Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Bicycle Boutique: a Prognosis of the Future?

Bicycle shops in the US can be divided into several categories. Typical local bike shops sell a wide range of bicycles, from road, to mountain, to utility bikes and beyond. Then there are the specialised bike shops that stock only a specific kind of bicycle - for example, European city bikes. There are also the community co-op bike shops and the used bike shops. And finally, there are the bicycle boutiques.

The boutique bike shop is a relatively new phenomenon. It is designed to resemble a gallery space rather than a store, and often incorporates a coffee shop or a lounge area.  The space features an open floor plan and minimalist decor. The stock of bicycles and accessories is kept intentionally sparse, so that each item receives individual attention. The staff usually have a personal connection to the shop. Instead of sales pitches, there is a calm curatorial demeanor. And the careful selection of bicycles tends to be on the high-end side.

In the Boston area, the latest and much talked about bicycle boutique is the Ride Studio Cafe in Lexington, and I have stopped by a couple of times when cycling through the area.

The Ride Studio Cafe sells mainly two types of bicycles. There are high end road bikes by the world-famous Seven Cycles that are built right here in Watertown, MA.

And there are budget city bicycles (diamond frame and mixtes) from the San Francisco-based Public Bikes.

There is also apparel by Rapha and Campagnolo, as well as a variety of chamois creams and embrocation lotions. 

In the back is a small workshop and storage area that is separated from the main floor, but accessible to visitors.

My first reaction upon entering the store, was an intimidated amazement upon seeing so many (titanium?) Seven bicycles in the same place, casually propped against walls here and there. Though I am not normally attracted to modern, non-lugged roadbikes, there is something about Seven Cycles that is just so impeccable that my eye cannot help but be drawn to them. I moved one of the bikes aside in order to photograph it, but got so nervous touching and positioning the beautiful, feather-light and extremely expensive machine, that after one picture with shaking hands I decided to put it back. Later it occurred to me that these bicycles are floor models and people probably test ride them all the time. Not sure whether I would be able to handle that, but the idea of test riding a Seven is tempting.

During the several months of its fledgling existence, the Ride Studio Cafe has been a frequent topic of conversation among local bicycle enthusiasts, with speculations regarding its long-term feasibility. Is the population of Lexington and the surrounding towns really so affluent as to keep the boutique afloat with regular purchases of Seven bicycles and Rapha gear? And while the affordable Public bikes are a good way to diversify, is it enough?  If the answer to all of that is "yes", I think it is a fantastic sign of changing priorities among the segment of population with disposable income. Interestingly, the worse the economy is doing, the more of such boutiques are opening up. Could that indicate that more affluent suburban residents are choosing to purchase a silver Seven instead of the usual silver Lexus

33 comments:

  1. This may be unduly cynical for a lovely grey Boston afternoon, but I am with bikesnobnyc on the subject of embrocation lotions...and I even live in a leafy affluent suburb. Pretentious nonsense...while I agree that another Seven is preferable to another Lexus, I suspect that it is not a tradeoff: there will be another expensive accoutrement in the garage, but the Lexus will remain on the road with its driver yakking nonstop into an iPhone.

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  2. I like the coffee at the Ride Cafe, and I like gawking at the bikes, but I'm not particularly keen on their inventory. I don't know about the economics that are supporting the cafe, but I suspect that it's probably more realistic to look at them as a cafe that uses bikes to bring in their customers, rather than as a bike shop that that has a coffee bar. I don't think that selling the Sevens are anymore integral to their overall profitability than are the IndyFab or Peter Mooney frames than hang in the ceiling of Wheelworks. They likely pay their bills with lattes, pastries and tuneup jobs while selling bikes and swag are just bonuses to the bottom line.

