The world of cycling has changed considerably since Sonny Brester opened his eponymous Sonny’s bicycle shop in October 1972.
The store has changed location and now resides at 1717 East Overland Dr. in Scottsbluff. New races have appeared and the bikes are noticeably different and more high-tech.
What hasn’t changed is the family that runs the store: Sonny’s son, JR Brester, is now the owner. He runs it with the help of his own son, Justin.
JR worked at the store for over 40 of his 50 years. He helped out as a teenager and took over full-time in 2004 when his father retired.
“I wouldn’t say it was really too successful until the late 1970s,” he said. “When I was in high school, we saw that it was really self-contained.”
Sonny Brester worked at a gas station but wanted to run his own shop. A Navy veteran and mechanic by trade, he and his wife Colleen had returned to Scottsbluff after years away when his son said he had “a crazy (idea)” and decided to open the store in bicycles.
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Soon after, the OPEC gas crisis hit and many people could no longer afford to drive, so they turned to another mode of transportation.
“The gas crisis, I think, helped the most because people, at that time, really reacted and tried to change their lifestyle and cycle to work,” JR said. “(Sonny and Colleen) sold just about every (bike) they could get their hands on. For a while they even had two stores. My dad was a hard worker.
Colleen worked for a bank and Sonny worked at the nearby sugar factory when sales were slow in the winter. They, and later their son, soon ran the bike shop year-round.
After decades of working at the store, Sonny died of cancer in 2012.
“Our relationship is very different from mine with my father. My dad was old school…we worked together, that’s all,” JR said.
When he was diagnosed with cancer, he became friendlier.
“…He had a good ten years, and we finally became friends…I wanted to be more open with my kids – with dad, I was always in competition with him.”
JR is always bouncing Justin’s ideas around, and Justin teaches him new things such as setting up gift cards and electronic transactions for the store.
“I was (Justin) and it was my dad who held back. Now I’m the only one, and (Justin) soaks it up like a sponge, so that’s a good thing,” JR said.
It’s especially good to be more tech-savvy because of how drastically the bikes themselves have changed over the years.
“They are like cell phones…we have wireless transmissions, everything is Bluetooth, there are no cables. Electric bikes have gone crazy; it’s been a really big thing for us,” JR said.
In addition to selling bikes, Sonny’s also deals with repairing and restoring them. These days, even that requires technological know-how. JR and Justin can fine-tune the gears of an e-bike through their phones.
Some bikes are sold to racers, some to children, and some to collectors. Over the years, the store has acquired a devoted clientele.
“It’s a product. It continues to change and evolve. There are different needs, but the desirability is still there,” JR said.
Justin Brester’s job at the store coincided with his increased interest in cycling. He played football in college but was injured and part of his rehabilitation involved using exercise bikes.
“Very quickly he got bored so he started riding outside. I get a text from him before class and he’s coming up to the South Dakota state line to take pictures, so his interest really took off and now he’s also addicted to cycling, so his collection is starting to grow,” JR said.
Justin has raced up to 150 miles and has a better understanding of bikes than when he started working at the family shop five years ago.
Just like his father, he grew up around the shop. He said he still remembered his grandfather scolding him and his brother for taking bikes from the store to ride around the back lot.
“It’s bigger than me and my dad… everyone knows we’ve been around forever. Most of the time people say, ‘Oh, I bought my first bike from Sonny when I was a kid’, no matter where or why they talk to me,” Justin explained.
The past two years have been the toughest in the store’s history, JR said. The coronavirus pandemic and recent inventory shortages have made acquiring inventory much more difficult than before.
“We sell to third generation families…when COVID hit, we were selling bikes in Kansas City, Rapid City, Denver, Casper.”
People who live in town and have frequented Sonny’s for decades have recommended the store to their out-of-town children looking for specific products.
It so happened that the Bresters had everything they needed, but the store was still suffering from difficulties like the others.
“The first part of COVID, when they shut down the world, I had just signed with another company and we had all of our spring orders in stock…all of a sudden they shut us down. We went ten days and we didn’t turn $100,” JR said. ” I did not sleep. We couldn’t eat that stuff. We didn’t know what we were going to do. Then all of a sudden people went crazy, I guess, and they just had to get out. We sold an entire year’s worth of inventory in three months.
They weren’t able to replace their inventory, so it was just a normal year for sales. These few months in 2020, however, broke records.
The family has also suffered personal tragedies since that time. JR’s mother, Colleen, has always been a familiar and friendly face among shoppers. She died in July 2021 at the age of 79.
Four months later, JR’s daughter, Sydnee, was killed in a plane crash. She was only 19 years old.
“I closed,” JR said. “I didn’t even know if I was going to reopen. I threw him in his lap (to Justin) and said, ‘Decisions are going to be based on you from now on. What are we going to do?’ And he said, ‘We have to do 50.’ “
So, after a few weeks for the family to process their grief, Sonny’s Bike Shop has reopened.
“It’s good that I had something to go to, where I had to go, to take responsibility for it,” JR said. “Some days I said, ‘I don’t want to be here’, but there is a healing process. The clientele seems to contribute to this.
Customers like Justin Reinmuth from Gering have been shopping at Sonny since they were kids. Reinmuth is a collector and looks for retro and vintage BMX bikes at the store.
“They (the Bresters) are knowledgeable; they know everything. If you can’t find something, they’ll find it for you,” Reinmuth said.
Now that the pandemic has subsided, Sonny’s is turning the corner on inventory. More products become available. JR said he and Justin just had to be careful with their P’s and Q’s because a small mistake could prove costly.
Sometimes, JR added, customers have asked them to sell cheaper brands even if they are of lower quality.
” I can not do it. People expect more from us,” he said.
JR said his wife asked him to take more days off. But in the Scottsbluff area, people like to ride their bikes whenever the temperatures are even mildly warm.
“I am a bicycle farmer. You don’t have a second chance. When they are here, you have to take it,” JR said. “Last year I just taught myself that certain things are more important. It’s kind of a gray area; I try to be more aware of my family and deal with certain things that way. , while continuing to run a business.
For the store’s golden anniversary, Justin Brester’s college roommate designed a special 50th anniversary logo as well as a modified version of one of the store’s original logos.
This modified logo features a man and woman riding bicycles, with a dog running alongside – a commemoration of Sonny, Colleen and the many shop dogs who spent time at Sonny’s. It also features a butterfly with the initials SAB stamped inside in memory of Sydnee.
For JR, having the store serving the community for so long is hard to fathom.
“I never imagined we would do this,” he said. “But the landscape has changed, and we are in it. We are still doing well.