Bike shops matter. And like so many brick-and-mortar retailers across this country, many American bike shops have been failing.
How scared should we be about this? And if we’re scared, what’s to be done?
A newly minted Portland State University graduate and employee of the (perfectly healthy) Northwest Portland institution 21st Avenue Cycles is advancing that conversation with a senior thesis he published this year. In it, he proposes a typology (“four types of local bike shops”) and interviews five Portland bike shop professionals about the roles bike shops play and how they interact with a bike-friendly city.
“A community that wishes to establish or maintain itself as friendly towards cycling should recognize the LBS as a crucial part of that image by providing a unique place for all people to gather, socialize, and exchange knowledge.”
— Timothy Wesolowski
In his introduction, author Timothy Wesolowski celebrates the practical role of bike shops as businesses, but starts looking for academically rigorous ways to think about their other roles.
“Is this all that a typical local bike shop has to offer – retail, service, and an open door?” he asks. “A community that wishes to establish or maintain itself as friendly towards cycling should recognize the LBS as a crucial part of that image by providing a unique place for all people to gather, socialize, and exchange knowledge.”
Part of Wesolowski’s project here is to sort bike shops into four categories, similar to the widely recognized “four types of cyclists” concept developed in 2006 by Portland Bicycle Planning Coordinator Roger Geller. Here’s how he splits it up:
The “neighborhood” or “family” bike shop might be the most familiar to the average bicycle rider (likely an “interested but concerned” in Geller’s 2006 typology). This is a shop that is largely service oriented, performing flat tire repairs and tune-ups on less expensive bikes, while selling commuter and children’s bicycles and accoutrements for the casual cyclist.
The “high end” shop specializes in the sale and service of bikes in the several thousand-dollar price range, serving the enthusiast and amateur or even professional cyclist. Often times this shop becomes a destination for cyclists and consumers, who might travel from out-of-town or even state for a comprehensive repair, bicycle purchase, or simply to visit.
“Niche” bicycle shops are the newest of the four models (Gluskin Townley Group, 2014, pp. 11, 17), and cater to a very particular clientele (even more so than the high end shop). There is a growing market for female-oriented bikes and accessories, and female-specific shops are opening to meet the needs of that particular demographic (Gluskin Townley Group, 2014, p. 11).
The final category of non-profit or co-operatively owned bike shop is one that is run explicitly as a community resource. This shop is likely to sell used bicycles and discount accessories to provide accessibility to bicycle transportation. These shops are likely to be located in lower income neighborhoods where there is often greater need for such a service.
Later in the paper, Wesolowski breaks things down a different way, by identifying the “four community roles” that a local bike shop can play.
There’s the “anchoring institution,” which create a general sense of place for everyone in a neighborhood:
Anchoring institutions are often monumental structures like grand cathedrals, but the LBS can share some of this visual prominence. Many bike shops will have a row or rows of bicycles out front of the shop to display models and catch the eyes of passersby. Murals are not an uncommon sight on the sides or even facades of some shops, generally in contrast to more conservative retail storefronts. Finally, a LBS serves as a good landmark for local and visiting cyclists to navigate in a neighborhood or city
There’s the “third place,” a refuge away from both work and home where people can relax and interact:
A different respondent lamented the loss of the “barber shop” model of bicycle shop as-third place where one can go to “just chew the fat”, describing it as a “dying breed” in most towns. Another respondent spoke of recent plans to physically expand his shop with a covered front patio to encourage local wheelmen and women to gather before and after rides with an inviting space to share stories, pump up tires, and even perform minor adjustments to their bicycles: “We’d like to cultivate that. That’s something we aspire to. There’s value in that.” This idea of physical prominence as an invitation for gathering directly relates to the principles of an anchoring institution while also fostering the third place ideal of being a neutral gathering space.
There’s the “advocate,” in which bike shop owners and employees use their expertise, connections and resources to “create social change on behalf of others who are unable to advocate for themselves.”
And finally there’s “infrastructure,” which is defined as the “underlying base or foundation for an organization or system.” Wesolowski echoes National Bicycle Dealers Association executive director Fred Clements in proposing that bike shops meet that definition.
Does this mean that governments should act to protect and preserve bike shops? Weslowski has an interesting conversation with one bike shop pro who’s leery of that idea, arguing that to keep playing a meaningful role in the bike community, shops’ business models must remain “fluid and responsive” to change.
This is a qualitative paper, not a numbers-based one, so Weslowski isn’t trying to come up with any dubiously specific formula for saving bike shops, or even for explaining how cities have ended up with a category of retailers that, at their best, let “financial gain commingle with community gain.” Instead, he’s bringing the tools of academics to a question that’s going to be very important to the future of urban bicycling.
Here’s one last passage from the paper that I found especially striking:
I encountered many connections to Abrahamson’s definitions and theories of urban enclaves (1996). Enclaves contain self-identified communities of individuals who relate to one another based both on place and a shared cultural trait (Abrahamson, 1996 p. 5). These are best exemplified in larger cities’ Chinatowns or other similar racially or ethnically defined neighborhoods, but perhaps we can imagine a broader ‘bicycle community’ as having enclaves centered around many different neighborhood bike shops. As Abrahamson describes, “Attraction to an enclave can also be based on the goods and services…offered in its specialized stores and institutions.”
Riding a bike is a lot different from being part of a particular racial or ethnic group, of course. But for people who care about bikes, a great bike shop can function a lot like a barber shop or a Knights of Columbus hall. Even if someday we have to get every saddle and sprocket delivered to our front porch, let’s hope we find ways to keep making it profitable for a few good business owners to play that larger role.
Michael Andersen was news editor of BikePortland.org from 2013 to 2016 and still pops up occasionally.