DALE WALKSLER HAS gone from retail to television. Walksler, the former owner of Dale’s Harley-Davidson in Illinois, now owns and runs Wheels Through Time, a 501(c)3 museum in North Carolina that houses his extensive collection of vintage motorcycles. He’s also the star of “What’s In the Barn,” a show on Velocity. Managing editor Vince Guerrieri talked to Walksler about his retail experiences and how they translated into the museum, and the show.
Guerrieri: How did the museum start?
Dale Walksler: I started my dealership in Mount Vernon in 1977, and before that I had a motorcycle shop, and I already had some old motorcycles. It was a great talking point, and once people realized I was passionate about it, it was very easy to sell motorcycles to them. People would say, “Hey, this guy knows his stuff, I’m going to buy a motorcycle from him.” The more bikes I sold, the more I could afford to buy parts to keep restoring these old bikes.
You were regularly recognized as a Top 100 dealer, and your museum got you a special award for best use of a theme. How did you keep your business successful?
Walksler: I was doing $14 million with 14 people in 6,000 square feet in Mount Vernon. The only way people would buy a bike from me was if they drove 100 miles. When people came to Dale’s Harley-Davidson, I had an incredible staff of well-trained, hospitable people. I didn’t discount, but I was believable and so passionate, and I’d have women jabbing their husbands in the side and saying, “Just buy the bike.” The original Harley-Davidson sign said “sales and service.” There isn’t enough service these days, and it’s hard to find quality service.
About half the people who come through Wheels Through Time will tell a couple people; the rest will tell everyone they know. There’s history, but there’s also presentation. We welcome people and get them a cup of coffee.
With the museum, do you continue to buy and sell, or is it mostly accumulating?
Walksler: Buying and selling motorcycles I reserved in my past life. You spend your life buying and selling and it’s stress and stress. I build or rebuild nearly everything in the 300-bike collection. I have 15 restorations on the table right now, and those are generally additions for Wheels Through Time. Occasionally I’ll sell or resell a bike. Primarily, the efforts I put forth are for the museum.
Why do you do it?
Walksler: It’s because of the people. I want to find out who you are, where you live, what you do and how you got there. I’m a historian at heart. The dealership was the road to get me where I am now. When I was selling $8 million in bikes a year, I wasn’t happy. It wasn’t that I wanted more, I just wanted to continue collecting and restoring old motorcycles.
How do you keep the doors open?
Walksler: In retail, you make connections with people, and being successful in retail comes down to one thing: customer service. Go to Trip Advisor and see what other people have to say. Websites are your own pat on the back; Facebook is other people’s pat on the back. When they share something, they’re giving you a stamp of approval.
I went from selling bikes where you could make $4,000 to making money at the museum $10 at a time, so we have to look for other revenue streams. In seven years, I produced 300 of our own little television shows. That’s our video time machine, and it’s a $9.99 subscription. We also created a new app, Motorcycle Masterpieces, and that’s 99 cents. The key is how are you going to bring younger people into the industry? If we’re serious about it, we have to communicate with them the way they communicate.