    Also, it may be a little too cynical, but it's worth keeping in mind that bikes vs. cars isn't an either 'or' thing. People who are looking to be car-free and spend a lot of money on a bike are more likely to buy a fleet of more practical, less blingy rides. It's more likely that the new silver Seven isn't replacing a Lexus but a set of Callaway Golf Clubs or a fancy country club membership

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  3. i'm curious how much of a phenomenon this actually is... what other boutiques like this have opened up?

    i agree with anon 3:15 on this. i'm going to venture that the bicycle boutique phenomenon has less to do with a downturn in the economy and more to do with the idea that the hand built bike industry is being increasingly seen as another, new outlet for conspicuous consumption. there have always been hand-built bikes, but lately the hand-built "craft" bike industry has gotten more attention. this is not to say that high-end bikes are nothing more than status items (on the contrary, i dream of having a garage filled with hand-built bikes, each custom tailored to me and serving a specific purpose). regardless of economic cycles, there will always be a faction out there with tons of disposable income waiting for the next new craft "thing" to spend their money on.

    personally, i wouldn't be surprised if the ride studio cafe either doesn't survive, or has to significantly change its business model (oops, i meant "mission") in order to survive. i've said this before about another area "boutique" shop, and by golly, i was right.

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  4. How did I hear it said?

    "Owning a really nice bike is always better than owning an average car.."

    ...or something to that effect.

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  5. somervillain -- there's also Superb Bicycle in Kenmore, which is arguably more of a 'pure' bike boutique than Ride Studio and the kinda-sorta-open-not-really-still-figuring-it-out Open Bicycle in Union Square (which is, I suspect, your 'other area boutique'. Further afield, you've got Adeline Adeline in NYC, DRIF in LA and even Jitensha in Oakland ... though, arguably, Jitensha's kind of predated this particular trend, it still has all of the hallmarks of a boutique -- specific selection, high end catalog, niche consumer audience.

    Jitensha's kind of shown that you can 'do it right' if you understand your customers and your business model, but for most of the current generation I agree that their models don't seem particularly sustainable, but it'll be interesting to see if it evolves into something else or is just a fad.

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  6. I think "boutique" shops are a fad. IMO, a durable, strong bicycle culture needs bike shop, lots of regular bike shops. The kind that sell no-nonsense, usefull bikes and that fix flat tires. Not the kind that sell rapha gear or titanium bikes.

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  7. I would love to look at their books. There is no reason why such a business must fail, but it's a tough model to make work. Most stores need to SELLSELLSELL to make the rent and pay salaries. In the case of bike shops, they usually pump hybrids and accessories for this reason. Considering the whole idea of these boutiques is to avoid the SELLSELLSELL atmosphere, they are at a disadvantage from the start.

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  8. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

    Hence, shops for cultured city bikes, in cultured cities.

    Shops for distance + speed bikes (and their consumers) where practicable. (often affluent suburbs, adjacent to smooth backroads)

    Shops for mountain + downhill bikes (and their consumers) where practicable. (often adjacent to wooded + suitable terrain, plus a stronger demographically monied youth presence)

    Shops for people who don't know how to fix their own flat tires?

    EVERYWHERE.

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  9. From their website (arrows added)

    Location:
    Located in the heart of Lexington Center.
    -->With lots of parking.<--

    ha ha ha ha ... are you kidding me? That's about as ridiculous as it gets, drive (a car) to the bike shop and park for free where you can hang out and get a coffee before driving (a car) away. What a joke.

    That said, maybe I am just being judgemental of the Lexington Lifestyle, I sure wouldn't mind it if they opened up down the street from me here in the city. But I would always be biking there.

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  10. Ironically, the Lexington Center is a kind of Potemkin Village itself. It looks nice from Main St., (Mass Ave.) but the main drag, that is so often praised and envied, is cut off from the rest of the town like an island by a huge sea of parking lots.

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  11. BTW, I like to hate on the Lexington lifestyle too, but every so often I visit a real auto-dependent shithole and regain an appreciation for the Metro West.

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  12. Anon 3:15 - Maybe the Lexus will drive more carefully with a Seven strapped onto the bike rack?

    Lexington is nice for cycling, but too far away from the water for me; not to mention sandwiched between 2 Superfund towns. If I could choose where to live in Boston Metro, it would be South Boston.

