Ann Arborite Tom Bartlett
Artist and bicycle visionary
by Debbie Merion
Published in July, 2011
Tom Bartlett is the owner of the mystery storefront at 111 S. Fourth Ave., next to the Embassy Hotel. Its window displays an odd black bicycle and the name "Circumference." Business cards taped to the door give contact information, though they don't give the price of the Danish-made bike with the "Bullitt" insignia. Bartlett admits that in three years he has sold just three of the $2,750 bikes, all to customers outside Ann Arbor. So what else is Bartlett up to in the nineteenth-century building with the green facade?
The front window is blocked off behind the Bullitt, but inside, a skylight in the back of the store illuminates a ten-foot-tall reproduction of a Greek bas-relief sculpture. Wearing an olive green zip-up jacket, Bartlett, sixty, rises from his chair--one of the few pieces of furniture in the expansive room--to greet a visitor. He has the hearty handshake of a man who for years welded for a living.
Rolled-up architectural drawings rest on a table. Bartlett points with pride to the sturdy new beams he installed in the ceiling and under the first floor. The neat basement houses his tools. The 1867 building, he explains, was once a saloon servicing the dry hotel across the street. Pointing out the basement's original double door, he says, "They used to roll the beer barrels there, down from the street."
Clearly this historic building is getting ready for something, but what? Inside, the only hint to Bartlett's interest in bicycles is a yellow triangular sign promoting the "AA bike choir." Bartlett explains that members ride their bikes to engagements, park them in a semicircle, and sing about their love of bikes. He pulls out some music from a manila envelope on his desk and reads the lyrics, sung to the tune of "America the Beautiful": "Oh beautiful, for painful thighs, and riding through the rain ..."
Before taking early retirement, Bartlett was a welder for GM. He bought the first floor and basement of
the building in 1998 with a business partner he identifies only as Amy. "We got a great price on it, because there was a condemned parking [structure] across the street, and it could be used as a business or a residence. It was worth it to improve the property. We had an idea to have an art gallery or maybe live there."
But first, there was a lot of work to be done--the space was, he says, "in the poorest condition." The first-floor joists were rotting, and the original tongue-and-groove ceiling was a fire hazard. Over the years, he has done most of the renovations himself. Meanwhile, the block itself has improved--a new parking structure lined with art has replaced the collapsing one, and a vacant hotel became senior apartments--so he considers his hard work a good investment.
Six years ago, Bartlett saw a European bicycle in a Florida shop window. "It was beautiful," he remembers. Unlike most bikes, it enclosed the gears and brakes within the frame and wheels, making it streamlined and easier to maintain. When he came home, he did some online research and discovered the Bullitt.
He talked to the bike's creators, Lars Malmborg (aka Larry) and Hans "Bullitt" Fogh (aka Harry). One week later he was on a plane to Denmark.
Bartlett fell in love with Copenhagen and its bike-friendly lifestyle. "It's an old European city that makes a conscious effort to integrate bikes into the fabric of the city," he says. (Taxes that more than double the price of a car also get people on those bikes.) He signed up to be the Bullitt dealer for the state of Michigan. Besides easy maintenance, he says, buyers like the bike's low center of gravity and the ability to haul cargo without towing a trailer. It weighs fifty pounds, but can carry 400. When he rides around town, he carries a large plastic storage bin on its three-by-two-foot cargo deck. "I put all the things in my bike that you put in your car," he says, "including groceries."
Bartlett says he gets a call about the Bullitt every week or so, and he's convinced its time is coming. "In the last two years, certain cities are going bicycle crazy--Portland, Oregon; New York; Chicago," he says. "I was the first Bullitt dealer in the U.S.; now there are four [cargo bike] dealers just in Chicago."
Despite the fact that inquiries drastically outweigh purchases, he remains undaunted. "With a very low income, I enjoy a very high quality of life," he says. "The Bullitt is talking about a possible future, and that is the only thing that concerns me."
Born in Fraser, Michigan, to a father who worked at the GM Tech Center and a stay-at-home mother, Bartlett originally wanted to be an inventor. But after two years studying engineering, he dropped out, disillusioned. He decided that art was where the real inventing took place.
Welding was his day job, but after hours he made and sold stained glass windows and willow chairs. During layoffs, he studied art at the U-M. He became the first chair of the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission and ran the former Matrix Art gallery on Miller between 1990 and 1998, specializing in experimental art and installations. There he met his wife, book designer Jean Buescher Bartlett. Married ten years, the couple lives in the Eberwhite neighborhood. Their garage houses Bartlett's other odd bike--the double-wide circular "conference bike," where seven people face each other and pedal simultaneously.
Bartlett figures it will take another year to finish renovating the store. As for what the finally completed space will be, that's still a mystery.
"We don't know yet," says Bartlett. "It will reflect our interest in the arts in some way, but there is the component in me taking an interest in transportation bicycling, and that is something going on across the country."
Meanwhile, he says, "think of the place as a piece of art itself."
[Originally published in July, 2011.]
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