Jim Curwood was struggling to come up with slogans for his bike shop one afternoon in 1993. For inspiration, the Capistrano Beach resident thought he’d go to the nearby Swallow’s Inn for a drink.
The businessman was already doing TV commercials for his South County Cyclery, but he didn’t have that snazzy, 5-second grabber at the end.
In the process of telling his story, a man at the end of the bar yelled: “Buy my bikes!”
And the rest is history.
South County Cyclery, which Curwood founded in 1978 in San Juan Capistrano when he was 21 years old, took on the nickname Buy My Bikes, and a slogan and goofy stage presence to rival that of Cal Worthington was born.
In his ads, Worthington, a car salesman in Long Beach who died two years ago, would ride in on an elephant, a chimpanzee or a bear as the announcer said, “Here is Cal Worthington and his dog Spot.”
In 2001, Curwood’s business incorporated under the Buy My Bikes name. Curwood said both names are still used to “not scare away old customers.”
Curwood has often used kids in his commercials and can usually be found in his bee costume. In one commercial, he can be heard saying, “Spring is here, and there has never been a better time to come on down to South County Cyclery. You’ll never get stung by our prices because they are the lowest in the county. Just look at this honey of a deal.... So swarm on down.” At the end is the trademark jump, like that of a cheerleader.
He said the bee costume first appeared in 1993. People began recognizing him for the bee suit after that, so he decided to add it into his regular routine.
“At the concerts in the park, people expect me to be in the bee suit,” Curwood said. “Kids also want to get their pictures taken with me in the bee suit.”
Does he feel silly? He did, he says.
“After a while you have to own it,” Curwood said. “I don’t feel silly anymore. I’m proud of it, and let’s just say there would have been better things, but it’s fine. Sometimes I’m expected to show up in the suit, and sometimes I don’t because I don’t want to wear it that particular day, but it’s been very good for business and the awareness for the store.”
Over its 37 years, the Buy My Bikes location has grown from 1,000 to 4,000 square feet, and it sells about 3,000 bikes annually, Curwood said. The addition of the TV commercials in 1985 only helped boost business.
“When I started, there was just one suite in this complex,” he said. “Now, there are five. We just kind of plugged along at it as best we could, and I learned a lot.”
Even so, the biking industry has been difficult in recent years, Curwood said, now that bikes are competing with modern-day motorized scooters and other attention grabbers.
“Bicycles should be in the top five gifts for Christmas each year, but that’s not happening,” he said. “The industry isn’t doing anything to make sure we stay there, and it’s quite sad.”
His commercials don’t seem so ever-present anymore, but Curwood says he spends $25,000 a year on them.
The commercials usually rotate during the night and early mornings, Curwood said, on assorted Cox Cable channels that “have the most viewership for the lowest cost,” like the Disney Channel, MSNBC, Fox Business Channel, Nickelodeon and CNN.
Ad prices have gone up. Last month, 893 of his commercials aired at a cost of $3,000, he said, adding that in 1998, he could air 20,000 commercials for $2,500 for the entire year.
Jennifer Pointer, operations manager for the San Juan Capistrano Chamber of Commerce, said her parents purchased a bike for her from Buy My Bikes when she was a teen. As adults, she and her husband bought new bicycles from the business as well as two bikes for her 9-year-old daughter.
(While several youngsters can often be seen in Curwood’s commercials, he has only two children — twins.)
“We believe in buying local and from a friend,” Pointer said, adding that her daughter has been in some of Curwood’s commercials. “He’s an awesome person, friend and a great ambassador for San Juan Capistrano.”
Curwood said it is satisfying seeing third- and fourth-generation customers.
Sawyer Carvalho, an employee at Buy My Bikes whose father worked at the store as a teenager, said he grew up buying bikes from Curwood.
“It was always special every time I got a new bike and knowing I would always get it from Buy My Bikes,” said the 18-year-old San Juan Capistrano resident, who has been working at the store for three years. “It was always fun to come in here too, because there’s just so much stuff everywhere.”
In recalling his entrepreneurial start, Curwood, 59, said bikes were all he knew, save for jobs as a grocery store clerk and pizza parlor employee in high school.
As a child, Curwood used a bike for transportation to school and to friends’ houses. In high school, upon receiving three traffic tickets, getting into two accidents and seeing his car insurance payments skyrocket within the first six months of having a car, he found the bicycle to be a cheaper mode of getting around.
From there, it seemed only natural for him to open his own bike shop, he said.
“Retail has forgotten that the customer is always right,” he said. “Listening to what they want and treating them politely are so important.”
He also believes that people don’t need a $10,000 bike to have fun.
“If you have $100 for a bike, go to the department store to get one,” he said. “Kids will love the bike either way. Biking is supposed to be fun.”
Curwood sells Giant, Electra, Haro, Fitbikesco and Redline brands at prices ranging from $160 to $3,300.
He estimates that he donates about 80 new and used bikes per year to organizations and events like the city’s concert series and Great Opportunities, a San Juan Capistrano-based nonprofit that offers swimming lessons to underprivileged kids.
Curwood recalls one child who wrote him a letter thanking him for the bicycle he received so he didn’t have to run alongside his friends anymore as they rode their bikes.
Curwood, who is an avid surfer, likes to think of the children who receive the bikes as being able to go to the beach.
Eric Groos, co-founding director of Great Opportunities, said he is grateful for Curwood’s support.
“Jim in his own right is a competent waterman,” Groos said. “He understands the importance of giving these children the opportunity to leave their neighborhoods. We both agree that opening the door to the aquatic environment is a game changer for many of these children.”
Curwood said he hopes the store lasts at least 50 years, and he would like to start a bike accessory line.
He laughed and said that his twins, now 20, consider him a bit of an embarrassment because of the commercials, but that won’t stop him from doing what he does.
Curwood, who grew up in Los Angeles, recalls with respect the pitchmen of old, including Worthington and Al Greenwood.
“I’ll be like Al Greenwood the bedspread king, 80 and in my bee suit selling bikes,” he said.
Buy My Bikes is located at 32302 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. For further information, call (949) 493-5611.