Feature Writer John Christie – Blind Bicycle Repair

Blackstock works in a windowless bicycle shop fixing every bicycle that is broken. He does this every day at his Fix-A-Bike shop in the Napa Valley Shopping Center on Freeway Drive.

“There are alternative ways of doing everything,” said Blackstock, who has memorized the locations of the hundreds of tools and spare parts that jam his tiny shop.

Since Blackstock can’t use pencil and paper, he puts a cassette tape recorder with an elastic tied to the bike seat for a repair request.

As he makes the repair, he talks in to the recorder, tallying up the parts and the length of time it takes him to do the work.

When the customer comes for their bike, Blackstock plays the tape adding the items on his talking calculator. The cash register also talks, telling Blackstock what keys he has pressed and also letting him know the amount of change he should give back. The cash register talks in a computer-like voice.

Blackstock, age 54, who wears glasses for appearance not for vision, can repair just about any bike.

When he wants to fill a tire to the correct air pressure, he thumps the rubber. The spokes give off a special vibration when the tires are properly inflated, he said. If a tire needs patching, Blackstock puts the customer to work searching for the pinprick hole.

Blackstock started his bicycle business 18 years ago when his eyesight began to deteriorate. This loss of vision forced him to give up his job as a machinist at Mare Island Naval Shipyard.

“I took the easy way out for a while,” said Blackstock, while he was raising goats, getting a divorce and feeling sorry for himself.

Two years ago, Blackstock realized that he had made a mistake giving in to his blindness which by then was nearly total.

He got a loan from a friend and reopened his business. Only now is the business breaking even. “I have learned plenty the hard way,” he said. He has also learned about humanity in its most contrary forms.

Most customers are respectful and honest. However, there are a few around 15 or 20 years old who like to take advantage of you, said Blackstock. Some customers think it’s funny to give you a 1 dollar bill and say it’s a 20.

After giving change one day for three twenties that turned out to be one’s, he has suspicious customers go to a near by barber shop to confirm the bills.

“Usually they’ll say, ‘Forget it,’ and you’ll never see them again,” said Blackstock. To protect his merchandise, Blackstock has a buzzer at the entrance that every customer trips. He also locks the new and used bicycles to the display rack. When Blackstock loses a cassette, he prays the customer will come back and set him straight.

“There are other things that can happen, but not things that didn’t happen when I had sight,” said Blackstock. “Once I sold a customer’s bike to another customer.”

“I’m not an exceptional blind person,” said Blackstock, who lost his vision to retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary condition. “I’d much rather be here than sitting home doing nothing. I’m contributing to society. I’m communicating with people. Just this afternoon I taught a gal how to put her tire on herself.”

Blackstock never wastes an opportunity with regards to promoting bicycling and bike self-sufficiency. A customer who can repair his own bike will ride more, thus needing more replacement parts or a new bike sooner, he reasons.

Unfortunately, said Blackstock, “Most blind people are sitting home doing nothing. It’s a shame.”

“When you’re blind, everybody tries to protect you. You can’t grow,” he observed.

Blackstock gets around by using his guide dog, Rosette, or a cane. A neighborhood youngster occasionally assists him in the store. He looks for kids who won’t move stuff. In order for Blackstock to do his job effectively, every tool and part has to be returned to its proper place.

“A bike shop can be spooky sometimes when you’re by yourself,” said Blackstock. “It can be very quiet and all of a sudden a tire blows a rim. Or one bike will tip over, knocking over a whole row of bikes.”


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