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  13. I haven't seen any bike boutique cafes yet and that's living near a very bike friendly city. I think it's a nice idea to have a hub at a practical bike shop or coop with a cafe and mechanic's shop. "Bike friendly" cafe/restaurants are nice if they remember bike parking. A shop with only high end titanium bikes and a few lower end bikes thrown plus a few high priced goodies in does not make sense other than for atmosphere and conspicuous consumption. A great idea would be to have a bike cafe with a range of lugged, precious, semi precious, clunky and aluminum repaired, ready to ride second hand bikes on display that are reasonably priced.

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  14. Wow, that looks like a beautiful shop! While there are a couple of really nice gallery-like bike shops in Chicago, nothing comes close to that boutique/cafe like feel. I say, the more, the better!

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  15. We opened a utility/urban bike shop this past February here in Calgary and some of our customers like to use the term "boutique" to describe our shop however, we have never tried to subscribe to that idea.

    Certainly we have a very specific product offering, and have tried really hard to create a space that is inviting - but in my mind, a "boutique" is indeed more gallery-like while our shop is more shaby-chic-comfortable - kinda like being at grandmas house!

    Without getting too wrapped up in semantics, I think you will see more shops opening that are focused on a particular niche in the bike market - whether its fixies, DH, high-end road, whatever. It only makes sense, especially in this economic market.

    This particular shop seems like it is lost. Public Bikes and Seven? Talk about opposite ends of the spectrum!

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  16. I see an amusing trend in your blog towards road bikes. When I first started reading, it was all about upright, vintage and city bikes (Pashley and the like) and more recently, since you started riding Graham and the fixed gear, you've mentioned road bikes more and more. I love reading your blog!

    I started out a few years ago as a road cyclist, thanks to my wife and father in law...but learned SO much from reading your blog about commuters, uprights, etc. I'm enjoying your journey in learning to love all the different styles and their particular uses. And now you're interested in riding a SEVEN! So much fun.

    Thanks for all your helpful information and musings...most generous of you.
    Nicholas

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  17. All our "bike cafes" cater to a fixie/messenger scene and serve extra jiterry acidic coffees and the sort of industrially extruded soy foods that pronounce "I'm virtuous" yet are deeply not.

    I think it's a good sign that people want to spend their disposable income on bikes. I don't know the Boston suburbs at all, but it sounds from your descriptions (Lexus etc) like this store both sells the kind of bikes people in Lexington might want and, vaguely, the kind they might need? If it's farther away from the city center and hilly, then city bikes don't make a ton of sense there, I would guess?

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  18. @ annon 10:16.
    Before you ridicule, are you sure that they meant car parking?
    I was just there for the first time, and one of the nice things was that they have ample interior BIKE parking- no locks, no fuss.

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  19. This shop is literally across the street from both Starbucks and Peet's Coffee, so there is no shortage of places to get a Latte or espresso-drinks. Behind Lexington Centre is the famous Minuteman bike trail, where I do occasionally see Seven road bikes. Their location choice seems very intentional.

    Don't get me wrong, I honestly, sincerely, wish them and all other bike-themed business the best of luck, yet something seems off to me about this particular store. Maybe I don't understand how important it is for some cyclists to have physical access to very nice "designer" bike-gear by Campagnolo and Rapha. Maybe I simply missed all the crowds of coffee-drinking cyclists every time I visited. Maybe I should visit again.

    But I can't imagine walking into a regular bike shop any more often than I see myself visiting an auto-parts store, to continue the car analogy. Perhaps to replace a worn windshield wiper or a bulb, only to return a year later for something else small. This bike shop in Lexington wouldn't have the parts/stuff I need, so I'd go into it if I wanted a Seven or a Public bike, but otherwise I'd feel as though I am in a luxury car dealership without any intention of buying a luxury car.

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  20. BikeBike - As you say, I think specialised bike shops (like the Portland Velocipede shop I wrote about earlier) are different from boutique bike shops; it is a matter of atmosphere and of how the floor is arranged.

    Thanks Nicholas, my interest in road bikes has definitely increased over the past year and a half! However, I still consider upright city bicycles essential for transportation and would not be willing to commute on a roadbike.

