• George Puleikis and his family reflect on 30 years in business before they shutter the shop for good this summer

Hi-Desert Bikes — a business fixture in Hesperia for over 30 years — will be closing its doors in August, and for George Puleikis, the shop’s owner, retirement has come earlier than expected.

Puleikis and his family have run the store since the year after they settled in Hesperia in 1990.

Puleikis said the strain on inventory caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — combined with the rise of easy online shopping over the last several years — were the major deciding factors in his decision to shutter Hi-Desert Bikes’ doors.

“There’s no product, the manufacturers are just out of everything … the warehouses are completely empty,” Puleikis said. “With the way things are, I think it’s the perfect opportunity for me to close the chapter and move on with my life, and not die over the counter, even though I loved my business.”

It runs in the family

When Puleikis and his family moved to Hesperia three decades ago, he was giving the High Desert a second chance. At 20 years old, he had built his first home in Hesperia on a plot of land picked by his mother, Lorraine Puleikis. But they later moved to the Los Angeles area with George Puleikis’ two recently born children, Michelle and Scott, for better work. There, George Puleikis did auto-mechanic work for doctors and celebrities.

Eventually, Lorraine Puleikis suggested they move to what was then a retirement community in Hesperia, a place quiet and spacious enough to raise a family. After moving, Puleikis saw an unfilled niche for bike equipment in the area — and no one willing to fill it.

“The bike shop just came about through lack of product. We’d go into a store and it was like ‘Nah, we don’t have it’ … People at that time weren’t hungry enough,” Puleikis said. “I figured, hey, I can do a better job at this … I (thought), well, I’m either going to fall on my face or I’m going to do OK.”

But Michelle Puleikis remembers a slightly different impetus for the shop. Soon after they’d moved, at 8 years old, Michelle broke the frame of her bicycle on a jump. When the family went to a local bike shop to get a lighter model, they were told they would have to wait two months for an order to be submitted.

“We were sitting at dinner … and I said, ‘Why don’t we just open our own bike shop?’ And that’s kind of where it started,” Michelle Puleikis said.

In the mid-90s, Hi-Desert Bikes had as many as 600 bicycles and 140 skateboard decks on hand. Pulekis was able to fund a BMX racing team for Michelle and Scott to compete on for five years. They traveled to competitions in California and Nevada on the weekends. Michelle and Scott raced for more than 10 years.

“I remember driving up to Las Vegas (for competitions), and my dad was always about making the memories along the way,” Michelle Puleikis said. “A lot of people were getting hotels, and I’m like, ‘Why don’t we get a hotel?’ And he said, ‘We’re campin’.’ And we would camp at the track, and stay up as late as we could … And when we did stay in hotels with our teammates, my dad would buy a block of rooms for us.”

But the store’s success came with serious consequences typical to a small community. In public, Michelle Puleikis and her dad were inseparable from their roles as representatives of their business.

“We’re always on the clock,” Michelle Puleikis said. “We’ll be eating dinner, and somebody will come up and say ‘George, I haven’t seen you in forever!’ And he’ll stop eating and talk to you for 20 minutes.”

When Lorraine Puleikis died in 2009, Michelle Puleikis said the dynamics of the business changed.

“We were open seven days a week … When my grandmother passed away, (George) said ‘I have to finally close (once a week),’ because she would always tell him, ‘We need to close one day a week and have a family day, because we’re always there.’”

Changing channels

Over the last 30 years, Hi-Desert Bikes has served all High Desert customer demographics — from kids with money to burn to people at their most financially desperate.

“One family, I remember, were really young. They had a bunch of kids. They didn’t have a car. All they had was bikes. And I took care of these kids for years and years,” George Puleikis said. “They were one of my first customers … They were pushing baby carriages at 15 years old.”

More typical were packs of six to 10 teens or pre-teens who spent hours in the store together.

“This is a dream shop for kids,” he said. “You really have to not say, ‘If you don’t have money, get out.’ You can hang out here all day, I don’t care. Have fun. Because a customer is a customer for life, not just once.”

George Puleikis has seen his business ethos pay off in the long run. Kids who came into Hi-Desert Bikes as customers decades ago have since brought their own children to the shop.

“I’ve had such a ball over these years, being around kids,” he said. “It’s just kept me young, I’ve been able to relate to the kids and keep my ear to the ground … If you can win the kids over, you’ve got it made.”

But if the enthusiasm for biking in the High Desert has survived and been passed on to the next generation, the biking culture they’re inheriting has certainly changed. In more ways than one, George Puleikis identified the internet as a major influence on BMX riding.

“If you get six kids riding up at once, it’s very rare. Mostly it’s two or three,” he said. “Now kids are so drawn to the internet and video games … there’s not as many people doing the same thing.”

If the internet has given kids greater variety in their choice of games at the cost of in-person socialization, it’s had a similar effect on the biking equipment marketplace. The variety of both price and product offered by online retailers has created major consequences for in-store sales, according to George Puleikis.

“They’ll walk out for a dollar. So you have to be very competitively priced,” he said. “I’m trying to be everything to everybody. And that’s what you have to do in this marketplace … Realistically, I don’t think a bike shop can just be a bike shop. You have to do everything else.”

And while the pressure to keep up has driven many smaller stores to expand their inventory, a business model driven by immediate gratification means any hit to the international channels of manufacturing and distribution has far-reaching impacts.

“Instead of getting 200 of something I would normally get, we’re getting maybe 20 or less,” Michelle Puleikis said. “Before (distributors) would say, ‘Order however many you want. We’ll get them out to you.’ But now they barely have anything … There’s 30 people at our door that want black grips, and we have five in stock.”

End of the road

“I’ve already kind of tried to process it, and I’m just thinking, ‘Who are we without the bike shop?’ Michelle Puleikis said. “What am I going to do now that (George) isn’t the familiar face in the High Desert sitting behind the counter?”

Michelle and George Puleikis both said the family will most likely do some traveling, like they used to when Michelle and Scott competed on the BMX team.

“He’s worked so hard,” she said of her father. “When he worked as a mechanic, he would work so many hours. He would come home, and our grandma would have already put us to bed. He would still take the time to come in and, even if I was asleep, wake me up just to tuck me back in.”

For a man who still comes in on his days off to process orders, nobody is quite certain what the transition will look like.

“I don’t think the High Desert could have survived without him,” said Diane Godden, who became a decades-long friend of the Puleikis’ after shopping at Hi-Desert Bikes. “I don’t even think we have another bike shop in Hesperia at all.”

Source: Susan Monaghan, Daily Press