Mock Orange Bikes: 20 Years in Winston-Salem, NC

The last 20 years have seen seismic changes to brick-and-mortar businesses of all kinds, especially bike shops, yet Mock Orange Bikes endures. Mock Orange and its owner, Charles Van Isenburg, have remained a pillar of Winston-Salem, NC’s bike community for two decades with a relationship-driven, neighborhood-oriented, very much offline, and old-school way of conducting retail business.

On one of his frequent swings through his native North Carolina, Andy Karr stopped by his favorite hometown bike shop to chat with Charles about what’s changed in 20 years of owning a shop and what hasn’t.


At the risk of making both of us feel a little old, I am proud to admit that the first bicycle I ever bought myself was from Charles at Mock Orange Bikes. I walked in shortly after he moved the shop from Mocksville to my hometown of Winston-Salem in 2006. After a grueling summer working on a lawn crew in the southern heat and humidity, I took my wages to Mock Orange and bought a hybrid bike with new-to-me disc brakes that would surely be marketed as a “flat bar gravel bike” now.

It was a Kona Dew Deluxe, special ordered since shops so rarely stock XLs on the floor. It was the first of four Kona bikes  I’ve picked up from Mock Orange Bikes over the last 18 years.

Local Legends

Charles got his start in the bike industry wrenching at a bike shop literally called The Bike Shop in the basement of a veterinarian clinic in Winston-Salem. After several years of employment, he jumped in as a partner at Winston’s Paceline Cycles. Things got weird there, I’m told, and he sold his shares of Paceline in 2001 and left the bike industry to sell guitar amp parts and repair vintage amps at a specialty shop called MoJo. The breakup between Charles and the bike shop life was short-lived, and when a long-time regular customer pitched going in on a new shop, he was back.

Charles and his original business partner opened Mock Orange Bikes over 20 years ago, on November 22nd, 2003 (the 40th anniversary of the JFK assassination, Charles notes) in Mocksville, NC, on North Main Street in an old print shop that had occupied the space for decades. They obtained the property, which was still fully outfitted for old-time printing, and had to remove an old Heidelberg printing press before opening their doors.

By March 2006, they had outgrown the space and moved to Winston-Salem. Charles took on a third, fourth, and fifth business partner in Winston-Salem’s historic West End. Keeping to the first location’s precedent, their space retained its unique character. The shop had been the historic Summit Pharmacy since the early 1930s, then a fine antique business for a time before MOB moved in. Historic and beautiful as the building was, it showed its age every time it rained. Water poured in through the cracks in the walls and under doors and window sills. Mopping the shop floor after every summer rainstorm was a part of doing business, and perhaps played some small part in helping Charles cull his business partners down from five to his current status as sole proprietor.

In 2015, a long-term employee tipped Charles off, saying that his business partners, who were also uncomfortably the shop’s landlords, had had it with the building and were planning to sell the location and close the shop. Charles was having none of that and bought his remaining partners out and moved the shop down the street to its current location in a 50’s era service station. He says that becoming a sole proprietor is the best thing that ever happened to him and the shop. He and a crew of loyal customers and shop employees moved the shop over the July 4th weekend, shutting his doors to customers for only a single extra day.

Of an Era

If you like vintage stuff, the shop space that MOB has occupied since 2015 is very, very cool. The shop space is a prefab building from the 1950s that still very clearly was once an Aamco transmission shop. Two of the three garage bays are still in place, with the third having been replaced with a more traditional doorway and windows by a prior occupant. The space puts the “shop” in a bike shop. The grease-soaked rags, rows of tools, wheels, tires, bins of grease, and socket wrenches on the wall. It’s not hard to imagine a row of 1950s Buicks and Fords where the Santa Cruz mountain bikes currently sit.

The building had everything he needed and nothing they didn’t. He took the old sign down off the building and put his big Mock Orange sign up, and added an awning but otherwise, he didn’t have to touch the space. Putting the sign up was a comedy of errors. The old shop sign was held in place by ROPE. Charles climbed the inside of the spire, cut the rope with a blade, and rolled the old sign off the back of the roof and into the woods below. It could have just as easily rolled into the parking lot full of cars, which may have curtailed the shop’s now 20-year history.

