SEARSPORT, Maine — Doug Birgfeld may be 72, but he can still talk skateboards with teenagers like nobody’s business.
That’s one reason why some of those teenagers — now grown up — wanted to honor the Searsport man and longtime proprietor of Birgfeld’s Bicycle Shop on Route 1 with a recent surprise party. He’d been having some health problems in recent years, and A.J. Dutch of Belfast, who considers Birgfeld to be an important mentor to many youths over the years, said that the time just seemed right to say thank you.
“Doug’s been involved in skateboarding since its begun. For 60 years now,” Dutch, now a local contractor, said this weekend. “You honor that. You don’t let that slip by.”
Birgfeld said that when he was growing up in Pennsylvania, he was always someone who liked to tinker with things. He built hot rods, and he started skateboarding when the sport was new and maybe even a little dangerous.
“Back then, all you had was steel wheels to ride and loose ball bearings,” Dutch said. “He was an original. He took a pair of old roller skates, took them apart and nailed them to a 2-by-4.”
Then Birgfeld grew up, and got serious. Maybe a little, at any rate.
“I’ve been having fun all my life,” he said with a smile from behind the cluttered counter of his Searsport shop, where equipment for surfing, skateboarding and biking fill every corner.
But when Birgfeld married Brenda, a nurse, he settled down. He worked for a while in the industrial trades. He was a field engineer and worked with equipment like “big, giant steam turbines as big as this shop.”
Then he and his wife decided in the 1970s to move their growing family to Maine, where they had loved to come camping. He checked out a property in Searsport during a January blizzard. It was 22 below zero, but the price was right for a house and 27 acres.
“I said, if we can get it cheap enough, we’re meant to move,” he said.
They did, and once in Maine Birgfeld at first commuted to Bangor and Veazie, where he found work. But he never stopped tinkering, and began to fix up junk bicycles in his spare time and sell them on the side of the road. After his oldest son took up bike racing, Birgfeld got more serious and built the shop.
“Then, my youngest son discovered skateboards,” he said.
Before he knew it, he had become one of the few places youths could go in Maine in the early 1980s to get skateboards, which were catching on.
“I had kids coming from all over the state,” Birgfeld reminisced.
Then his son asked about starting a skateboard team, and things really started rolling. The team, “Birg’s Brigade,” competed all over the state. They held tryouts in the Reny’s parking lot in Belfast that drew hundreds of youths who wanted to win a coveted slot on the team.
“We had a blast,” he said of those days.
Skateboarding kids were different, he said. They often felt there wasn’t a place for them in the mainstream school culture. But with Birgfeld, they had a place to go where they belonged.
“They’re nonconformists — a radical, anti-society kind of kid,” he said. “We taught them stuff. We taught them integrity. Honesty. If they were on the team, they couldn’t smoke, drink or do drugs.”
Many of the teens came from broken homes and lacked strong role models. Often, they were on their own — until they met the Birgfelds.
“We’d just take them in and take care of them,” he said. “What the hell, that’s what community is for.”
The teens appreciated him — and never forgot, Dutch said.
“When we were getting kicked out, or getting harassed by cops, Doug was the one who was supportive,” he said. “To have that help was significant.”
The party held recently for Dutch at a Belfast restaurant was a big success as well as a big surprise, they both said. More than 60 people came out to swap stories about Birgfeld and maybe roast him a little. They also said thanks.
“His enthusiasm and ability to connect with youths is so important,” Dutch said. “He’s doing okay, but he’s not in the best of health. The point was to honor him among the living.”
But Birgfeld, who still works in his shop and builds hot rods despite a bad case of cellulitis in his legs, said he’s not done yet.
“I’m not going anywhere. If I go, I’m going fighting,” he said.