    MDI - It's true that you can see a lot of cyclists on Seven bicycles on the Minuteman trail, and on the road in Lexington, Concord and Carlyle as well. It is an affluent area, and one where many bicycle races and team training rides are held. So I think the Ride Studio Cafe is well placed there and that speaks positively about their business model. While I doubt that anybody would walk in and spontaneously buy a Seven, I could see a cyclist going there intentionally to test ride one, and picking up a Public for their spouse or child while they were at it. As for the apparel, I have to say that the pricing of some of it is more accessible than one would think, and I did buy a great cycling jacket there (not Rapha) as well as replenished my supplies of DZ Nuts. Did not have a chance to try their coffee.

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  21. "The space features an open floor plan and minimalist decor."

    Minimalist as in cramming a full espresso store into a bike shop with such a low volume of inventory one has to go all over town to complete their test-ride list?!

    Buy bike. Use bike to cruise across street to coffee shop. Then use bike to cruise on over to active-wear store, book store, & a toliet to flush all your money down. Bamn. Done.

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  22. Bike boutiques, too rich for my pocket.

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  23. I for one am happy it's there simply b/c I'd like to test ride a public. I'm plotting my visit soon. I personally like the concept but it sounds like they only have sevens or publics? That seems odd as if one doesn't want either bike why go? I def like to oogle and would love to oogle some nice bikes.

    I would gather that they'll do initially well as that area can support such a venture for a while.

    As an aside- I find it hilarious- the varied comments all over the web about pricing for bikes. In one space I hear people conplain that a public bike is too $$ and why not just buy a cheap bike. then I go to a different space and hear everyone talking about how cheaply made publics are... It's all relative. I know nothing about sevens- but I say wonderful. And for people who want to and can buy them- go for it. The value of the bike is also partly in how happy it makes a person right?

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  24. I think great bikes are art.

    I think that the people that make them are artists or maybe ARTISANS, and that often those who fix and customize them are too.

    I think that art - especially (the) bicycle (as) art - needs appreciating.

    Think of the great efforts and monies spent on art in this world.

    Think of the art supply stores and art galleries, art schools, museums and so on, dedicated. Magazines, TV shows, galas, art is everywhere.

    There are places you can watch artists at work.

    You can get art created for you, by commission.

    You could be an artist (framebuilder, mechanic, constructeur, etc) yourself.

    And so it goes with bikes.

    I'd like to see a showroom (/cafe) attached to a busy custom framebuilder's shop - separated by glass - like an open kitchen at a restaurant.

    I'd like to see more shops with enough space and friendly enough mechanics that you could talk with the guy working on your bike, one on one, like taking your kid to the doctor or your pet to the vet.

    I hold Curbside Cycle, and Urbane Cyclist (both in Toronto) dear for their efforts and true love of bikes and their riders.

    La Carerra Cycles, Hoopdriver also deserve mention - and visit, if your ever up in the Great White North.

    I try to give them all as much of my money as I can.

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  25. Actually, there were bike boutiques in Paris along l'Avenue de la Grande Armee, which leads from l'Arc de Triomphe to la Place de la Defense.

    When I was living in Paris nearly three decades ago, each of the major French bicycle manufacturers (e.g., Peugeot, Gitane, Motobecane) as well as some smaller ones had such a boutique along Grande Armee. So did a few of the French specialty builders and a couple of non-French bike makers like Raleigh.

    Those shops have disappeared; Vespa dealerships and French versions of overpriced theme restaurants have taken their place. I rather missed them on my last visit to Paris; it was fun, to this American, to see places where bikes and bike-related gear (especially jerseys) were treated as objets d'art, if to the point of fetishizing or even commodifying them. That level of respect for bicycles was all but unknown in the US in those days.

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  26. "A great idea would be to have a bike cafe with a range of lugged, precious, semi precious, clunky and aluminum repaired, ready to ride second hand bikes on display that are reasonably priced." - Anon 10/5 11:28PM

    Please do this! Include good music, coffee, shabby furniture, and an old hound dog I can pet while reading old bike mags and I promise to be a loyal customer. Oh, and true my wheels while I wait (yes, I will pay).