By pure coincidence, a period-correct Airstream trailer is permanently parked out front, from which the best coffee around is served. Called Coffee Park, it’s a compact coffee shop owned by another long-term Winston-Salem small business owner, Tommy Priest. USA Today’s readers’ choice poll voted it the #1 drive-through coffee in America. For what it’s worth, it gets my endorsement too.

Riding the Wave

Charles Van Isenburg is a mountain biker’s mountain biker. He regularly toes the line on the absurdly brutal Shenandoah 100 endurance mountain biking event on a singlespeed. The bigger and dumber the ride is, the more likely it is to catch his eye. The gnarlier and sketchier the line, the better. Am I doing the Wormhole 100? The Pisgah Stage Race? No, I’d probably die trying, but Charles will have double the fun for me. Charles is a bit of a thrill seeker. He’s in it for the ride. The challenges and uncertainty of owning and operating a small brick-and-mortar bicycle retail business in 2024 are just part of the fun.

I asked him how terrifying it must be to ride the waves of boom and bust over the last few years with no financial backing outside of his own bank account, and his answer genuinely surprised me. He said it’s “more fun to own a shop now than ever.” Given that he’s been running this shop for over 20 years, I’ll concede he would know. He’s been around long enough to see trends come and go. Fixies, chopper bikes, fat bikes, gravel bikes. He said riding the waves of changing demand keeps things interesting and that keeping a positive vibe going has been a viable business strategy in the face of uncertainty, especially in a small business, especially a bike shop. Like choosing to do a 100-mile mountain bike race on a rigid singlespeed: he keeps doing this because it’s fun, not easy.

Knowing his long history as a Kona dealer, I jokingly asked him whether they were running out of workstands assembling buy-one-get-one enduro bikes. Response: “Man, BOGO is for potato chips.” Mock Orange Bikes was built and sustained over 20 years of selling Kona Bicycles. He said for his entire history of stocking the brand, it felt like being part of a family business, from face-to-face time with the owners at dealer events in the early days to the great care the company took to support dealers and their customers during the worst bike shortage. Mock Orange has been not just a dealer but a stalwart supporter and promoter of the brand.

So it was a bit sad for me to see decades-old Kona stickers on every surface but so few bikes on the shop floor: a scouring of the space would only turn up a handful of last model year’s gravel bikes. When the VC buyout of Kona was announced, I think most of us close to the brand thought it would not go well. Kona went direct-to-consumer, and the dealer network crumbled. Charles described it in language I would normally associate with a bad breakup. Bike shops are a relationships business operating on fairy dust, goodwill, and a really slim margin, which I don’t think the typical finance bro turned bike brand owner appreciates. In the couple of months since my last visit to Mock Orange Bikes, the Kona story has taken some dramatic twists and turns. Whether or not I see some new Konas on the shop floor the next time I visit Charles should be an interesting bellwether as to whether Jake and Dan’s top priority of renewing relationships with their dealer network is going to plan.

The MOB life

If Charles brought in a small army of marketing consultants to look at his business, which he never would, their heads would explode. In this year of our lord 2024, Mock Orange Bikes does not keep an up-to-date website, does not offer online sales, and does not have a functioning Instagram. Charles and his business are very much offline. He reckons all the time and energy it would take him to learn how to build and maintain an online presence is time and energy he would have to take away from building his connections with the local community. He’d rather spend more time with the person right across the counter from him than figure out how to post a TikTok. He considers himself not only a small business but a local business. He depends on the people living within a 5- to 10-mile radius. He treats them like family every time they come in the door. The connection through a screen is too filtered, too algorithm. The internet takes a lot of time to use effectively, especially for someone who admits to clumsy operating of digital equipment.

