Anusha Parthasarathy pedals through Prakasam Street and stops at the city’s oldest bicycle stores
When you trundle down the narrowest of pavements on Prakasam Street in Broadway, past the row of opticians and motley stores, there comes a small stretch where everyone seems to sell bicycles. Stacked in rows out front, in a straight line right through the long corridors, on wooden shelves on the sides and hung from the ceiling by thick ropes, the bicycles are all over. As if that weren’t enough, tyres, handles, air pumps and bare wheels adorn different parts of the stores.
Here, in a row, stand two of the oldest bicycle shops in the city; Best Cycle Importing Co. and B.M. Davey and Co. Bound together by similar stories, they haven’t digressed much from what they began doing in the early 1930s; selling bicycles and spares.
The Popular Cycle Importing Co., oldest among the lot, was started in 1928 by C.T. Shah and N.D. Mehta, who moved to Madras from Gujarat. The shop, established in Broadway has always been there but is currently closed since the building gave away in the rains. A.N. Mehta, his son, has been in charge for the past 45 years.
“We were wholesalers and importers but now we are retailers,” says A. N. Mehta, “There has been a lot of change in the business since I joined. A cycle would just cost about Rs. 80 then and now the same cycle costs nowhere less than Rs. 4,000. And since we’ve stopped importing after Independence, it’s the Indian brands that sell well. When production of cycles increased, a lot of models came into the market in different colours and designs. There was barely any choice in the old days.”
N.D. Mehta also started Best Cycle Importing Co. that had eight branches with stores in T. Nagar and other parts of Broadway. But only two shops remain. “Now there’s a lot in terms of variety; children’s and women’s cycles have become popular. People don’t use a cycle for a very long time nowadays; perhaps four or five years,” says A.N. Mehta.
Suresh Davey is flooded with calls and walk-in customers at B.M. Davey and Co. Some ask for children’s cycles, others for tyres for other small vehicles. His shop stretches endlessly and there are rows and rows of cycles as far as the eye can see.
His family too shifted to Madras from Gujarat in 1906. His grandfather, Bhogilal M. Davey, sold Gujarat ghee, perfumes, owned a hotel and then began a cycle shop in Bunder Street in 1932. In 1936, they shifted to their present location in Broadway.
“Those days Broadway was the business hub and everyone came here to shop. So, my grandfather thought this was the best place to set up the shop,” says Suresh. “Our first shop was really small but the one we’re in now is almost 2,000 sq. ft.”
Davey imported cycles from England, Germany and Japan in the 1930s and started selling Indian brands after the 1950s. “Till about 25 years ago, the cycle was the most important means of transport for the common man. And people used the same cycle for almost 40 years.”
Suresh feels that cycles are the cheapest and most eco-friendly option on road. “A cycle occupies barely any space. Cycling is also good for health. With so many advantages, why very few people are using it,” wonders Suresh.