STURGIS | Virginia Rhodes took a couple years off from one of the most recognized and long-standing T-shirt businesses at the Sturgis motorcycle rally.
Her Cycle Shirts business, with its trademark bright red cargo truck and long tables covered with brightly-hues souvenir rally wear, is back for 2019 close to its usual spot, at the corner of Junction Avenue and Lazelle Street, now the parking lot for Black Hills Federal Credit Union.
“I just couldn’t stay away any longer,” said the 87-year-old in an Alabama twang fairly oozing Southern hospitality.
Rhodes had been selling her T-shirts at Sturgis for the better part of 50 years, at first on Main Street, but later at the same corner, first with an arrangement with the owner of a grocery store for use of its paved parking lot and later setting up shop in a small building next door.
But when the credit union bought the property a few years ago, the buildings were razed to make way for a new branch office. Rhodes decided to take some time off from Sturgis.
Making her return this year, she was able to get her old spot back. Most of it, anyway.
“I had this whole block. Now I just have half,” she said.
Her business also sells souvenir T-shirts during Daytona’s bike week in the spring and at NASCAR races at Talladega Superspeedway, not far from her home in Birmingham, Ala.
Rhodes’ grandson, Alan Bohannon, an internal audit manager for bookseller chain Books-A-Million, owns Cycle Shirts now. Rhodes’ daughter, Lisa, also helps out.
“I just come to help him fiddle with shirts and talk to people and sell them,” she said.
Rhodes put her customer relation skills to good use last week helping a male biker who was trying to get the right size shirt for someone else.
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“He’s having a hard time, because he doesn’t know if he needs a large or a 3X and there’s a big difference,” she said. “We don’t want him to get home and somebody fuss at him."
That emphasis on customer service hasn’t changed for Rhodes, yet so many aspects of doing business at the Sturgis rally have evolved over the years.
Rhodes said she was one of perhaps four vendors working the Sturgis rally in the late 1960s, when attendance was less than 10,000.
Another Cycle Shirt tradition is the offer of a deal for three shirts. A brightly painted placard on the side of the red truck offers “3 for $35.”
“When I first started, they were three for five dollars and that was big money back then,” she said.
There’s also much more competition now, with many of the more than 500 vendors signed up for this year’s event also offering souvenir clothing, including T-shirts.
Sturgis and the Black Hills have always had their appeal for her and her customers, she said.
“So many come back and it’s like a religion, people are going to come back and bike,” she said.
In the early days of this rally, Rhodes said she has already recognized some old friends from previous years. She hopes that continues through the rally's 10-day run.
“I’m here and I’m back,” she said. “I hope my customers come back.”