Friday, March 22, 2013

The Service-Oriented Bike Shop

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
As I continue to gain familiarity with the bicycle industry, I am always curious to observe different models of bike shops in action. There is so much variety in inventory, atmosphere and business practices. Some bike shops cater to athletes, others to everyday riders. Some carry high-end products, others are budget-minded. Some are diversified in their offerings, others are quite specific. One model that I find particularly interesting is that of the service-oriented bike shop - a model where the focus is on service and repairs rather than on sales. 

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
In the Boston area we have a few shops that lean in that direction, and one that truly exemplifies it. Hub Bicycle in Cambrige is described by its owner Emily as a "pro bicycle repair" shop. 

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
Although an authorised dealer of a variety of brands with products available to order, on any given day Hub Bicycle carries little inventory. What they do carry consists mostly of accessories: lights, fenders, racks, baskets, bells. 

HUB Bicycle Chairs
There is no online store. Everything is about the in-person experience, the here and now.

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
And the customer who drops by for a tune-up, repair, or overhaul gets exactly that, instead of being encouraged to buy new parts or upgrade. 

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
There is lots of flat fixing - Every time I've been to the shop, at least two customers had come in with flats within relatively short time periods. While elsewhere I have seen mechanics roll their eyes at this, at Hub it is treated as entirely normal. No job is too small. 

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
The service-oriented shop is a great place to spot interesting vintage bikes, since bicycles of all ages and conditions are welcomed. Examining this saddle, I learned that Belt was a "Fujita Leatherworks" brand - supplied on early Fuji bikes.

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
Obscure French 10-speed from the '70s? Department store mountain bike from the '90s? Something with a no-name coaster brake hub of uncertain vintage? Other shops might tremble or cringe, but here such machines are welcome with open tool chest.

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
At the service-oriented shop, you are also likely to see quirky patch-up jobs and DIY repairs. 

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
Funky decorations.

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
There are frames brought in for custom builds, which the shop is also happy to do - following the customer's suggesting their own.

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
There are bikes in for 650B conversions, single speed conversions, road to city conversions. 

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
There are clinics and instructional courses for those who want to learn how to perform their own repairs and maintenance. 

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
But for the most part, basic tune-ups and quick fixes for walk-in customers are what's happening. 

HUB Bicycle Windowsill
The success of a service and repairs shop depends on the local culture. Hub Bicycle is situated in a busy, urban part of Cambridge MA, where it is very feasible to get walk-ins. Local cyclists will drop by on their lunch break or after work when they need something done. And when a shop like this is around, word quickly spreads. Lots of people in Boston own vintage 3-speeds, 10-speeds and old mountain bikes, as well as quirky modern city bikes that the mainstream shops don't quite know what to do with. A centrally located bike shop that is willing - and able - to work on such machines with a quick turn around time becomes a go-to resource. 

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
Service-oriented bike shops are popular in countries where cycling for transportation is commonplace and doing one's own repairs is not. In Vienna I knew of several bike shops that opened at 7am, so that cyclists could stop in on their way to work. Passing by in the morning, there would sometimes be a queue out the door. Broken chains, worn brake pads, snapped cables, flat tires - absolutely normal to roll your bike to the shop and get it fixed while chatting with other customers and staff - much like Ellie Blue has recently discussed doing.

In North America, bike shops focusing on service and repairs are comparatively rare. As more people start riding for transport, perhaps that could change.

43 comments:

  1. Isn't this refreshing? I worked in a bunch of shops when I was younger and the one that was closest to this sort of thing was by far the most satisfying, it even paid as well as the others believe it or not.

    The thing that really stands out to me is the fact that there's usually women involved with this sort of shop these days. That has be an improvement over the bad old days of my experience. It probably leads to a friendlier place for customers in lots of ways, and not just for women, and the atmosphere in the shop would be infinitely better, and if you think I mean the smell you're right...

    Spindizzy

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  2. I've been a satisfied customer of Hub for some time now. There's certainly a convenience factor--it's a few blocks from home and on my regular commuting route--but sometimes I've gotten the feeling at other shops that they're doing just the absolute minimum to get your bike out again, or maybe even less, and I've never gotten that from Emily & crew. It's a lot easier to decide to take your bike in to the shop when you know the job will be done right.

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  3. I just noticed what looks like a Phil Wood spoke cutting/threading machine in the background of the "Tattoo" shot. Not something you find in the average "Just give me your money and get out" shop. If they have one of those and know how to drive it, they can probably be trusted to do things right...

