If you don't do a lot of your own repairs, then getting a bike from a decent bike shop is a good idea. Well...my favorite bike shop provides excellent service for all bike brands (REALLY fix it, always throw in something extra for free, give great advice about what to do next with problem parts that all brands have, etc.). The only difference between buying a bike with them or not, as far as repairs go, is that you get free spring tune-ups and wheel truing on bikes that you buy from them.
I really think that you should test-ride lots of bikes. Do it over a couple of weekends, try to hit at least 3 bike shops and multiple brands and MULTIPLE bike styles (plush, relaxed, race, touring, etc.), and then make your decision. If you find a bike brand that you like that is out of your price range, then try to get the same model and size from a previous year on Ebay or Craigslist. You can save a lot of money that way.
Most of the bike frames that are sold at BikesDirect.com are the same exact ones that are sold by big brands like Trek, Giant, Fuji, etc. The same factories in Asia make a majority of the bike frames sold by most big companies these days. At the bottom of a web page describing a bike model, they tell you what company the bike "fits like", which almost always means that it is the same frame that named company uses for their bikes (usually last-years' frame model for that company). I keep mentioning this, because that is how I would have gone if I did not have a decent older road bike of my own when I started back riding 4 years ago. The bikes that my friends bought through them have been just as reliable as the big brands, and much better than a x-mart bike. Just saying.