At Appa Balwant Chowk in the heart of Pune city, tucked between stores is Kulkarni Cycle Mart, which has remained the area’s landmark for over nine decades. The shop’s entrance proudly displays the ‘established in 1926’ tag, and continues to do business in a city that once loved its bicycles, but has moved on.
But Shriniwas Kulkarni, 67, the second generation owner of the shop, doesn’t wish to let go, not as yet. He opens the shop everyday at sharp 9.30 am, performs the morning puja, and then waits for a customer all day.
“Even if we manage to sell one cycle a day, we feel happy. Until two decades ago, we sold 10 to 15 cycles a day. Business was good then. Today, we are running into losses, but run the shop to keep the tradition of Kulkarni family going. We want to complete 100 years of the shop, but I am really not sure about its future after that,” says Kulkarni, who has even done his PhD from University of Pune, mapping growth of cycles in the city and connecting it with its history
In the 1980s, the Kulkarni Cycle Mart did good business throughout the year, even during monsoon. As soon as the board examination results were announced, students would queue up to fill forms for admission in college and head straight towards the shop to book their cycles. “Those were the days when students and parents waited in a queue to book cycles. On Dussehra, we used to sell at least 200 cycles on a single day. Cycles would be booked a month in advance during those days,” Kulkarni recalls.
His PhD thesis titled — ‘Impact of bicycle industry on mobility of population with reference to Pune city’, traces how Puneites started using bicycles and what led to the growth in the number of users. Kulkarni says, “After the Panshet floods, the city’s geography changed. The residents in the core city areas started moving away and settled in places like Sahakarnagar and Parvati among others. As a result, distances increased and at that time there was no public transport. Just like Mumbai had a network of local trains, Pune started depending on cycles to move from one place to another. It became popular and every house had at least three cycles.”
As the demand for cycles grew, so did Kulkarni’s business. His father, Shankar Balwant Kulkarni had opened the shop in 1926, and only rented out and repaired cycles. Later, as business grew, they started selling cycles.
The dwindling cyclist numbers over the last three decades has Kulkarni worried. “People now buy cycles for leisure, as against those days when it was a need,” he says.
In his thesis, Kulkarni has pointed out that the retail cycle association of Pune once had close to 2,000 dealers as its registered members, which has come down to less than 200. Even the wholesale cycle association of Pune is left with 35 members, as against the 100 registered members it had in the past.
Kulkarni has suggested in the thesis that the municipal corporation must observe a no-vehicle day on Sunday, like it is done in Japan. “I have been to Japan to study the model and it has brought about a big change in their country. Every Sunday, the government observes a no-vehicle day. Citizens either use cycles of walk to their destinations. It helps protect the environment and also saves fuel. In Pune, there are 25 lakh two-wheelers and citizens would be travelling at least one kilometre each day, which means that we end up burning 25 lakh litre fuel everyday,” he says.
Kulkarni can already see the end of the road. “The next generation does not want to continue the tradition. Running a cycle shop is not easy. Despite spending 12 hours every day, the income is not satisfactory. Those who had repair and rent shops, have now put up Xerox machines or rented it out to other small-time businessmen,” he says.