Marshall Walls describes bike shops the way a wine connoisseur would speak of a fine vintage.
"When you open that door and walk in, it feels right, smells right, looks right. You smell the rubber and the oils. You get the visual spectrum of the bikes. Each one is like an individual work of art," says Walls. "You know it's a bike shop and it's kind of relaxing."
Even though he thinks he is just an ordinary guy, the 48-year-old is no ordinary bike mechanic and businessman.
Most customers over the past 23 years at his bike shop, Easy Rider Bikes in Mount Pleasant, know him as laid-back, friendly, grounded, independent, talkative and inquisitive about their bicycling needs.
With little interest in expanding in the conventional sense, Walls has kept the shop, a cramped, 1,400-square-foot space jammed with bikes of all varieties, in its original Fairmont Shopping Center location. He has little interest in selling bikes, though he may have one or two new beach cruisers on the floor. He has remained a one-man show, largely because of quality control and peace of mind.
"I'm not a control freak, but I have a high standard for work," says Walls. "Managing people is a hard thing. They'll always disappoint you by doing things like not showing up. ... Besides, I can do the work of about three people."
For hundreds, perhaps thousands, of local cyclists, Walls is the "go-to" guy for repairs, bike fitting, advice and assembling bikes that come in boxes via "the world's biggest bicycle shop" — the Internet.
Customers such as George Martin are loyal despite the relative grit and grime of the shop.
"It's not a prissy shop. I wouldn't take my bike to one," says Martin, who first heard of Walls by word-of-mouth shortly after buying his first bike several years ago. "Marshall's the only person I take my bike to. ... What I like about him is that he's a straight-shooter. You ask him a question and he'll tell you the answer. Don't ask if you don't want the answer."
Walls' confidence came at a time when most people are still struggling to find their role in life. He remains content by taking into account his personality, his interest in bicycles, the bicycle business and the age of technology.
In 1984, a year after graduating from East Carolina University with a degree in business, Walls went from working as a jack-of-all-trades intern at Wild Dunes to managing a bike shop in Greenville, N.C., to buying Easy Rider Bikes in Mount Pleasant.
Easy Rider had been open about six months and Walls, on a Thanksgiving visit to his mom, wandered into it. He asked the owner if he wanted to sell it. Within three weeks, Walls got a call and bought it "for a song" — basically $20,000, the cost of the inventory in the shop.
While that's gutsy for a 25-year-old, Walls admits that his now-late mother, Wilma, provided him with encouragement and a "safety net." He already knew, like most independent entrepreneurs, that he didn't want to work for somebody else or a corporation.
"You have two options in life. You can either work for people you think are boneheads or be the person who owns the establishment," says Walls. "For lack of a better term, I wasn't starting a business. I was creating a job for myself. ... I had nothing to lose."
At first, he ran a standard bicycle shop, selling lines of bicycles such as Schwinn and Peugeot, as well as skateboards. But he soon realized that selling bikes made him dependent on bike manufacturers making good bikes. If the bikes weren't good, he was still stuck with trying to sell them. And he realized that new bikes weren't what most customers wanted, anyway.
"For every 10 people who walked through the door, eight wanted something done to their bikes," says Walls, who within seven years focused mostly on that service.
"I'm not really dependent on having to sell a bike to generate revenue. Quite frankly, the profit margin on bikes is not such a great thing that I'm missing out on anything. You can create customers without selling anything."
Born: Oct. 2, 1959, in Memphis, Tenn. (Grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C.)Residence: Mount Pleasant.Occupation: Owner, Easy Rider Bikes in Mount Pleasant.Family: Wife, Darla; two children, Baker, 13, and Jackson, 7.Education: Bachelor of Science in business, East Carolina University.Hobbies: Playing softball on a team — The Apple Gang — with a bunch of 40-somethings and cycling.Most common question he's asked: "When will my bike be ready?"Four guests at his fantasy dinner: Pope John Paul, wife Darla, Willie Mays and Roy Williams (the UNC basketball coach).Magazines I subscribe to: Time, Vanity Fair, Road Bike Action.On working: "I don't mind going to work every day. The only way to do that is making sure you are in control of what you do."MOST COMMON BICYCLE REPAIRS: Flat tire, tune-up, rusted cables and chain.