Monday, July 22, 2013

The Bike Shop Next Door

Bicycle Belle, Boston
It is the hottest day of the summer when I visit the finished space - a space I have watched transform from a dusty vacant storefront around the corner from my house, to Boston's only transportation-oriented bike shop. Carice and the Small Brown Dog are basking in the morning glow of the homey sun-drenched interior. The newly installed air conditioning is blessedly strong. The phone rings, and it appears that someone wants to order a bike. It is official: Bicycle Belle is open for business. 

Bicycle Belle, Boston
I have known Carice for about 4 years now - an architect, local bike blogger, DIY addict and lover of vintage 3-speeds. On occasion, we would meet for tea. Funny to think it was only months ago that, engaged in that very activity, we discussed taking the cargo bike plunge. She was considering buying a Dutch bakfiets. I was leaning toward an Xtracycle Radish. We debated the pros and cons of each. 

Bicycle Belle, Boston
Now both cargo bikes stand side by side in her very own retail space. It was that quick: from idea, to decision, to action, to completion, in just a couple of months. And yet, what happened felt neither hasty nor impulsive. Sometimes an idea develops dormantly, swirling around under the surface for years, ripening, just waiting for something to crack that surface open. In the Spring of 2013, Carice felt that something and the idea became reality. And once the decision was made, her organisational skills, work ethic, and industry contacts from years of bike blogging, made everything happen swiftly. A bit of luck with the retail space cinched the deal. 

Bicycle Belle Opening
The retail space had several compelling qualities to recommend it. First, the address. Situated on the border of Somerville and Cambridge (quite literally: half the building is on one side of the town line, half on the other), it sits at the start of Beacon Street - a bicycle super-highway through two of Boston's most bike-friendly boroughs. With its triangular footprint, the structure is distinct and no doubt an architect's dream. Windows on all sides, the interior is penetrated by gorgeous natural light. The wrap-around storefront also makes the wares on display highly visible to local traffic. 

Bicycle Belle, Somerville MA
Finally - and rather remarkably - the space was available for immediate occupancy. Carice saw an opportunity and took it.

Bicycle Belle Opening
At the start of July Bicycle Belle was soft-launched under the slogan "cycling for city life." At present, the core collection includes transportation bicycles from Bobbin, Papillionnaire, Beater, Paper Bike and Soma, cargo bikes from Workcycles, Xtracycle and Kinn, and a slew of accessories from the likes of Basil, Brooks, Cleverhood, Vespertine, Yepp, Burley, Iva Jean, Velo Orange, et cetera. With utility/ transport/ city/ family bikes (circle your preferred term) more popular in North America than ever, there is nothing unusual about the inventory - save for the fact that a store with an exclusive focus on this market did not already exist in Boston, a major US city teeming with bicycle commuters.

Bicycle Belle Opening
Over the years, many of us have wondered why that was so. Not only was there no transportation-specific bike shop, but many shops that did try to carry some of that merchandise would often drop it after only a year or two - citing lack of local interest. "Boston is too aggressive of a city for these types of bikes" bike shop owners have told me - meaning cargo bikes, utility bikes. And yet, more and more of "these types of bikes" kept filling the streets. Clearly locals were buying them, and they were traveling out of town to do so - or else ordering online. Bike shops in places as remote as Oregon, Florida, California and Washington State have reported routinely selling bikes to customers in Boston.

One possible explanation for the discrepancy, is that the shops citing a lack of local interest have not been sufficiently "into" utility bikes to successfully sell them. When you don't fully believe in a product, customers sense that and failure can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By committing wholly to the utility bike target market, Bicycle Belle hopes to experience a more positive response.

Bicycle Belle Opening
Will the approach work? After only weeks in business, it is far too early to tell. It's worked for a dozen or so successful city bike shops that have sprung up throughout the US. But there are also those that have failed. Since opening its doors, Bicycle Belle has received a healthy amount of orders. But initial buzz does not mean long-term success. In other words: Let's wait and see.

Bicycle Belle Opening
Last Thursday night, Bicycle Belle held its official opening party. Due to limited space, it was intended to be a semi-invitational, low key affair. Yet the turnout was impressive and the atmosphere charged with excitement.

