He was sure the pandemic would spell the end of his struggling bicycle shop. His pastor—and the Man Upstairs—had other ideas.
Posted in , Jul 29, 2021
Remember when you learned to ride a bike? George Turner, 48, owner of Penuel Bicycles in Inglewood, California, talks with reverence about his childhood BMX dirt bike. “It was freedom,” he says. “I did whatever it took to get on that bike, as long as I was home by dark.” George and his friends rode to the beach, the mall and construction sites, where they wedged through fences and dared one another to ride over huge dirt mounds and other obstacles.
Home meant chores, homework, annoying siblings, dressing up for church. A bike meant escape.
George transformed that reverence into a livelihood. He opened his neighborhood bicycle shop in 2010. Before that, he had worked for years slinging boxes for FedEx while selling bike gear and accessories online.
The store fulfilled a lifelong dream. George named it Penuel Bicycles because Penuel is the name of the place where Jacob wrestles with the angel in the book of Genesis. George had been wrestling over his future. Spend the rest of his life working for someone else? Or pursue his true love?
Many people harness their passion and start a business. Roughly 60 percent of those businesses close after less than a decade, according to the Small Business Administration.
Ten years after opening his shop, George feared he was about to join that 60 percent. Penuel, it turned out, was the place where George struggled after he opened his business. It was also where he learned about God’s business: redemption of what seems irretrievably broken.
Penuel Bicycles is a one-room shop on a busy commercial strip some 10 miles from Hollywood but a world away from the limelight. There are rows of bikes as well as parts and gear for sale, plus a small repair area behind the counter.
Inglewood is a working-class city with a diverse population. Historically, the city was a center of L.A.’s Black community. Today nearly a third of residents were born outside the United States, and half speak a language other than English at home.
“Bicycles kept me out of trouble,” George remembers. “They were part of my life.”
He figured that was still true for kids when he opened Penuel. Growing up, George had worked at a bike shop on weekends so he could afford accessories for his own bike.
As an adult, he rode racing and mountain bikes up and down L.A. County’s 22-mile beach bike path and on nearby hill trails. After marrying 15 years ago, he taught his three kids to ride bikes.
George opened Penuel expecting parents to crowd inside, eager to buy shiny new bikes for their kids. He looked forward to helping boys and girls discover the joy of riding—and stay out of trouble—just as he had. He dreamed of a community gathering place where people could meet for rides and embrace a healthy outdoor lifestyle.
None of that happened.
Kids these days, George learned, have a new love. “Kids don’t want a bike for Christmas and their birthday,” he says. “Now life is about playing video games or with their phone. Instead of getting out and riding, they have the electronic babysitter.”
When kids don’t ride, their parents tend not to ride. Also, many riders in George’s part of Los Angeles commute to jobs at restaurants or warehouses on used bikes. They might come to the shop for repairs but not to buy a brand-new bike.
A low point came one day when George visited his son’s elementary school to give a demonstration about bicycle basics. He asked students how many of them owned a bike. One boy raised his hand: George’s son. “They put him in the school newspaper because he knew how to ride a bike,” George says.
Bike shops in wealthier neighborhoods rely on customers willing to spend thousands of dollars on a high-end racing bike. Other stores join chains that are owned by big-budget bicycle manufacturers.
George struggled. Some days, he celebrated if he sold just one bike. At the end of 2019, he asked his pastor to pray for him.
The pastor gave George a searching look. Then he said, “God is going to bless your business in ways that you would never have imagined.”
George was too polite to disagree. But—really? His pastor knew nothing about the bicycle business. “I was thinking I might have to close this thing up,” George says. “It was not going well at all.”
Three months later, the coronavirus pandemic shut down the nation. George closed Penuel’s doors, put his few employees on hiatus and went home to hunker down.
Bless my business? he wondered.
A few weeks later, he learned that bicycle shops had been classified as essential businesses. Restless at home, he reopened the shop in hopes he might at least get some repair work.
One day, a man walked into the shop. “I’m looking for a bike,” he said. “I’ll pay cash.” He picked out the most expensive bike in the store and put $8,900 on the counter.
Stunned, George hurried to the ATM to deposit the money. He used it to pay that month’s rent.
The phone started ringing. “Do you have any bikes left? I’m in Beverly Hills. I’ll drive there.”
Isolated at home and desperate for something to do, pandemic-weary Americans were buying bicycles. Bike shops nationwide sold out. Many customers searching for out-of-the-way stores found Penuel.
People in his neighborhood pulled their old bikes out of the garage or the basement and wheeled them to Penuel to get repaired and ready to ride. “I had to wear long sleeves to work on those bikes,” George recalls. “They had spiders!”
George sold out of bicycles in a month. He ordered what he could to meet customer demand and turned to fixing and tuning up all the bikes that people suddenly were riding. “I went from repairing one bike a day to repairing 30 bikes,” George says. Many days, he worked from 4:30 a.m. to midnight.
Out on his own bike, George saw riders everywhere. Suddenly his long-cherished vision of a community on their bikes, enjoying the freedom of two wheels, was coming true. Bicycles became a rare source of solace during a time of tragedy and loss.
God didn’t just bless George’s shop. He made Penuel Bicycles a truly essential business.
George says he’s still trying to fill orders. Backlogged supply chains have kept bicycles and parts hard to find.
When pandemic restrictions are fully lifted, he intends to start that community bicycle club he’s long envisioned. He hopes to recruit more people to a mountain bike club he already established.
In the Bible, Jacob and the angel wrestle through the night at Penuel. At last God gives Jacob his blessing.
George is determined to make the most of God’s gift. “Bicycles are my life,” he says. “I’ll never stop trying to share that.”
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