Address: 507 High St, Northcote VIC 3070
From an interview with Richard in 2020 that has been edited. Richard sadly passed away from natural causes in 2021.
Published in collaboration with the Darebin City Council
My great-grandfather’s name was Thomas Sylvester Finnigan.
He was a top bike rider in the 1890s, and won the Austral Wheel race, which is the world’s oldest handicapped bike race. Nowadays, the Austral Wheel Race still runs, but back in the 1900s, it was as big as the AFL Grand Final. He put money on himself to win, and also won 400 gold sovereigns as prize money. With the money he won, he opened his own shop in Malvern, called the Malvern Star. He designed the first Malvern Star bike.
He was a blacksmith and cyclist and, in the 1900s, blacksmiths could build anything they wanted. If you opened a bike shop, you built bikes, and he was the best of them. He also sponsored Don Kirkham who was a top bike rider, and one of the first Australians to compete in the Tour De France. That, in conjunction with his winning the Austral Wheel race, was big for the shop.
He was famous before he made the Malvern Star. Unfortunately, he became ill and, in 1920, sold the shop at about 60 years old.
If you search for Thomas Sylvester Finnigan in an 1890s newspaper, you’ll find a fair bit about him in The Argus and so forth. Someone has even written a four-page ode to T.S. Finnigan, as a tribute to an Irishman doing well in Australia.
My grandfather – Thomas Clinton Finnigan – grew up in Brunswick and opened a bike shop at 132 Sydney Rd in the 1920s.
I don’t know how long he was there for, but he copied his dad – who had the Malvern Star tattoo – and got the Brunswick Star with handlebars tattooed on his arm. At some point in the 1960s, my dad and grandfather took over the Malvern shop and worked together.
My dad had a few different bike shops – including Finnigans Cycles here in Northcote – and my three brothers ran the shop before me. My brother asked me to help out here, and I ended up being left in the shop. They’ve all worked here from time to time, and they were here in the 1970s when BMX was big.
Dad was the world’s oldest registered BMX rider at 65. He also worked in the Malvern Star factory in the 1960s and, at certain points when he got into trouble, they’d say, ‘it’s Finnigan, don’t worry about it.”
For the last eight generations, the eldest son in the family has been called Tom Finnigan. We had Thomas Sylvester Finnigan, Thomas Clinton Finnigan, Thomas Sylvester Finnigan Jnr, Thomas John Finnigan, and my great-great-grandfather was Thomas Finnigan. My eldest brother had a son called Christopher, but my youngest brother named his first son Thomas.
I’m Richard because I’m named after my great-grandfather’s brother, who did haberdashery. I wasn’t destined for this, but I learned the craft of repairs and bike-building over the years.
I’ve worked in retail for 46 years, but only 33 years with bikes.
This shop has been around since 1978.
We started on the other corner and moved to this premises in the year 2000. It’s been a hairdresser and a jeweler. That’s why there’s metal bars on the window.
The people who come here are usually locals who live within 5kms and want to get their bikes repaired. It’s typically families – kids, mums and dads, students and people who don’t have a car to drive to work.
One of my hobbies is building computers and, much like repairing bikes, it’s all problem solving: you come up with a theory, test the theory and go with a new theory. You don’t get stuck on the same thing. Bikes aren’t complicated, they’re fairly simple. People come in, ask me questions, and I solve their problems.
For many people, the shop has been here for the entirety of their life. Last year, the council came to us and said we’re the oldest business in Darebin.
That doesn’t include the time spent in Malvern from 1902.
Like any business, if people want to buy a particular product, I’ll sell it to them.
But we mostly sell transport bikes and bikes for people to ride on the weekend with their kids.
As a kid in the 1970s, we rode everywhere – we didn’t have mum take us– but as I work seven days a week, I don’t ride much anymore. When I have some time off, I’d rather go with my camera and take photos. Within half an hour, there’s about 10 places I go to take pictures of interesting native birds.
Here, I deal with people. I can read people pretty well, because I’ve done this type of work for forever. And bike technology has improved a lot, but not as much as computers and cars. They keep trying to move away from the double triangle frame, but it’s the most efficient frame, so they keep going back to it.
What are you going to change? A bike still has to be muscle powered with the same simple shape.
It’s good exercise, and cheap transport.
We have a history other places don’t have.
We’ve hung around because people need things fixed. We fix old bikes and new bikes, we don’t discriminate. Like my great-grandfather said, we get business by recommendation, and keep them by giving satisfaction. By word of mouth, we get most of our trade.
There’s no frills. Some people don’t like the big flashy shops as they know they’ll pay extra inside. We’re also not an online business. I’m here by myself, and would need 20 people to do the online stuff.
Here, the bike comes in bits and pieces, I build and tune it, set it up for the person riding it, have them stand here, sit on the bike and make sure it fits them. You can’t do that online, same as you can’t fix a bike online.
We’re a very one-on-one business, but eventually people will buy everything online and won’t be able to get things fixed.
There are people who just know how to fix things, and people who know how to talk to people.
I had 15-20 years of experience talking to people in shops before I got into this business, so I understand people. I also have generations of knowledge fixing and repairing bikes. My theory is you come in, and I should be able to explain whatever it is – no matter how complicated – in plain English. You can’t just use jargon. I keep it as simple as possible and, because of that, I probably get a lot more casual riders who are returning customers.
If you’ve broken something, I’ll try to explain how you did it so it won’t happen again. It’s not some magic formula, but a result of my experience dealing with bikes and people in my field.
COVID affected the business dramatically.
People were saying I was an essential service.
At that time, people were stuck at home and couldn’t go to the gym or the pub, but they could run or ride a bike. And they still had to get to work, school and other things. If they take their kids for a ride, and their bike wasn’t safe, it’s a health issue.
This is what people told me – that we were instrumental in their ability to move around and exercise.
It’s a critical form of transportation.
When I played with computers, or developed photos in the dark room, I worked with my hands.
I work with my hands and my brain equally. I also come from a generation where we grew up hammering nails to build billy-karts. It’s second nature to me, and all my brothers can fix things. We all have these little skills, and we all work with our hands.
Everyone has something they can do that other people can’t do. For example, people are definitely much better at riding bikes than I am, but I can fix them.
And, if I can’t help them, I’ll recommend them to someone else.
This is just a normal shop with no great awakening.
It’s been a gradual progression from the 1900s to where it is today.
We’re just a bike shop that fixes people’s bikes, and people like that.
Written by Aron Lewin with all photos by Tatiana C.C. Scott