With (at least) 69 bike shops in Portland — that’s one for every two square miles, in case you’re keeping track — we’re often asked how they can all survive. The bike shop business isn’t easy; but one way to stand out in the crowd and be successful is to find a niche (or create a new one) and then develop it into a healthy market. Several Portland bike shop owners have done precisely that. And they’ve done it well.
Powered by high-touch marketing and nurtured by Portland’s seemingly bottomless love of interesting bikes, a handful of small-scale entrepreneurs have taken big risks on bike shops that fit both their personal passions and market niches that bigger companies either couldn’t serve or didn’t even know existed.
Here’s a quick take on each of three specialized Portland bike shops whose bets are paying off.
Self-powered sales: Barb and Joel Grover’s Splendid Cycles
Shop: Splendid Cycles.
Location: SE 14th and Belmont.
Specialty: “Totally kick-ass cargo bikes,” both front-loaders and longtails.
Owners’ estimate of the number of similar shops in the country: Zero. Many shops offer cargo bikes, but the Grovers don’t know of any other full-time shop that does nothing else.
Proprietors: Joel and Barb Grover, ages 49 and 52.
Origin story: Both of the Grovers worked their way up inside the biggest local bike shop chain, the Bike Gallery – Joel as a buyer, Barb in marketing. But their developing interest in cargo bikes didn’t jibe with the Bike Gallery’s mainstream audience. “I couldn’t get very far with that whole process because it really depended on a charismatic evangelist out there on the sales floor who really believed in what cargo bikes could do,” says Joel. “I think in order to really make a dent, we had to do that on our own.”
Biographical fact: Thanks to a business that’s now 10 percent wholesale distribution and more than 50 percent mail order of customized cargo bikes, the three-year-old Splendid Cycles has become the leading North American seller of Bullitt brand Danish cargo bikes. In the past, they’ve imported components in 20-foot shipping containers that hold 60 frames each, but lately they’ve been bringing them in six at a time by air freight. Joel picks up each order personally – on his cargo bike.
Shop philosophy: “We don’t want to be giant. We like to be able to offer personal service to our customers. I think if we get too big too soon, then we lose control of certain aspects.”
What’s new: With sales growing rapidly, the Grovers have started to think about approaching other local shops to share working space.
Quote: “We’ll sell over 100 bikes this year; the Bike Gallery would sell about 100 bikes on a busy day. but those are $300 bikes. We’re comfortable letting the general bike shop handle that.”
Powering lifestyle change: Wake Gregg’s eBikeStore
Shop: The eBike Store.
Location: N Williams and Alberta, moving July 20 to N Albina and Rosa Parks.
Specialty: Battery-assisted bikes and installations or modifications of battery-assist units.
Owner’s estimate of the number of similar shops in the country: 65.
Proprietor: Wake Gregg, age 42.
Origin story: Gregg discovered e-bikes on 2008 a trip to China as part of his MBA program at George Fox University and realized it was an idea that deserved to be introduced to the United States. “Seeing all these electric bikes, it was like, ‘This makes all the sense in the world,'” Gregg said. “I came back and wrote a business plan.”
Biographical fact: Before moving to Portland, Gregg founded The Bikery in Walla Walla, a charity bike repair shop along the lines of Portland’s Community Cycling Center that focused on training people on parole.
Shop philosophy: “One of the core values of Portland and Portlanders is health. … E-bikes promote personal health, environmental health, financial health and geopolitical health.”
What’s new: On July 15, Gregg’s Alberta store will close and reopen one week later one mile to the northwest, inside a former chop-shop on North Albina Avenue. The new site will triple Gregg’s floorspace and offer off-street parking — important for a shop that specializes in helping non-bikers make easier transitions to low-car life.
Quote: “The narrative we hear in e-bikes is that this next year is the year of the e-bike. It never is. It never will be. What it’s about is people living their values. And that’s a much slower transition.”
Taking it lying down: Marilyn Hayward’s Coventry Cycle Works
Shop: Coventry Cycle Works
Locations: SE Hawthorne and 20th Avenue; 8354 SW Hall Blvd.
Specialty: Recumbent bikes and trikes. The shop used to also sell folding bikes; but now it’s all recumbents.
Owner’s estimate of the number of similar shops in the country: 50 to 75.
Proprietor: Marilyn Hayward, age 64.
Origin story: When Hayward was in her 40s, the lifelong lover of long-distance biking developed cancer. Rather than give up bicycling during a painful recovery, she took up recumbent biking at the recommendation of a nerve specialist. She bought her first recumbent from Sherman Coventry, who’d established the bike shop in 1984. When Coventry retired in 2009, Hayward quit her job as a corporate executive assistant to buy the place.
Biographical fact: “I hold the world’s record for endurance racing for my age and my gender — I covered almost 400 miles in 24 hours without stopping. I did that two years ago, and I’ve done that five times in a row. … I get off from 24 hours of riding and there is no pain or discomfort anywhere on any part of my anatomy. None.”
Shop philosophy: “I will not tolerate or have a high-pressured salesperson in this shop. I actually fired one. I’m not going to have anyone who’s trying to ‘close the deal.’ Nobody here works on commission. … It’s all about bicycles. It should be fun.”
What’s new: Four months ago, after biking past an empty storefront for years on her daily commute from Beaverton, Hayward bit the bullet and opened a 4,000-square-foot second location on Hall Blvd in Beaverton. She’s now promoting the location by visiting west side high schools to talk about bikes and try “to get people off their dead cabooses.”
Quote: “The worst day in a bike shop is better than the best day in corporate America.”