Stand in Flying Tiger Motorcycles for any length of time, and you’ll inevitably hear the phone ringing with questions about elusive parts for vintage Japanese motorcycles, or see someone drop in just to look around.
On a recent Monday morning, Andrew Balog of Grand Rapids, MI, stopped by the Maplewood business to pick up a couple T-shirts and see the shop he discovered on Facebook.
“I have a 1976 Honda CB550 motorcycle, and I found these guys on the Internet,” Balog said. “My brother lives in the area, so I thought I’d come by and look around. It’s really great old stuff that nobody has at home, and I got a tour.”
People such as Balog, who has a passion for vintage Japanese motorcycles from the ’60s and ’70s, are the reason Eric Bess and his long-time partner, Teresa Swanson, started this niche business that fuels their own passion for motorcycles.
Bess began riding motorcycles when he was around 3 years old with his dad in the rural areas of his hometown, Bonne Terre, MO.
Swanson, an Iowa native, also loves motorcycles, and when the two met in St. Louis in early 2000, their shared interest grew.
After doing some motocross racing and roadway racing, Bess eventually ended up in California, where he worked as a demo ride leader for Kawasaki, as well as in tech services and quality assurance positions in the company’s corporate offices in Irvine, CA.
But both Bess and Swanson, who at one time worked for Budget Trucks in California, were impacted by a down economy, and both lost their jobs within a year of each other.
When Bess called Swanson to pick him up the day he was let go, he recalled a feeling of wondering what they were going to do next.
“Before we even turned the corner in the car, I said we’re going back home to open a motorcycle shop,” he said. “I decided I was not going to let my fate be in the hands of others any longer.”
It turns out they made the right decision. Since opening Flying Tiger Motorcycles in 2010, they’ve already outgrown their original 900-square-foot space. In August, the couple moved next door to 7231 Manchester Road, a former motorcycle shop, where they now have about 3,000 square feet.
They “work on just about any bike, moped, scooter, ATV, UTV or watercraft,” notes their website, flyingtigermoto.com. They also sell motorcycles, mostly vintage and on consignment for customers, and are already feeling like the expanded space might not be big enough.
“I thought we’d never fill our first place,” Bess said. “We thought we’d just refurbish and sell old bikes.”
Their initial idea for a shop changed when they started advertising motorcycles for sale on Craigslist and people started calling to see if they were available to service their bikes and mostly two-wheeled vehicles.
“It grew pretty fast,” he added. “It was a tire change here and an oil change there, and it just grew from there.”
The couple is happy with their decision to open their business in Maplewood, where Swanson first lived when she moved to the area. They both have seen some very positive changes in the growing community.
“Maplewood is phenomenal, and they have welcomed us with open arms,” she said. “It’s a great central location, and we did not forsee all of the foot traffic we’ve already had just from people who walk in and talk about the bikes they had growing up.”
As one of the few shops in the area that welcome vintage motorcycles for repairs and sales, Bess and Swanson are very focused on making everyone feel welcome and don’t want to be “exclusive.”
“Our clientele is as diverse as you can imagine,” Bess said. “From the dirt-poor college student, to doctors and lawyers, to the guy down the street who has to save up $30 for brake pads.”
As the owners of more than 30 motorcycles themselves, they both just appreciate a person’s love for riding.
“We want to help people feel comfortable about getting into motorcycles,” Bess said. “It’s a great way to escape and be out in your surroundings and become a part of the environment. It’s just about being on a bike.”