Thursday, November 26, 2015

Welcome to my ideal imaginary bike shop...

My Friend Les is moving his shop out of the place he's been renting for about 20 years into a building of his own. It's a big deal for a guy with some creative ideas and the willingness to actually try them out, to not have a landlord to worry about. I think it's going to be pretty cool and it's gotten me thinking again about what my "Ideal" bike shop would be like.
I think anyone who's ever worked in a Bike Shop has thought about what they would do if they had free reign, a bit of a budget and 12 hundred square feet. I've worked in a bunch of shops, 5 as an "official" employee, a few as occasional fill-in and "on retainer" with a couple even now for things like brazing  track-ends on old Trek's or finessing stuck seat-posts out of crusty carbon Tri-Bikes. So I've got a long list of cool things I've seen that more people should do and some dumb stuff I hope you're not thinking of trying. And, while my opinion isn't particularly valuable, I have spent a lot of time thinking about it over the last 35 years. Much of it on the clock (which I suppose makes me some sort of a professional). Anyway, If my experience is anything to go by, the subject comes up in EVERY SHOP IN THE WORLD whenever two or more employees are gathered together in the absence of the Boss so maybe it's worth exploring a bit here. I could share some of my thoughts on the matter if you wanted to hear them...

 You do? Really? Swell, let's get started!

Anyway, here, in no particular order are some things I think are important...

Music. Every shop needs some. Maybe not all the time, but most days. It should be just loud enough to hear in the display area but never difficult to have a conversation over. The device providing the music, whether Gramophone, Digital Media or String Quartet, must be under the total control of a Responsible Person at all times. Under no circumstances should males under the age of 20 be allowed to influence "The Program". Ever. If I ever find myself in charge of "The Program" again I think I would be tempted to find some outside non-bikey, music loving "Hep Cat"  and ask her to come in once a week or so, open our ears and keep us guessing. I may be "that old" but there will be no Motley-Crue, Journey or Bon-Jovi in any shop I'm in charge of ever again. OK?

TeeVee? With sound? In the shop and not just in the window silently playing MTN.Bike videos for kids on the sidewalk? No hell no. If you want a promotional video, go to Home Depot. If you crave entertainment, just go away.

No Mannequins.  You don't see it much these days, but back a couple of decades a bunch of shop owners couldn't seem to resist propping up a retired department store mannequin by the front door. They were invariably tall willowy things, slim hand resting on jutting hip, staring out at the street with blank eyes, high cheekbones and the air of a strung-out middle-aged streetwalker or hopeless kidnap victim.  They were also invariably covered in dust, dressed in some close-out neon lycra and a soiled yellow Campy Cycling cap. Oh yes, and constantly being vandalized by brain-dead teen aged boys who always seemed to have an extra cigarette to stick between her fingers or 2 gumdrops to slip under her jersey for that "Is it cold in here or is it just me?" look.
   I worked with Cindy at one of my first shop jobs. She didn't say much, kept to herself and never missed a day of work, but I don't think she was ever really happy at the shop. That sort of vibe just kills the mood out on the floor and I kept thinking she'd be happier back in "Service". The last straw for her was when the owner showed up with a huge brunette Bouffant wig that smelled like stale beer and ashes and stuck it over Cindy's cute bas-relief Pixie Cut. That afternoon she toppled over onto some BMX bikes and broke her neck. The Boss said he always thought she was "unstable"(ha.ha.ha...) but I just felt it was a preventable suicide if not actual murder. Incidentally, of all the shops I've worked in, this one had the lowest number of female customers. So no mannequins, thank you very much.

Artisnal Coffee/Espresso Bar. Either you're going to have a bike mechanic who doesn't give a S#@* making coffee or a Bean Head Hipster who doesn't give a S#@* working on customers brakes(sorry, "breaks"). Just dumb. There's a Coffee shop 30 yards down the street anyway.  I'm sure it works somewhere but those rare examples just encourage those who shouldn't to try. Dumb.
 One of the local shops does have a really nice water fountain specially configured for filling waterbottles that also keeps a running tab of how many disposable plastic bottles worth of cold micro filtered water it's dispensed. We like to think of it as a tally of Baby Seals saved and sometimes just hold the handle down to add a few more of the cute little beggars to the total. WAY better than an espresso machine. I don't know what it cost but I'm a fan. Put one in your shop and you will be too.

Women. It took me a while to come around(like just long enough to grow up) but I can't think of a shop that won't hire women that's worth the trouble to walk across the street to go to. Even if the prejudice against women in mechanical trades was valid there's a lot more going on in a bike shop than fixing bikes and you absolutely won't do those things as well as you should if you have men doing it all. I have a suspicion that a shop staffed by competent women would do a better job of helping men than a typical all-male shop does of helping women. Just a suspicion. I don't think it would be that hard to find the right women either. Not anymore. Whatever, my ideal shop would always have good people who knew what they were doing waiting for you to come in and if it were all male or all female that day it would only be because the schedule worked out that way. I promise. They might not even all be white.

