Venerable downtown Kalispell bike shop Wheaton’s still evolving as it celebrates 100 years in business
Story by Andy Viano | Photography by Sally Finneran
When a 26-year-old self-described “ski bum” bought Lucille and Bernard Wheaton’s family business — a business that Bernard’s father, Frank, had built 58 years earlier and had become a staple of downtown Kalispell from the town’s earliest days — she had, as she admits, “more guts than brains.”
It wasn’t that Margaret LeKander was lacking for brains, though, especially when it came to bicycle shops like Wheaton’s. She had grown up in them, spending her days working at her dad’s shop in Minneapolis, Penn Cycle, since she before she was 10 years old, and once she fell in love with Montana as a young adult, she said it was “the natural, most comfortable thing” for her to take the reins of a store in the state’s northwestern corner in 1976.
There was but one concern the young businesswoman had — she was terrified of the place’s former owner.
“Mrs. Wheaton scared me to death,” LeKander recalled while smiling, safely, 42 years later. “She was a tough little businesswoman, and she was a very good businesswoman.”
Today, as Wheaton’s celebrates 100 years in business and LeKander transitions ownership of the store to another bike-shop veteran, she has built her own legacy as a bold and tenacious leader in local business who has shepherded the iconic retailer through good times and bad, while setting it up for another 100 years of serving the Flathead Valley.Wheaton’s first opened in 1918, next door to its current location at 214 First Ave. West. The original building, LeKander said, was relocated from Demersville, the now-ghost town that predated Kalispell, and had a colorful history that included upstairs rooms once rented by ladies of the night and their gentleman callers.
From the beginning, Wheaton’s sold and repaired bicycles, although the business also sharpened saw blades for local loggers and sold Indian Motorcycles, one of the country’s first motorcycle brands, when Frank Wheaton first opened the doors.
The family added the building that today houses Wheaton’s in 1958, and for many years the store was known as much for selling toys — which it did through 1996 — as bicycles. Wheaton’s was a fixture in Kalispell’s early, bustling downtown, operating alongside long-shuttered stores like Gambles and F.W. Woolworth, and LeKander believes only Wheeler Jewelry, opened in 1908, has been in business in town longer than Wheaton’s.
In 1976, Lucille Wheaton’s health began to decline, so the family made a difficult decision to sell the business and properties on First Avenue West to an outsider.
“It was very hard on them,” LeKander recalled. “Very hard.”
Lucille and Bernard continued to hang around the shop in the years after the sale, and while the bull-headed LeKander sarcastically said she “knew everything” at 26 years old, that didn’t stop the former owners from helping in any way they could.
“(Lucille) had a great model working, and she offered to help me,” LeKander said. “She was so kind, and I just said, ‘No, no, no, I can handle this.’ And in hindsight, I probably could have used her input.”
“They were very, very nice people,” she continued. “Really good cheerleaders.”
LeKander tore down the original Wheaton’s in 1981 and made her home in the 1,800-square-foot apartment above the current store for her first 14 years in town. In those earliest years, however, LeKander struggled a bit to ingratiate herself to the community.
“It was difficult, and I wasn’t totally comfortable in my skin yet,” she said. “I’m a woman buying a bicycle shop, and I remember saying this: ‘I never want to be the new person in town again.’ You don’t know where you fit.”
Never one to back down from a challenge, LeKander responded to those uncomfortable days by forcing herself in. She took classes at Flathead Valley Community College, then located nearby, networked as much as she could, and began what would become a lifetime commitment to promoting downtown Kalispell.
“They asked me to be on the downtown association, so Gordon Pirrie, from Western Outdoor, and myself, we spent a lot of time and early mornings brainstorming how to keep downtown alive,” she said.
The pair recruited local students to clean up alleys downtown, held pancake breakfasts and organized sidewalk sales. It’s part of the reason that today, whenever there’s an event downtown, Wheaton’s is almost certain to be involved.
“I was always taught to be a part of the community,” LeKander said. “I’m a huge advocate for the chamber, I was on the parking commission for eight years, I belong to the Kalispell Downtown Association, I’ve been on tons of boards … You’ve got to keep your finger in the pie to know what’s going on.”Hans Axelsen, the current manager and future owner of Wheaton’s, wasn’t a ski bum like his current boss, not exactly. He was a professional snowboarder, and he and his wife, Jeni, who now manages the Kalispell Hostel in what was once LeKander’s home above Wheaton’s, moved to the Flathead Valley in the early 2000s.
While Axelsen and LeKander may have differed in their preferred snow sport, they shared an affinity for and a history in bike shops. As a teenager in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Axelsen was a BMX bike enthusiast and had done some at-home work on his ride that he brought in to be checked out at a local bike shop. The employees were impressed.
“Then a couple weeks later, I was trying to escape a rain shower, and I ducked into the bike shop,” Axelsen recalled. “And the owner of the bike shop came up and asked if I wanted a job, and I said, ‘Yes.’”
Axelsen trained at the shop, Venable’s, and began to hone his skills as a bike mechanic. For five years, he studied under mechanics who had attended the Schwinn School, a period he calls his apprenticeship. He continued to work in bike shops after leaving Tulsa, but after he arrived in Montana, he made a living in construction and restored cruiser bikes on the side out of his house in Somers, collecting the cruisers wherever he could find them.
“When I moved up here, I would be driving all over the valley and I would just see old Schwinn cruisers leaning up against garages and against barns,” he said. “My mom’s an antique collector, and she taught me a long time ago that if you see something you want in somebody’s yard, go up to the door, knock on the door and ask them.”
