I had the boon of the uplifting company of No One Line, who rode first thing the 10 or 15 miles to my house (a stalwart, he, in the icy March air, the day after a brutal ride in the hills). We toasted our adventure with a healthy dose of Bialetti-brewed espresso – the time-honored libation of the europhile bike geek. Thence, into my jalopy and off to Monson, Mass., whose Memorial Town Hall, itself a handsome antique, played host to the swap. Definitely an out-of-the-way location, Monson is odd, and oddly appealing. It’s got scattered clues to a quirky outdoors/history-loving/local business-supporting sub-culture there, underneath the “just another failed mill town” veneer.
Having never been to a swap, much less one in a tiny, old-school town, I was unprepared for the homely/homey nature of the crowd. We were some of the youngest attendees, on either side of the tables, and I'm middle-aged. Of course, the room was also 98% male -- it's mostly guys who are weird enough to give over 80% of their waking hours to obscure historical restoration and repair hobbies. The vendors were mostly bearded and pot-bellied, sporting faded hiking boots, worn-out wool sweaters, and looking for all the world like just another guy off the street of any small hard-luck town. Like maybe they did some hunting in the fall, and a little fishing in the warm weather. You know -- just old guys. Being naive, I sincerely doubted that these shapeless, cantankerous characters could really be serious cyclists, much less fonts of knowledge about the difference between 1930s and 1940s Campagnolo derailleurs.
I’m sure you already have guessed how wrong I turned out to be. In short order, I discerned that these gents knew more about bikes than I probably ever will. More, even, than NOL, a scholar up to whom I frequently look for tutelage on all things velocipedic. The flurry of obscure brand names, outdated measurements, and general arcana they exchanged with their customers (often hard to distinguish from the vendors) was dizzying, intoxicating.
More than the boxes full of tarnished Campy derailleurs, more than the saliva-inducing rows of lovingly restored bikes, I lusted after this knowledge, the ability to casually reel off the details of restoring a 65-year-old drive train. As they say on the swap floor, “How much for that?” Answer: Decades of loving, slightly unbalanced obsession. I would have to end up living like these guys, and probably looking like them, to achieve some measure of their wisdom and skill. They are the sadhus of the bike world: transformed into outsiders by their spiritual asceticism, yet at the same time, invaluable sources of insight.
My guide through these mists of secret knowledge was NOL with his years of research and wrenching in various capacities. Best of all, he lives faithfully the DIY, reduce/reuse/recycle, nothing-goes-to-waste mentality that makes a swap meet more of a vital connection point than a curiosity. I learned to dive into dumpy-looking cardboard boxes overflowing with a daunting quantity of miscellanea, and patiently sort through them, coming up with the diamond in the rough.
I ended up purchasing a few small items that will serve me well, and for which I paid a mystically small amount. It was a strikingly minor purchase compared to the satisfaction it brought. A large bottle, for example, of Finish Line citrus degreaser, 90% full. I will without doubt use every drop of this bottle, and someday far in the future, as I drop the container in the recycling bin, I'll fondly remember the elegant single dollar I paid for it back in Monson in 2010.
Okay -- enough philosophizing. (As if!) I know you're waiting for the bling. How could I deny you, faithful reader? There were beauties aplenty, and here is a sampling:
Our choice for Best of Show: Perfect restoration of a late 19th-C. Hanover. Puts one in mind of Major Taylor.