Some tools for the customers. I don't think every shop needs to try to have a complete work station for customers who want to work on their own bikes, it's problematic and not compatible with the way most shops need to run, but enough tools for someone to adjust a saddle or change brake shoes without having to beg one from the Techs seems to me like the sort of respectful courtesy that I would appreciate. Decent quality tools that you let them use without making them feel like they're asking for loose change. If it doesn't "compromise your vision or personal brand" you might even go so far as to have an old wheel, a patching kit and a nice little stool where a person could sit and practice fixing a flat while listening to the String Quartet play Motley Crue. I'm going to do it the next time I'm in charge of a little piece of somebody's shop. A pump, a Wheel, some tire levers and patchkit and a pokey-thing of some sort to make a leak. That and whatever level of supervision a person seems to want. Even if you already know how to do it you'd be welcome to come in and fix your own flat, fifty cents for the patch and the glue. If that drives you into the red than your shop was doomed anyway so quitcherwhining. Maybe a simple fixture and instruction card so folks could get the hang of quick-release skewers and removing a wheel as well. Down low, near the floor for the benefit of the 8 year-olds.

A box of good free stuff. Good used parts from the Service Department, customer donations of mini-pumps or decent shoes, the tires the local fast guys take off that still have miles in them, that sort of thing. Don't let it overflow, and throw out the obvious crap that gets dropped off, and for goodness sake, find something better than a plastic laundry basket or a cardboard box to put it in. Don't make the bucks-down college student or working class parent on a tight budget feel like a bum, hook them up with something useful and make a friend. Again, if it drives you out of business you were just faking it anyway.  

No Scotch Tape. It's not that I have anything against the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co., it's just that in every shop I've worked in you were never more than 3 feet away from a little scrap of that almost, but not quite, invisible plastic chaff or it's grubby fingerprint of dirt and goo. 11 slivers on the front of the display case, a little tag flapping on the telephone receiver, 13 ghostly outlines of "Back in 5 Minutes" signs on the front door. It doesn't even work fer crap to anchor handlebar tape. Write your "Out to Lunch" message on the door with a dry-erase marker or even make a nice one with a pen on some cardstock and hang it with a string. Draw a monkey on a fatbike on it, use it for 20 years and when you close your shop someone will take it home with them after the farewell party and hang it in their garage. Tape. I'd rather hang that Rivendel poster to the wall with framing nails.  

I should stop now. I'm starting to get a little worked up and I'm too far into the Mortgage, Braces and College Fund part of life to actually go back to the bicycle mines. But as you might have noticed, I'm still emotionally invested in everything about bikes and the little hidden places where we go to immerse ourselves in our weird little culture. Have you also noticed that none of this is about what kind of bikes I'd have for sale in my Top-Secret Hollowed Out Volcano Bike Temple? It's not because I don't have opinions about that as well, it's just that it doesn't really matter for this discussion. I like to think that any of these ideas, if they have any merit at all, work in any shop and serve any customer well, no matter if they're coming in for a race-tune before heading out to Nationals or to buy the next size helmet for their kid.

I'll be on the lookout next time I'm in your shop to see if you thought any of this was worth trying. Especially the thing about the tape, man I hate the tape...




  1. I was with you until you came down on the Coffee.

    Still with you on the Tape, though. Il ne ce fait pas.


  2. I guess it depends on the quality of the Bike Shop coffee you've had. Even when it's been in a swanky "High Concept" shop, my experience has been that it typically tastes about like what you get at Jiffy Lube when you're waiting out your oil change... YRMV


  3. The old LBS I frequented featured excellent locally roasted coffee and the owners were friends who knew how to brew it and what "really fresh" meant. Considered opening a bike/coffee/pie shop with the surviving partner of that shop.

    The heepster bike-n-coffee place herself and I sometimes ride to visit is also very good, but heepster-y, as mentioned. They do not sneer at the vintage Bianchi nor it's middle-age female rider.Angry Catfish

    There's a shop a ways farther south that has a good local coffee roaster attached with an open archway door between the two businesses. They're the big local Brompton dealer and very close to the sort of ideal shop you describe; full of clueful friendly people.

    Life is too short for bad coffee.

  4. Oh man, I hate being wrong. I'm used to it but I haven't learned to like it...

    The pie shop idea is brilliant though.


  5. It would need to be proper pies though, Scotch Pie, Beef Growler, Game Pie, chicken and leek. None of your Key Lime nonsense.

  6. I agree about Key Lime. Not proper pie. Not even close...