    Spindizzy

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  4. overhaul for $180 sounds crazy... skip couple of those and you can get a new bike

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    1. Depends on the bike, right?

      Even if the bike is a cheapo, a sane owner may well opt to pay fair value to fix a perfect fit and ride cheapo over trashing it in favor of another bike that may not be right.

      Not to mention the waste of resources.

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    2. Overhead is high in places like Cambridge. Costs are similar here in the pricier neighborhoods of the SF Bay Area.

      Also, what's your time worth? I charge customers for all the time I spent learning to be very good at what I do.

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    3. I think it all depends on exactly what an overhaul entails.

      The shady thing about something like a "tune-up" and an "overhaul" is, there is no standard definition of these things. Sure, I bet ppl will post under this about their personal definitions, but you can't ever predict what it might mean at a specific shop. For $180, I'd assume it was about as comprehensive as it gets, but I'd be certain to clarify before I ordered such a service.

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    4. Those prices aren't out of line with most of the shops around here. When I've gone to Hub for specific repairs, the charges have been quite reasonable. And if you do regular routine maintenance, a complete overhaul isn't going to be a frequent need.

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    5. "There is no online store. Everything is about the in-person experience, the here and now."

      So you could ask. I bet they give good value. The experience *in the shop*, with the details, is where you evaluate such things, not out here in blogosphere.

      Bike repair is all about the details.

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  5. Especially important to have such shops in urban areas where many cyclists live in spaces too small to realistically set up a proper repair area or even keep a lot of the necessary tools.

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  6. Velouria,
    Thanks for this post. I retired from my day engineering job nine months ago and opened a bicycle repair shop for just that reason. I Don't sell bicycles, I just do repairs and the occasional restoration.
    The big "full service" bike shops are either 30 miles south of me or 40 miles north so I fit in quite nicely. Most of my work is tune-ups,flat repairs, and new tire mounting. It's been kind of quiet during the winter but I've been told to expect much more work as soon as the warm weather arrives here in Maine.
    Emile

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    1. Emile:

      Where are you located?

      CHEERS!
      w

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    2. Indeed. If you're near where I ride up in central Maine (Augusta area) I'll try to come by.

      Delete
  7. I've just started working at a bike shop and one of the first things my boss told me was that "the business is built on the stand." Anything else a customer can get from the internet or dozens of shops in larger towns. But when they flat or need a hub packed, we are where they come to. We may not be a "service oriented" shop per-say, but we're a small shop in a small town, promoted almost exclusively by word of of mouth. We literally cannot afford to deny anyone service, regardless if they're bringing in a Wal-mart princess bike or a full carbon road bike. In my opinion, it is the first responsibility of any shop to keep people riding. (By the way, excellent photos of what looks to be an awesome shop)

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    1. "the business is built on the stand."

      This is so incredibly true. Without competent mechanics providing excellent service, a bike shop is nothing more than a useless "middleman"; shops without good service policies and procedures are a parasite upon the bum of the bicycle industry.

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  8. And once they do, can you think of better places to set up coffee shops?

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  9. Service packaged with the sale of a new bike is where it's at.

    Hey look a lot of non-prestige bikes!

    What Emile said.

    And when a city has enough density to support service-only shops, they have the higher cost of living mass, hence $95 tune ups, etc.

    Elly's post is weird, per usual. Girl is penurious, yet wants to be served to the tune of $300/year.

    What is it about girls, and guys, who love DIY, knitting, being self-sufficient...yet hate maintenance? Is it the dirt? Ew.

    Encouragingly a lot of women don't have that hang-up and are starting these kind of shops, teaching other women (and men) how to wrench and do simple things.

    Btw prestige bikes necessitate prestige-priced maintenance. See BMW, Mercedes, Audi.

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    1. "Service packaged with the sale of a new bike is where it's at"

      I was asleep when I wrote that. It's an indicator species hurdle to overcome.

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    2. Eh, I dunno GRJ. I used to do all my automobile maintenance, and I technically can rebuild or repair any aspect of an automobile, unless I don't have the necessary specialized tool for something specific. Clutches. Brakes. Timing belts. Struts. Done that.

      But I no longer do. It's not a matter of being able to versus not, or a sense of independence, but a matter of whether I will gain enough satisfaction from the endeavor to justify the time and effort required to do it.

      Oil changes? I used to scoff at anyone who would waste $30 at the corner garage for such a service, when it can be done by oneself for $15. Today? I go to the corner garage and pay (more like $40 now). Brakes? Same deal.

