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New London - Ray Hodges Jr. rides from his home in Mystic about four days a week to take in the sights and sounds of Mike's Famous Harley-Davidson, the 55,000-square-foot motorcycle shop that opened just a couple months ago on Bank Street in the old Coca-Cola bottling plant.
"I just come in because it's fun to be here," said Hodges, a retired truck driver with a wide smile and muscular build who goes by the nickname Coach and rides a Harley-Davidson Street Glide. "It's unique. He's taken it to the next level."
Indeed, owner Mike Schwartz, who moved his Harley operations from a store in Groton one-quarter of its current size, seems to have thought of everything in the new incarnation of Mike's Famous. Motorcycle owners seeking service can ride their hogs right into the building, where the service and parts departments sit side by side, flowing into the main showroom's huge expanse of more than 200 Harley-Davidsons of all sizes, ranging in price from nearly $7,000 to nearly $30,000.
Farther down, Sea-Doo personal watercraft, Polaris off-road vehicles and Can-Am three-wheel motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles are on display.
To one side, a generous portion of the store is devoted to motorcycle gear, including boots and helmets, as well as a custom radio station called Mike's Famous Radio that pipes in a selection of more than 2,000 mostly classic-rock songs designed to appeal to the store's male demographic.
"These are songs that evoke thoughts of the road," Schwartz, a North Stonington resident, said Friday during a tour of his new store.
A poster at the front of the store sounds a familiar theme of grittiness and independence that resonates with Mike's customers: "The road has always been the place to find the answers. Or ignore the questions."
Mike's Famous opened without fanfare in late February after a four-month renovation of the old Coke plant with its distinctive curved edifice. Instead of shedding its industrial heritage, the building under Schwartz's guidance has embraced the original warehouse aesthetic, right down to the reclaimed doorways, steel trusses, warehouse-style windows and high tongue-and-groove ceilings.
"Over 300 people contributed ideas throughout the building," said Liz Ferrari, business development manager.
Adding to the cool flavor, a vintage Coke machine sits in a comfy lounge area where patrons can sip coffee or enjoy a gas fireplace while gazing at a nearby replica of the original 1903 Harley-Davidson garage constructed of wood from the former MacKenzie Farm dairy barn in Waterford. Posters, painted walls, polished floors and new lighting system are just a few of the touches Schwartz used to give the space a vibrant and open feel.
The space is so open that one sales employee, Lois Hollenbeck, has taken to wearing neon pink roller skates to get around the building. "The building is just so big it was practical for her to do it," Schwartz said.
But it has come to be part of the allure as well, as Schwartz keeps having to answer questions about "the girl selling motorcycles with pink roller skates," he said.
The new store employs 42 full-time workers and seven part-timers, many of whom gathered Friday during an Employee of the Month recognition at which Schwartz commended the staff for an excellent April. Sales, parts and service were all up at least 60 percent over the same month last year, Schwartz said, and the clothing sales more than tripled.
"Let's keep that momentum going," he said to applause.
Part of Schwartz's strategy is to work hard at becoming an integral part of the community. He already has made signficant inroads by hosting meetings of the New London Motorcycle Club and getting involved with a number of events, including a revival of Pappy's Run - a major motorcycle gathering that stalled out for the past couple of years but will be held again May 25.
Schwartz said he wants to be a leader in helping bring New London back even as others worry about an exodus of businesses during the past two years.
"It's easy to follow the pack; it takes courage to go where others don't," he said. "And that speaks of the Harley brand."
Schwartz, who paid $550,000 for the property, said the adaptive reuse of a variety of materials - mushroom board from Pennsylvania, found shutters from Rhode Island and on-site brick walls - is in keeping with the ruggedness associated with the Harley name. It also says something about New London, which he called "a tough, resilient American city rich in military history."
Schwartz said he hasn't done any traditional advertising for his new property, hoping to slowly ramp up as the busy spring and summer months lead to the official grand opening for Mike's Famous in September. The time will allow for proper training of employees to handle an influx of customers, he said.
"The store incorporates a lot of elements," said Joe Marcolina, northeast regional manager for Harley-Davidson, who said in a phone interview that local dealers are given a good amount of leeway in catering to local markets. "I think it's a great new store."
Schwartz said the New London store is among the largest motorcycle operations in the world. In addition to the huge sales and service space, the property includes a large parking area to accommodate events,
"It allows us to get much, much deeper with our customers," Schwartz said. "This is going to be a destination and a must-see."
What: Mike's Famous Harley-Davidson
Owner: Mike Schwartz
Where: 951 Bank St., New London
Hours: 10-6 Mon.-Wed. and Fri.; 10-8 Thurs.; 9-5 Sat.; 10-5 Sun.