For a guy who owned a bike shop for nearly four decades, Dave Hirni was never all that passionate about bikes.
He started tinkering with them only because he was trying to quit smoking; taking them apart and putting them back together again was a satisfying way to keep his hands busy and his mind distracted. He wasn’t a fan of the way trends (BMX, Ironman competitions) and technological advances crept into bicycle culture. His shop sold only two bike brands: Raleigh and Diamondback.
Bikes to Hirni were mechanical hunks of metal and rubber that, if properly serviced and tuned, could be adequate vessels for conveying a person between destinations.
But he wanted to be his own boss, he had some mechanical know-how, and he thought he saw a market opportunity in his neighborhood. So in 1984 Hirni quit his job at the Bendix Corporation and opened Waldo Bikes, not far from his home at 75th and Oak streets.
The shop, which specialized in new bikes and repairs, enjoyed a 38-year run that recently ended when Hirni was diagnosed with a rare disease called amyloidosis. He died quickly, six weeks later, on November 17. He was 78.
“I think he saw repairing bikes as just a way he could interact with people,” said his daughter, Kirstin Hirni.
The dive bar of local bike shops, Waldo Bikes functioned as an extension of Hirni: disorganized, utilitarian, a little dusty, a little crusty. The cash register and stereo system dated back to the 1980s, the Dell desktop to the early 2000s. About 15 “ghost bikes” — bikes that customers had dropped off for repair years or even decades before and never bothered to pick back up — still occupied space in the back. His repair station was a mess of ancient receipts and classical music tapes, bent allen wrenches and rusty chain whips. “If it didn’t absolutely need replacing,” his other daughter Rachel Plakorus said, “it was not replaced.”
Hirni’s ideas about customer service seemed hatched in the nightmares of MBA professors. Visitors were rarely greeted with a warm smile. He was blunt about why someone’s size or other physical limitations made them a poor fit to ride certain models. A proud liberal, Hirni was known to pepper customers with questions designed to draw out where they stood politically.
Some appreciated his direct approach. Others found it bewilderingly rude. Online reviews of Waldo Bikes tended to be one star or five stars, with little in between.
“He took pride in those one-star reviews,” Kirstin Hirni said. “He didn’t apologize for it. He thought it kept the riff-raff out. He wanted to talk politics because it was important to him. Where those conversations went kind of defined the relationship moving forward.”
But Hirni practiced, quietly, the liberal values he preached. Those conversations with customers often yielded information that he factored into his prices. A single mother, for example, tended to exit Waldo Bikes having paid less for her derailleur replacement than a customer of greater means. When unhoused or otherwise down-on-their luck types stopped by Waldo Bikes looking for help, Hirni often hired them for painting and other odd jobs.
“He prioritized people who didn’t have a whole lot,” Plakorus said. “I think that goes back to him being raised in Holden (Missouri). He had that small-town way of doing business — take care of your neighbors, serve the community — that he brought with him to Waldo.”
“Dave was a Waldo type of guy,” said Steve Lawter, who owns the properties just east of Waldo Bikes, where Chipotle and Bibibop Asian Grill operate. “His shop wasn’t anything shiny or new, that’s for dang sure, but he was a solid neighbor to me for 25 years.”
Jeff Shipman, who opened Hanover Bikes in Overland Park last year, is a Waldo Bikes alumnus, having worked there on and off since 2013, when his father dragged Shipman and his twin brother into the shop and told Hirni that they needed a job.
“Dave just kind of rolled his eyes and said ‘Okay,’ Shipman recalled. “We stayed for years. I learned a lot about bikes, but I think what I took most from Dave was how to help people. He was kind of a gruff dude, but behind that was one of the most genuinely caring and generous people I’ve met. He would hate me saying this, but he really was like a begrudging father figure to me.”
When the pandemic hit, new bike inventory became harder to come by, and Hirni began to wind down that side of the business. He transitioned into a kind of semi-retirement, taking repair jobs by appointment at the shop. But even many of those jobs he ended up farming out to other bike shops like Shipman’s.
“Think of a modern bicycle — electronic shifting, hydraulic disc brakes, things like that. Dave wanted nothing to do with it,” Shipman said. “As technology changed, he’d just refer me to customers he didn’t want to deal with. If you believe in heaven, Dave is there right now working on 1990s mountain bikes. That’s all he ever wanted to be working on. That and drinking beer while watching football games.”
Hirni owned the building at 507 W. 75th Street where Waldo Bikes operated. His wife, Barbara Kalb, and daughters said they do not intend to sell the building and would prefer to lease it to another bike shop, per his wishes.
They’re planning to reach out to people in the community over the coming weeks to see if anyone is interested in either buying the business or taking over the space.