“Well, I live upstairs, so it’s about 15 seconds,” he replies.
We have a laugh, I thank him for his time and we shake hands once more. I head towards the door, look out at the pouring rain, pull my coat a bit closer around my neck and pass back into the cold. Happy to know Blue Bicycle will always be that haven, no matter the weather.