      Fact is, I just don't get the same satisfaction I once did working on cars myself. Home and bike repair, I do, so I do.

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  10. The Bicycle Trip and the Bike Church in Santa Cruz, California, are other examples of this service model.

    Finian

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    1. In Los Angeles, Flying Pigeon, Orange 20 and Open Road. I love every one of 'em, and tip my helmet or stop in whenever I pass.

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    2. @ Finian - I agree on both- the Bike Church if you want to do it yourself and rent tools and space, and The Bicycle Trip for most anything else. The former owner of Sprockets (himself a lover of old bikes and an ace mechanic) runs the service dept. at the Bicycle Trip now.

      CK

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  11. We're fond of a similar bike shop that opened recently here, Roll SF. Although I've known about it for a while, people I know keep discovering it as well and telling me about it. So far the long hours (meaning you can drop off the bike before work and pick it up after work) and online booking system seem to draw the most raves.

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  12. Shops like this are great if you have them. There should be more of them! I'd like a place to take my bike and not feel like a dork or an idiot for not fixing it myself. My local bike shops are all about down hill biking and moan and complain about all other kinds of bikes. So I rarely ever support them certainly never bring my bikes in. I can do some things, but lack the strength or whatever it is in my hands that is required for bike repairs, generally make a mess of things. My husband worked in bike shops so handles most of the bike maintenance, but sometimes he doesn't want to do whatever needs doing. If I try and do it, tears ensue and he usually has to take over. I would not say it's because I'm a girl, when I had my car I had that magical repair book and did many tedious repairs myself. But I read Ellie Blue's post and did find it true about gender issues-unfortunately still so in this day and age.

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  13. These kinds of repair shops are the cat's meow but, really, they've always been around and I think it's the opposite which is to say they were once not a rarity at all. Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back but I've never had a problem finding them in each community I've lived in, especially in the Northwest where one couldn't swing a dead cat w/o hitting one :)

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  14. We've got a great local shop like this - they don't carry much in the way of stock, mostly just lights, accessories etc, but they have a fast, friendly repair service. A discounted service got me through the door when they first opened, and I've been back often since then, for things that are either too fiddly/boring to do myself (tuning gears), on the road repairs on my way in to work in the morning, and setting up new bikes. There's no point competing with the big chains and online retailers on price and range, but where small independent stores can really shine is service. We wouldn't expect someone to do all their car repairs themself, so why should we expect someone always to have the time, skills and inclination to do their own bike repairs?

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    1. The skills part is super simple -- nearly anyone can do it. Time and inclination are inextricably linked. Inclination, specifically, is what I was questioning.

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    2. Don't know where Liz lives but cannot stress enough enough how much available space figures in the home wrenching equation.

      In urban areas where 900 square feet 2 bedroom units are common, carving out real estate for a suitable repair area can be a challenge.

      Add the fact that even the best folding stands are middling substitutes for a proper fixed stand and a decent set of tools, replacement parts, solvents and lubricants take up space that might otherwise be in regular use for non biking living space.

      Even lubricating the bike in a small living space can be a challenge if you care about your walls and floors. I have to move furniture, spread out a plastic tarp, set up the folding stand, then leave everything set up until I am sure the lube is embedded enough not to leak when the bike is on the stand before putting everything away.

      Given the above, I am frequently inclined to question why bother when a skilled friendly nearby mechanic can do as well if not better for a fair sum.

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  15. In Berkeley (Ca.) there are lots of bike shops, most of which are sales first. There's a bike shop near me, though, where there is just one guy (the owner) who does all the work. He doesn't sell bikes (maybe a few used). It's $85 for a complete tune up. He tuned my bike last spring perfectly, and just recently I stopped in because my kickstand (double) was loose and I didn't have the correct size tool. Winston took the stand off, cleaned it, put on some loctite,reinstalled, and refused to take any money! Old style service. No up-sell. You can see he loves what he does.

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    1. Rock the Bike ain't a typical...anything!

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    2. Name of shop is...? We're still missing Recycle Bikes.

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    3. Berkeley Skateboards and Bikes on San Pablo near REI. Winston is the owner/mechanic.

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    4. Thanks for the info. I see his sign all the time while riding down San Pablo.

