In 1940, John B. Roberts borrowed $150 and bought six used bicycles that he rented to children from a stand at East 89th Street and Cedar Avenue. By 1941 Roberts had amassed enough money to rent a storefront at 2134 East 96th Street (on the corner of Cedar) and opened Roberts Bike Shop. Within a short time he became the largest Black-owned bicycle dealer in Ohio. Roberts, the son of a bricklayer, had first developed a love for biking as a child living in Dublin, Georgia. After migrating to Cleveland, he and his sister Etta appeared in unicycle exhibitions at local nightclubs and in shows and circuses in small towns around the state in the 1930s.
One night at a performance at Mason’s Farm in Solon, Duke Ellington offered Roberts a chance to join him on the RKO circuit, but the stunt rider declined because his fiancée insisted on settling in Cleveland. Instead of a life on the road, Roberts taught cycling lessons and sold bikes. When he was called into military service in World War II, Roberts closed the shop, but a year later it reopened at a new location: 6903 Cedar Avenue. Based on an earlier passing mention in a newspaper column, it seems likely that Roberts’ wife Helen ran the shop in his absence.
After the war, Roberts resumed the daily operation of the business, which became the only Black dealer in Cleveland with factory franchises (with Schwinn and Whizzer). He sold Schwinn bikes at such low prices that he also attracted many white customers from all over the Cleveland area. Roberts sold 400 Schwinns in 1947 alone. In addition to bikes, he supplemented his business at Christmastime by selling mechanical toys, tricycles, wagons, and Black dolls, and in summers he even ran “Roberts’ Melon Stand” that sold “ice-cold” watermelons whole or by the slice to customers. By 1949, Roberts had the only Black franchise for Cleveland-based Jack & Heintz Co. bicycle motors, and Cleveland Indians baseball great Larry Doby appeared in Roberts’ advertising for Roadmaster bikes.
In 1950 Roberts moved his shop to a former nightclub site previously owned by Frank L. Handy at East 77th and Cedar (across from the Cedar Branch YMCA) and expanded two years later into Roberts Enterprises, including an auto wash, service station, and employment agency in addition to his bicycle sales, rentals, and service. The bike shop operated into the early 1970s until Roberts’s health began to fail.
- “Boyhood Whim to Business Success.” Call & Post. May 10, 1958.
- Display Ads. Call & Post. July 12, 1941, April 29, 1944, March 2, 1946, June 18, 1949, June 17, 1950, July 26, 1952, November 7, 1953.
- Fuster, John E. “Standout–In Business.” Call & Post. December 4, 1948.
- “John B. Roberts Dies.” Call & Post. March 29, 1975.
- Juniewicz, Andrew M. “Ex-performer on Jetport Panel; Passed Up Big Time.” The Plain Dealer. August 19, 1973.
- Other – No Title. Call & Post. May 1, 1943.
- “Professional Bicyclist.” Call & Post. April 26, 1941.
- “Roberts Bike Shop Has Franchise for Jack & Heintz Motors.” Call & Post. July 16, 1949.
- Williams, Bob. “Bobbing Along with Bob Williams.” Call & Post. May 1, 1943.