Changing of the guard at Breakaway Sports

Ben and Sarah Quackenbush are the new proprietors of Breakaway Sports in downtown Little Current. photo by Michael Erskine

by Michael Erskine

LITTLE CURRENT—There are great things taking place behind the brown paper blocking the windows at Little Current’s Breakaway Sports as new owners Sarah and Ben Quackenbush set about renovating the venerable downtown store.

The Quackenbush’s foray into retail merchandising came about almost by accident, as the couple was looking for space to set up a bicycle repair shop—something they believed the Island sorely needs following the closure of Manitoulin’s last dedicated bike shop.

“Over the years Ben and I have enjoyed biking and cycling on the Island,” said Ms. Quackenbush. “We got together with friends for group rides and started developing little traditions like going for a ride on the first of June. Over time we realized there really hasn’t been a place to get materials to fix up your bike or to get a tune up. People were taking their bikes down to Guelph or to Sudbury. Ben became our group’s unofficial bike repair person and there are always 10 or 12 bikes in our garage.”

The couple wondered if it was possible to set something up that would fit the bill, a little space, nothing too pretentious.

“One day we just came in and chatted with Donnie to see if there was a little space we could use to set up a little bike repair shop and Donnie (McCulloch) said ‘no, why don’t you just buy the place instead’,” recalled Ms. Quackenbush. Seems Mr. McCulloch was ready to retire.

“I think Donnie’s desire to retire and our desire to see something come into the community and to have that service kind of melded together,” said Ms. Quackenbush. “It was a good fit.”

Of course a 4,000 square foot space over two floors (20 feet by 100 feet on each floor) is a lot more than just a “little repair shop.”

“So then the rest of the dream began to pile on top,” said Ms. Quackenbush. “A bike shop, outdoor apparel, fishing gear and all of the things that Carrie (McCulloch) had already put together would, I think, fit well. To add bikes and canoes and a bike repair shop, I think that is all going to work out well and will be a nice addition for the town and will be something exciting for the Island.”

The new business will likely not have bike rentals to start, due in large part to the pandemic.

“It seems there is kind of a global bike shortage going on,” said Dr. Quackenbush. “All of the manufacturers depend on parts suppliers and there have been huge delays and shortages. We are not going to have our dream selection for this year. We will take what we can from some of the best manufacturers.”

In fact, the worst global bicycle shortage in 100 years is impacting shops around the world.

Since the initial interview with the couple, those challenges have come to the fore. “The bikes we ordered and were to be delivered in March have not arrived,” Ms. Quackenbush wrote in an email to The Expositor. “We were told by one of our suppliers that the ship with 70 of the bikes coming to us has been rerouted to another port and they just don’t know when it will arrive. A tough time to start a bike shop to say the least.”

“We are working hard to get the inventory but COVID has thrown a wrench into this whole process,” she noted. “We have lots of bikes for kids up to age eight and up, and we do have a fair selection of higher-end road, mountain, gravel and e-bikes, but unfortunately we are lacking a lot of the mid-range bikes that we know would suit the needs of Islanders well. We’ve been overwhelmed already with the support of Islanders and many people have been calling daily to ask if we have a bike in stock to sell them. We indeed are grateful for this local support and would love nothing more than to be able to provide everyone with a bike that they will ride and enjoy for years and years to come.”

Providing a wide selection is definitely part of the plan envisioned for the shop. “I think it will be a great addition for downtown,” said Ms. Quackenbush. “Especially with the boaters coming in, it will give them a way to move around a bit better.”

The brands they will be carrying are a who’s who of some of the highest quality suppliers. Specialized and Trek, as well as Salsa and Canadian brand Louis Garneau. “That’s a kind of mid-step between a CCM kind of brand and the higher brands,” she said. “The kind of bike you will have for a lifetime or that your child won’t have to replace every year.” Quality bikes like that are easy to bring back even if they have been ridden hard, she noted.

A small order of canoes will be coming in as well, although again, no immediate plans to rent canoes are on the immediate to-do list. “We have thought about it,” he said, “but we are in kind of the same place as we are with bikes with a limited supply to start.”

Plans include continuing with the clothing brands that the McCullochs have brought in, and minnows will continue to be available (even through the next month of renovations, just knock on the door).

Ms. Quackenbush said that the last couple of months working with the McCullochs have been a great help in taking some of the trepidation out of the venture. “They have been wonderful,” she said. “I am definitely going to miss him here every day. He’ll still be around, of course, but you know…”

The couple intends to maintain the high level of quality service and community engagement that has become synonymous with Breakaway Sports.

“I think people enjoy being able to come into a shop and get advice and to be fitted properly for a bike,” said Ms. Quackenbush.

As to some of the new ideas, Ms. Quackenbush floated the idea of snowshoes to Mr. McCulloch. “We brought in 30 pairs and I was really nervous, I thought ‘how am I going to be able to sell all 30 of these’,” she said. “I put them on the internet and they were gone in a week.” She called the company and ordered every set of snowshoes they had on hand. Those went too.

This may be the first retail foray for the couple, Dr. Quackenbush is, of course, well occupied by his medical career. Will he be giving that up? The good doctor laughs and shakes his head. “No, I don’t think so,” he replies.

The new store will simply be an outgrowth of the couple’s passion for outdoor activities.

The times seem very auspicious, with Manitoulin Island Cycling Advocates tracking literally thousands of cycling visitors every year.

Breakaway Sports was closed for the month of March while a team of contractors completely renovated and decorated the space. Some of the creative Island businesses that have been engaged include M’Chigeeng’s OneKwe and photographer Peter Baumgarten of Manitowaning.

Mr. McCulloch said that tearing down the pegboard that covers the walls will prove an adventure. “There’s a space about two inches between that and the wall,” he said. “We have lost all kinds of things back there over the years and it was too much trouble to try and fish them out.” The Quackenbushs are looking forward to the revelations as well.

“We are going continue curbside pickup,” said Ms. Quackenbush in the interim, especially for minnows. “We don’t want to take that away from the Island in the meantime. With curbside, well, we all know how to do that these days.”

The flood of well-wishers coming in to congratulate the McCullochs has been humbling over the recent weeks as word got out.

“Someone said the other day, ‘there would be a lot of mental health issues if it were not for Donnie and this bench where they could come and sit and chat’,” said Ms. Quackenbush. It is a culture the couple hopes to maintain as they set out on their new adventure.