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  16. Great post. Here in Worcester there's a bike shop, Barney's, that I've been going to since getting back into riding about a year ago. It's pretty cool because in the past few years, Barney's moved into a new location, but kept the old one open exclusively for service and used bikes. What I love is that they don't seem to be too in tune with the more fanatical extreme of bicycle enthusiasm. I had been perusing all these forums about replacing wheel bearings because I had it my head that my 1980s Peugeot mtb needed new bearings, but when I asked the guy about it he just yanked the wheels a bit, asked if they made any noise, and said, "we generally don't mess with bearings unless they are causing a problem." It was a refreshing reality check that maybe I should just leave well enough alone and ride my bike.

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  17. There's one of these in my neighborhood. Lots of locals come by the shop and there are some really interesting bikes. Quite a few long haulers also show up, so I guess 'word of mouth' has spread the word that this is the shop to go to. They also sell quite a few bikes and supplies; they can order (willingly!) anything you might need to keep the old bikes going.

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  18. If you want to be treated well when you bring a bike to the shop for repair do two things:

    1) Bring them a clean bike. Not polished shining detailed, just clean enough the mechanic doesn't have to clean everything before even starting.

    2) Have just one problem. If you bring in a bike with a mass of nested problems there's just no good outcome either for you or the shop.

    If you do both of these the shop should be nice to you, remember you, and everything should go well. Biggest service problem is always the bike that basically needs not an overhaul but a scratch rebuild and the customer is only aware of the final nail in the coffin that made them come in. That describes so many bikes I've never understood how a repair shop could exist. The shops that do a good job in spite of all the obstacles are staffed by exceptional wonderful people.

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  19. I live in a small and poor european town, with population ~12000 and we have 3 bikeshops orientated on selling MTB's and 1 selling some cheap citybikes too. All 4 of them maintained essentially their sold bikes and selling parts for the same type of bicycles. Nothing special or exciting. For old classic bikes did not offer anyone anything and also did not want them repaired by someone.
    Now I have a small shop in this field, started 3 years ago.
    Customers are happy and I'm not myself yet to have died of hunger... but, of course, I do not become rich...

    1/3 is sales (parts for classics and oldtimers and refurbished bicycles), 1/3 maintenance and 1/3 restoration, renovation, repainting etc.

    P.S. Looking here visible prices, I weep jealousy...

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  20. This is my kind of shop! I wish there was one like it where I live. Being "Fuji Crazy" I was very happy to see the pic of the fujita belt saddle. I ride two of those, and they are very nice. When I was at Yellow Jersey in Madison, Wi last Sept. I found a Fujita made tennis racket holder for your bike! It goes on the fork and clamps the handle of the tennis racket upside down. Pretty neat.

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  21. Speaking of service oriented shops, I remember World Champion Bicycles here in Albuquerque, owned by Richard "Dick, that's Mr to you" Hallet. Wonderful old tyme shop with cogboard and long rows of shelving holding all the odd parts you'd ever need to rebuild that Lygie or Urago. (He had a Urago ex pro hanging by the front door.) Brooks saddles in the mid '90s! He also had a literally museum quality collection stored at the shop (including a, true, NOS boneshaker that he would not sell to the Smithsonian) and down the street. His mantra, "It's not worth my while to look for that part." The service board by the door included the statement, "We do not work on Huffys."

    Stevie's Happy Bikes in nearby Corrales is, in a city with many good shops, a great little place the specializes in repair and sale of older bikes.

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  22. "Lots of people in Boston own vintage 3-speeds, 10-speeds and old mountain bikes, as well as quirky modern city bikes that the mainstream shops don't quite know what to do with."

    With reasonable confidence I went recently into Broadway Bicycle looking for two tiny terminal nuts for a 44-year old Sturmey Archer Dynohub. The mechanic went to the basement and returned about a minute later with the very things - set me back $2. Brilliant!

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  23. woman owned bike shop, woo-hoooo!

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  24. If there is a sea change with regard to bikes I suspect the new scene will be like the current automobile culture....A few giant sales/service kinda places with a lot more small repair shops opening and, hopefully, being able to stay in business :)

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  25. Fixing old bikes can be hard - it takes a huge inventory of recovered and scavenged stuff, carefully organized and indexed. A place in Madison Wisconsin, Budget Bicycle Center, had that (and probably still does). One day I was working on an old coaster brake manufactured by a company that hadn't even been in existence for decades. "Hey Mike, we have any Mattatuck coaster brake transfer springs (haha)?". To my lasting astonishment, Mike walked into a back room, and came out with a box, "Sure. We got all kinds of 'em".

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