ALAMEDA -- Anyone visiting Greg Barron's workplace on Eagle Avenue might find the experience like something out of the History and Discovery channels. And starting with the mechanical doorbell sounded with a tug of rope, Barron himself brings to mind the inventive Phileas Fogg from adaptations of the Jules Verne 1873 classic, "Around the World in 80 Days."
Though Barron has no hot-air balloon on the property and does not speak of upcoming trips around the globe, a visitor still gets a sense of history, invention and adventure. A glimpse beneath a tarp reveals Barron's self-made frigate ship, and of more modern vintage, Barron's office walls feature photos of classic race cars and motorcycles. Barron spends his weekends taking folks out to the Farallon Islands to dive with the great white sharks.
But the bulk of Barron's business -- and his greatest passion -- hearkens back to those "Around the World in 80 Days" of the 1870s. Barron, you see, loves retro-style bicycles, particularly the "high-wheel" variety (big front wheel, small back wheel) that he makes and markets through his company, Rideable Bicycle Replicas.
Alternatively known as boneshakers (for their uncomfortable ride on rough surfaces, such as cobblestone roads) and penny-farthings (British artists depicted the bike wheels with coins, using a penny for the front and the smaller farthing for the rear), high-wheel bikes never actually went the way of the dinosaurs when supplanted by chain-driven "safety bicycles" later in the 19th century. Today, they exist for use in special events, as novelty items and as theatrical props. And though Barron might not have a household name, many of us have seen his products in parades, movies, television or at various other venues.
"When you see penny-farthing-style bicycles in the movies, they usually come from us: 'Wild, Wild West,' 'Lonesome Dove,' and 'Disney's Haunted Mansion,'" Barron said, recalling just a few of the productions to feature his bikes. "(Our bikes also have appeared in) Disney parks, Universal parks, museums, living history centers and Cirque du Soleil. Right now, I'm making a high-wire version for Nik Wallenda of the Flying Wallendas."
In addition to the high-wheel replicas, Rideable Bicycle Replicas also sells, among others, tricycles, tandems and recumbents. But the boneshakers remain the top attraction.
And though specialty bikes are a cottage or artisan industry, Rideable Bicycle Replicas enjoys a global presence.
"I send stuff all over the planet," said Barron, who has earned a reputation as a leader in his industry.
"There are a few small-time (specialty-bike makers) -- in Florida, the Czech Republic and Germany -- who make only a few per year," he said. "Of course, their products are much more expensive than mine. But I'm the only commercial manufacturer of penny-farthings on the planet."
What began as a startup company in Ohio has come a long way since its founding in 1972. Mel Barron, Greg's father, bought that fledgling company and moved it to Oakland in early 1973. It has been in Alameda since 1987.
"Originally, (selling the high-wheel bikes) was a gimmick to sell regular bikes, a sales tool to sell the regular bikes that he was a distributor for," said Greg Barron, who took over the business in 1988.
Eventually, the business of selling specialty bikes took on a life of its own -- and it continues to thrive.
"We're having our busiest year on record so far this year, 250-300 bikes," Barron said. "And that's just the big-wheel bikes."
Like "Around the World in 80 Days," Rideable Bicycle Replicas pays tribute to a period of history. And in terms of discovery, it's a place that few on the Island might have known even existed. But more than likely, they have seen its products.
For more information about Rideable Bicycle Replicas, go to http://www.hiwheel.com/about_rbr.htm.