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The Legacy of Stephen Licence

author & photographs: Conrad Beaubien

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Three generations of Bongards, Gerry, Kevin and John carry on the tradition of customer service, knowledge and dependability at Stephen Licence Ltd.

The light from the store window spills warmth onto the sidewalk. A hush of traffic carries through night streets; my hands take to my coat pockets, sheltering from the north breeze descending from Hastings County. The scene within the store window has my attention; the headlight on a miniature scale train shimmers through a snow-drenched valley and down past a tiny village where skaters on a pond glide free.

Some store windows at this time of year can be like theatre, places of make-believe, like a circus or a street parade, places that suspend space and time. Some store windows draw on images from eras past while others, like the one before me, carry a story.

During the First World War, when many Canadian factories were re-purposed for the war effort, bicycle manufacturing was deemed an essential service. On the home front, bicycles served as vital transportation for factory workers. The Globe newspaper of Toronto reported that “the bicycle is serving the school boy, the school girl, the office man, the worker and the salesman.” Thousands more bicycles were shipped overseas to be used by messengers, scouts, infantry men and even ambulance attendants.

At the time, a bicycle could be had for as little as $12. The Canada Cycle and Motor Company (CCM) manufactured 85 per cent of the bicycles in the country. Stephen Licence, a bicycle racing enthusiast who grew up in Toronto, saw the potential of the bike. In the fall of 1918, he packed his belongings and moved east to Belleville, where he set up a bicycle shop on Front Street. As his business took hold and pneumatic bicycle tires replaced the hard, tubeless variety, Licence began to assemble his own brand of bicycle. With the slogan, “It is Never as Rare as Riding on Air,” the ‘Quinte’ sat well with his clientele.

Stephen Licence died in 1952 but the store continued under the ownership of a long-time employee until the day Licence’s son-in-law, Gerry Bongard, left his job in the rail shops of Belleville and with his wife, Carole, purchased the business. Under the stewardship of the Bongards, Stephen Licence Ltd. expanded the sporting goods and hobby lines. While the store has moved its address on Front Street through the decades, it remains a landmark in the downtown.

On any given Saturday and often through the week, you’ll likely find three generations of Bongards tending shop with the backup of employees. “I tell people the only award I got in life was for attendance…not missing school or work,” Gerry Bongard shares. In February 2013, he will celebrate 55 years at the helm of the business. “I like to stand back and not influence too much,” he continues. “I haven’t kept up with the bikes as much but I like to ride them,” he tells me. “I enjoy the model trains and hobby section.”

Gerry tends to a customer while I check out the icons of Canadian winter: skates, hockey sticks, snowshoes, toques…mitts. I run my hand over the smooth lacquer finish of the Quebec-crafted wooden toboggans and drift away to the winter hills of my childhood.

“I was able to offer advice about the couplers on a customer’s HO scale train,” Gerry tells me when he returns to find me sizing up a tandem sleigh. “I often serve the children of people I have sold to in the past. I also like to help the architectural students from Loyalist College when they come in for materials to build their scaled mock-ups.”

I mention the train set and miniature village. Gerry smiles, “Oh…the outfit in the window…I work on it after hours when I can…crawl in there and add something or change-over the seasons. I rigged up a foot switch so the children could make it go on their own. I sometimes leave it running at night for passersby.”

We continue our conversation while moving to the back of the store where Gerry shows me photos and memorabilia. A couple come asking for his help and as he leaves he shares, “I call what I do a hobby which I classify as something you enjoy doing, not necessarily for money.”

Gerry builds relationships with his customers by relating to their interests – skating, cycling or hobbies – and by sharing his knowledge, especially when customers are launching into a new sport.

I find Gerry’s son Kevin in the work area sharpening a pair of figure skates. “You [become] part of the whole environment…it’s fortunate that my dad and I had a good relationship as I grew up,” he tells me as he eyes the blades closely. “It seemed natural to stay here with the family. We work hand-in-hand. He has been very understanding, very helpful, allowing me the latitude to do my thing here.”

Kevin delivers the skates to the service counter where he engages with his customer. When he returns he tells me, “I was 15, my son John’s age, when I first started working here. I remember being dropped off on Saturday mornings while my mom did groceries. I was eleven or twelve and I would put tricycles together. I think there was a quarter for every one I put together. You got to hang around with the young guys in the repair shop and that seemed to me to be a cool thing to do. I just wanted to be here.”

We talk about change and the skills needed to guide a business through trends. “My dad would say [a strong business] doesn’t come without sacrifice. There have been high times and low times… longevity is not a given. He taught me that you are only as good as what you do that day, so everyday you have to put your best foot forward.”

Kevin shows me through the aisles. “It’s a store that appeals to people with various interests. Bicycle trends change. Some years it’s racing, other years it’s mountain biking or touring. There is growth in the use of bicycles as a main mode of transportation. My interest in bicycles is in collecting classics and restoring old bikes, but I look at the business as a whole.”

Kevin surveys from a distance as his son John answers a customer’s inquiries. “I’ve watched my kids grow up in here. I think that is what got [John] interested in it. The store has even been a home for some of our customers.”

Kevin’s son John is a high school student who finds working part-time in the store attractive. He also realizes that the store offers an alternative slant to the contemporary world of media-savvy teenagers. Teachers at John’s school have begun programs to nurture interests beyond the computer realm and the store sometimes serves as a rendezvous point. According to John, “There are the kids who are in other clubs…some come for skate sharpening and some come in with me after hours to work on our bike projects. My favourite thing to do is to come in here and hang out with my family.”

Back in the service area, Kevin readies to hone some hockey skates; “I like to grow with the business…retailing is kind of a hobby for me also.” He glances in Gerry’s direction. “He’s an important part of the ongoing picture for sure…offering ideas of what he would like to see for our 97th or hopefully our 100th anniversary.”

The rear entrance of the store leads to the trail that follows the Moira River. I take to the footbridge over the water and chance to look back. Through the lens of my camera, the late afternoon slopes onto an arrangement of time-worn buildings, alleyways and tall shadows. The image tells of place, of the decades, of loyalties…of standing watch during our time. Turns out that some store windows are like that.

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carl wiens

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