Unsurprisingly, he catches some flak for not being on Instagram and having a website homepage that announces they will be returning from summer vacation on June 30th, 2020. Charles self-describes as a Luddite. He still prefers hardtails and steel bikes and embraces a decidedly old-fashioned, customer-centric approach to retail business. The shop still offers lifetime free tune-ups when you buy a new bike and a phone number with a local area code that a human being will answer. He knows his customers, and they know him. They’re his friends, neighbors, and community. The face-to-face human interactions and the time spent nerding out with his customers about their bikes or their old trucks is time well spent. Facebook is not.

Mock Orange has rebounded from the brink a couple times over the decades, always buoyed by the regular customers, the trusted referral. You just ride the ride and have a good time, he says. He knows he is not just selling bikes; he’s selling a good time, and if that good time starts the moment you walk through the door, they will keep coming back. I have, the five-and-a-half-hour drive be damned. Even when business ebbs and tight margins get tighter, he reckons that as long as people know they can expect a friendly, positive environment, they will come back. He tells me he takes nothing and no one for granted. He treats all his customers like they are his neighbors, and most of them are.

It has worked for 20 years and is still working today. Running a brick and mortar anything for 20 years is tough, so as seemingly counter-conventional and esoteric the business approach is in 2024, they are clearly doing something right.

You Can Go Home

Business school chads and tech bros will get giddy describing the endless promise our predictive, online, 3D-printed, AI-enabled future will hold for profit and convenience, but I am not here for it. I think every community needs its Cheers; somewhere you can go for help or a hello, a place of business you can walk into and always know someone there. I go back to Winston often. My parents and a handful of my oldest and closest friends live there. I return at unpredictable intervals for always too short a time. More often than not, I’m just passing through en route to points west: Asheville, Lake Lure, or Morganton, where most of my extended family and in-laws live. But I nearly always can find an excuse to drop by Mock Orange Bikes. Usually, my visits are predicated on some small bike related errand. I forgot to bring chain lube, bottles, or a tube, or to place an order for one of those four bikes I have bought there over the years. But I don’t need an excuse. Nearly two decades of “visiting home,” and it’s as much part of the ritual of return as a Cookout milkshake (IYKYK). A lot of things – the bicycle industry, the state of brick-and-mortar retail, my own life – have changed since I bought that Kona Dew Deluxe in 2006, but Mock Orange endures. Thank god.

About Some of Those Bikes…

After 20-plus years in business, the rafters about the front door have become a mini-museum of pretty amazing bikes, each with a story of their own to tell. A few of my favorites were:

The Ti Serotta: when Charles started working in a shop in the basement of an animal hospital, he had a regular there named Matt Sharpe who would often bring them lunch and hang out. This frame belonged to him. He had an engineering mind and was obsessive about detail and form. This bike is a ’92 or ’93 and was custom-made in the new Colorado Concept Ti tubing. Matt passed from cancer this year and had asked that the frame be given to Charles. Charles built it up in a way that would honor the frame and Matt. It’s gorgeous.

The Bontrager: This one also came from Matt, which Charles himself had assembled over 31 years ago at his first shop. Matt liked new and cool things. It has a Campagnolo Record OR (offroad) group, which is incredibly rare.

The Richard Sachs belonged to a long-time friend and customer, Ed. Charles bought from him in a bike swap of sorts. This is a bike that deserves to be kept up and ridden.

The Gunnar and the North Carolina-made Brew (Blue Ridge Electric & Welding) belong to Will, who worked at the shop for a good while but recently moved to Columbus, Ohio. Like Charles, Will would consider himself a bit of a luddite, to a point. Retro, but we allow ourselves to enjoy modern geometry and disc brakes.

The Kona chopper bike was produced during the early 2000s, when reality TV shows about chopper-style motorcycles were ubiquitous. Charles remembers one year when every bike manufacturer made a chopper bike just for fun. After way too many wheelies, the fork is really bent. Charles says it was always a rolling liability, but now it’s really a deathtrap. I had to ride it.

And yeah, I used the bike stand for the photos. It was a little windy and I was not going to be the reason one of these rare treasures hit the pavement on the drive side. Go easy on me. I threw in a couple of B&W 35mm snaps to try and make up for it.