Team Versino’s Wilmette Bike Shop marks an 80-year tradition
Carlos Cotto, an employee at Wilmette Bicycle & Sport Shop for 25 years, gets a bicycle ready for spring Feb. 16 at the store. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 23, 2012 4:15PM
It’s a sports shop where the best door is the back door, where you head to the low-ceiling basement to see the gleaming new bicycles — and where you won’t have to worry about some fresh-faced employee in a chain-store-issue T-shirt telling you he can’t help you find a pair of skates because it’s August, and “We don’t have any in stock right now.”
That’s because Jim, Larry and Al Versino, the three-man family tag team that owns and runs the Wilmette Bicycle & Sport Shop Inc., operate on the principal of getting the customer what he or she asks for.
“If someone comes in looking for something out of season, I’m not going to tell them I can’t do something for them,” Jim Versino said Feb. 16. “I’m going to call up the company, find out the cost of getting it and tell (the customer) what it might cost extra to get it delivered overnight.
“I’m going to make sure they get what they need.”
It’s the kind of service our grandparents and great-grandparents used to expect, and get, from businesses they frequented.
Like a general store
In fact, the brightly painted little storefront at 605 Green Bay Road in downtown Wilmette resembles nothing so much as an old-fashioned general store, the kind it seems you only find these days in old movies.
The difference is that in this general store you’ll find ice skates and lacrosse sticks in place of dry goods, school sports team uniforms replacing bolts of gingham, and displays of bicycle bells, soccer balls and swim fins instead of a pickle barrel.
And along with the hockey sticks, baseballs, two-wheeled cruisers and 10-speed bikes, you’ll find Team Versino carrying on the tradition their fathers started 80 years ago.
Jim’s earnest friendliness, along with Al’s direct ebullience and Larry’s cheerfully helpful attitude, have been a near-daily constant at 605 Green Bay Road for more than three decades.
One of the trio (Al and Larry are brothers, and Jim is their cousin) is on site every single day of the week along with five other full-time employees and shifts of more than 20 part-timers, most of them high school students from the area.
But the Versinos’ history with Wilmette Bicycle & Sport goes back far longer, to when they were youngsters sweeping the floors and getting paid in coin and toys by business founders Jim and John Versino.
John, Larry’s and Al’s father, was just a teenager in 1932 when he and his younger brother Jim (the current Jim Versino’s dad) started what was then a bicycle and bike repair business in their father’s Greenleaf Avenue garage.
Moved next door
A few years later, the business was healthy enough to jump its own quarters on Green Bay, a building on what later became the Wil-Shore Ford property. Sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s, Jim and John moved next door to their current location, and the store has been there ever since, with one expansion in the 1960s.
Over the years, the Versinos branched out further into sports retail, but they never forsook bicycles. Even during World War II, when metal and rubber went to the war effort and new bicycles were only a dream, Wilmette Bicycle & Sport did a thriving repair business, keeping old bicycles in shape and patching their ragged tires.
In those days, the store was an exclusive dealer for the venerable Schwinn Bicycle company. Today, it sells up to five separate brands, Jim said. Bicycle sales and repair now make up far less of the shop’s total business, perhaps 50 percent in the peak of summer, Jim said.
But bicycles remain front and center — or rather downstairs in a watch-your-head basement — with the Versinos and their customers.
Bikers’ candy store
Bikers, from off-road enthusiasts and coaster-brake neophytes to youngsters just graduating from tricycle to two-wheeler, can come in to Wilmette Bicycle and find what they want.
The same customers will drop by in the autumn to outfit young high school hockey players — the store has equipment to print team jerseys of all sorts. The customers return when spring sports require new equipment for themselves or their sons and daughters.
“The only time we really have to breathe is February, and that’s when we do inventory,” employee Brenda Drehobl joked.
The Versinos freely acknowledge that their business operates in cramped, albeit neat and attractive, quarters. They are happy with their noncomputerized office and records system.
And none of them minds the responsibility of being the boss instead of someone else’s branch manager.
“I have a quote,” Al said. “Love many, trust a few, always paddle your own canoe. It’s worth the work, because no one is controlling you. You’re in control.”
Return to sanity
Al left J.C. Penney’s in 1972 to return to the family business, disgusted with, as he said, “writing reports and knowing that the report would stay on some supervisor’s shelf, and it would be there the next year.”
Jim, who studied accounting, returned to the fold in 1974 when he realized it was “kind of nice to be our own boss.”
Larry, who said his love of sports retail is natural “because I grew up playing all these sports,” joined full-time in 1976.
They’ve successfully navigated the ups and downs of both national and local economies.
Larry said the store’s tiny parking lot, just off Wilmette Avenue, “is our treasure,” one that kept customers coming back in recent years when both Wilmette Avenue and Green Bay Road were torn up.
“It’s like the real estate people say, it’s all location,” Al said. “This is a good place to be, and we’re glad to be here.”