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  27. I have to agree with most people here...in Austin, we have the prince of all boutique bike shops....Mellow Johnny's with its connected coffee shop Juan Pelota...get the joke? Anyway, there are a good amount of cyclists there, of course, but I think the majority of people drive there in fancy cars and buy bike "outfits".....oh well....

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  28. Justine, as you know it since you lived there, the avenue de la Grande Armée is where, traditionaly, car and bike makers own their flagship showrooms. Not a dealerships
    , a compagny owned showroom. (Now, some of thess car showrooms are on the Champs Elysées). The real estate market and the bike market being what they are in this neighborhood, the bike showrooms eventualy had to go...
    The point is, those "shops" were never really intended to actualy sell bikes, but rather as a "vitrine". People usualy get their rides on the bike shop around the corner.
    And they didn't sell expressos, anyway ...
    (That's a side note, but in the US, you really love to sell foods and drinks anywhere. Book shops, bike shops...)

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  29. For any of you who haven't read it, I recommend Thorstein Veblen's THE THEORY OF THE LEISURE CLASS. On a positive note, this kind of consumerism and patronizing of a small business might help boost the economy.

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  30. I've really enjoyed reading everyone's comments... whether or not you'd actually buy a high end bike from a boutique, you have to admit we in the Greater Boston Area are pretty lucky. There's a bike shop for everyone- boutique, family, big box-y, urban, mountain, vintage, commuter, DIY... pretty nice to have a cycling community to support the selection!

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  31. "That level of respect for bicycles was all but unknown in the US in those days."- Justine Valinotti

    From what you say, that level was unknown in most places in the world. Just as the ways of these Randonneurs and Roadsters is appreciated nowadays, America has it's own cultural ties to the bicycle, more than American Flyers and Breaking Away though they serve as good examples. Past examples of Americana I would say have the bike tied in with the ecological(the big green E symbol) /physical fitness/energy crisis prevalent in the past and it was largely an organic movement and in this sense, these boutiques seems to be a sort of an organic spontaneous movement likewise. "The level of respect for bicycles was unknown in those days", and that is why gazillions of Raleighs, Motobecanes, Peugeots, Miyatas, Zebrakenkos, Nishikis, etc. were all imported along with our domestic brands, many of which were indeed handcrafted bicycles? Bicycling magazine to it's credit has been around many many years, nowadays some people might not get a lot out of it but if you look at some older issues from the '70s and '80s, I would think largely their viewpoints of the cycling world were very much prioritized with many views like those being currently being held. That's why magazines like Bicycle Times and Paved on the newsstands now are indeed reminiscent of what bicycling published back then.

    I would also opine that before money entered into American Professional Cycling, before any Americans ever rode in the Tour de France and it was basically a domestic competition with races like the Red Zinger/Coors Classic, the environment and social malaise was indeed refreshing as reflected in the above movies.

    This is why one of my favorite pet projects is a mini-collection of bike boom literature, books, Glenn's bicycle book is probably one of the better known examples of such but by means, not the only one. Many of those books might be considered obsolete today which is a shame because a lot of it still holds up.

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  32. Philippe, it's true that none of those places served espresso. Everything else you say is true. However, those showrooms are, in at least one way, like the boutiques Velouria describes: They were places in which the show was more important than the substance.

    I don't buy things from bike boutiques (We have a few here in New York.); there are a couple of shops I trust because the salespeople and mechanics are knowlegdable cyclists.

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  33. In the end of the day, its about creating a RETAIL/SERVICE environment that the owner can make money from while doing what they love! Some consumers like to go in immediately to buy the products, while other consumers spend time and appreciate the products before doing so. I have started a bike boutique recently with incredible service abilities meeting all ends of a bike retail environment. So you see... Its a CULTURE and will take on many different ways/forms of operating. Its down to the founder and whether they understand their business in the entirety of its target market and what the needs are... lets remember that some entrepreneurs do this as a hobby and their focus is different to some that prioritise the 'making money' aspect. Ultimately they are so in love with the fact that they are doing what they love.
    My company certainly has been successful in balancing both boutique with reliable service here in London. Come see us sometime! You will change your attitude to bike boutiques OXOXOX promise XOOXOX

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