In addition to the restorations, Axelsen put his mechanic skills to use doing bike repairs, and when he needed parts, he would head into Kalispell and visit Wheaton’s. He eventually became known to some of the shop’s employees, and in 2005, when the head mechanic at the time was traveling during a busy time at the store, he recommended Axelsen fill in for him.
“They called me and asked if I would do fill-in work, so I said, ‘Sure,’” Axelsen said. “I came down — and I think I’d been working here about three hours — and Margaret had me filling out W-2s … I’ve been working here ever since.”
“And it’s funny, because I asked for a job here multiple years before that and I thought (the head mechanic) was the owner, because he was always here and I had never really seen Margaret,” he continued. “It was just a matter of timing for all I know, but then once I worked here, she was like, ‘Why haven’t you applied here before?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I did!’”
“Nobody told me,” LeKander remembered with a laugh. “He didn’t even think I was the owner. He’s like, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘Well, I own the place.’”Axelsen has brought plenty of change, for the better, to the way Wheaton’s operates. He helped install an electronic point-of-sale system to track inventory and has kept the shop at the forefront of bicycle trends, like full-suspension bikes and snow-ready fat bikes.
But even before Axelsen arrived, Wheaton’s under LeKander’s watch was never afraid of change.
“Things are not the same in 2018 as when Margaret was doing this in ’76, ’86 or ’96,” said Pat Brooks, Wheaton’s assistant manager and an 11-year employee of the store. “She can’t operate the same, and she’s always known that.”
Brooks himself grew up coming to the store to buy skateboards, a business Wheaton’s has been in since the late 1970s. The shop has also, over the years, sold ice skates, rollerblades, snowboards, toys, hobbies and more, all of which have come and gone during LeKander’s tenure.
The 68-year-old LeKander is decisive more than she is sentimental, and her willingness to both move on from a failing product and try out something new, the Wheaton’s staff believes, is one of the reasons the store has survived while countless other bike shops have opened and closed in downtown Kalispell.
“We niche in and niche out real quickly,” LeKander said. “We don’t dally with our decisions.”
“We’ve tried lots of different things over the years,” Axelsen said. “So certainly looking around and trying to be flexible and not overly rigid so that you can change with the times has been important.”
“This store’s had its ups and downs,” he continued, “but Margaret’s a good businesswoman, and her tight bookkeeping has kept Wheaton’s going for the last 42 years.”
LeKander remembers well the deepest of those downs, back in the mid-1990s. It was then that big box stores like Walmart and Costco opened as competitors. Then, in 1997, LeKander said she was the victim of a “major embezzlement” by an employee that shook the business hard.
In the late 1990s LeKander said she was down to just two employees — herself and her mechanic — and that during the roughest years she was paying bills, including payroll, with a credit card, all while raising young children at home. Despite the struggles, she said she never considered closing the store.
“I just dug my heels in,” she said. “I just had tenacity and perseverance. I never even thought that I would be going out of business — didn’t even entertain it.”
One of the things that kept the business alive, she said, was its history.
“When you can’t afford to buy advertising but you’ve been in the same location, people say, ‘I need a tube,’ or, “I need the bike fixed,’ (and they) go to Wheaton’s,” she said. “It’s just habit … the longevity of this place just saved me.”
Axelsen, too, learned quickly that a store with Wheaton’s history has its benefits.
“I worked in old shops before, but with a shop that’s 100, you’ll have someone shopping here for a kid’s bike, and the kid’s shopping here, the dad shopped here, grandpa shopped here,” he said. “There’s multi-generations of this family that have always come to Wheaton’s, and that’s really cool.”No matter how nimble Wheaton’s remains as a business in the future, it will need to contend with a rival that has put countless small businesses under in the last decade: the internet.
Online retailers like Amazon offer prices that Wheaton’s and other local businesses simply can’t match, but, as one might expect, Wheaton’s leadership believes they have found a way to counter that offensive, too, with a focus on giving customers a personalized experience in the shop and a chance to test out one of the nearly 100 bikes Wheaton’s regularly has in stock. The staff has also seen an uptick in the service department’s business, including repairs on bikes purchased online that may not have been assembled correctly.
“There’s a certain amount of traditional retail doing it better than online,” Brooks said. “You’ve got to be almost a product expert to feel real confident in your online purchase, and most folks will tell you they’re not an expert.”
“You come to a point where you want to go old school, where you want to touch it, see it, feel it and have it today,” he continued. “I’m that way. I like to go pick something up.”
Bringing customers into Wheaton’s in person also helps the experienced staff connect with the bike owners and bring them into the local biking community, some of which is based out of Wheaton’s. The store holds an annual winter bike ride — Chilli con Cheeno — from Kila to Hot Springs, and hosts the 24 Hours of Flathead bike race.
There are less organized rides, too, simply the product of the outgoing Axelsen and his employees swiftly turning customers into friends.
“If you buy a bike from Wheaton’s, you’re instantly indoctrinated into our club,” Axelsen said. “When you walk in the front door, we know your bike, we know your name, and if you want to go riding, come with us.”
“If you’re over here, you buy a couple things, maybe you spend a little bit more than you would have on the internet,” he added. “But all of a sudden you have like 10 new friends, and we all want to go bike riding. So I think there’s something to be said for the community aspect of that.”
Being a part of the community will continue to be a focus moving forward, Axelsen said, and that includes, he hopes, some improved bike-riding conditions in downtown Kalispell as the area is reimagined by local leaders.
“As far as, ultimately, what it all looks like, we’re going to do our best to just make it as friendly as possible because we want to help people live a healthy, active lifestyle,” Axelsen said. “That’s certainly a big focus for the next hundred years.”
For more information on Wheaton’s, visit www.wheatonscycle.com.