Bicycle Belle Opening
It was good to meet local activists, such as Jessica Mink.

Bicycle Belle Opening
And local bike bloggers, like Bike Style Boston 

Bicycle Belle Opening
and Car Free Cambridge.

Bikeyface! Bicycle Belle Opening
There were also plenty of familiar faces, including cartoonist Bikeyface and fashion model Vorpal Chortle.

Bicycle Belle Opening
Many of those in attendance were dressed up - lots of skirts, heels, suits - all arriving by bike of course.

Bicycle Belle Opening
At first I thought they'd dressed up for the party, but actually this was simply what people had worn to the office, since the party was immediately after many finished work.

Bicycle Belle Opening
Another trend of the evening was pregnancy - I spotted at least half a dozen pregnant cyclists in attendance. (Perhaps a future group ride theme?)

Bicycle Belle Opening
It was a good evening of wine, food and sparkly conversation, that showcased Boston's utility and family bicycling scene. 

Bicycle Belle Opening
And all the while, outside, a steady procession of cyclists could be observed through the storefront windows.

Bicycle Belle Opening
Business as usual for the end of the workday commute down Beacon Street. 

Bicycle Belle Opening
Local reactions to Bicycle Belle have been mostly positive, of the "It's about time!" variety. As anyone in the industry knows, a bike shop is never a get rich scheme - not even close. But the business must prove sustainable, and I sincerely hope this one does. Boston has been crying out for a resource like this for some time, and it's exciting that we finally have it - in my very own neighbourhood, no less. If you're in the area, drop by and pay the Bicycle Belle a visit! More shots of the space and opening party here.

38 comments:

  1. I too am very excited about bicycle belle!

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  2. Is pregnancy catching on in Boston? It's funny how trends take a while to really get going in a new place. We've been doing it for so long here that we hardly notice anymore, like, EVERYONE either is, was or thinks about getting somebody pregnant. Evidently it was THE THING a generation or two ago, ALL my friends Moms were WAY into it.

    If you want to "Stick Out" around here now, the thing to do is NOT get all pregnant. It's weird.

    Spindizzy

    P.S. (all kidding aside)I wish I lived in Boston just so I could work in that shop. Fer reals.

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  3. Nice picture of my son! :)

    It's a great shop and Carice has many of the things I'll need to be able to continue riding with a little kid in tow.

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    1. Dapper gentleman he is, dressed in purple!

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  4. Nice story and photos. Good to see. A vintage bike shop that sells used bikes recently opened in Cleveland. My coworker and I plan to visit at lunchtime this week. Read about it here:
    http://www.cleveland.com/business/index.ssf/2013/07/cleveland_bike_shop_booms_with.html

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  5. Regarding the opinions of bike shop owners towards "city" bikes or bicycling as transportation. I too see that many bike shop owners are resistant to the city bike/cargo bike movement. Here in Seattle, our local "dutch" bike shop is reducing its inventory of true dutch bicycles - now favoring less expensive bikes made in Asia. I'm sure a big part of this has to do with the cost and that many cyclists will purchase an inexpensive, disposable bicycle rather than shell out the dough for a lasting product. Hopefully, this will change over time with education and experience.

    Having watched the bicycle industry evolve in the US over several decades, it seems to me there is a machismo amongst the "traditional" cyclists that is reflected by bike shop owners. For a long, long time, you had to ride a bicycle leaned over in a racing position, or you were just not serious. True bicyclists rode road bikes and even mountain bikes were considered toys for years after their initial introduction to the market. Heavier bicycles with traditional geometry and god-forbid ballon tires were treated with disdain. I too, believed this for many years. A trip to Amsterdam last spring changed my mind. America has fallen so far behind the times - and it is time to wake up and smell the coffee! Kudos to Carice to take on this brave adventure. I wish her the best.

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    1. Seattle is too hilly for Dutch bikes and upright-upright bikes to go from neighbourhood yo neighbourhood, largely. Plus the cycling culture is somewhat conservative.

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    2. I've spent the last six weeks in Taiwan enjoying its bike culture, and all I can say is that I wish American bike shops sold decent Asian commuter bikes like this one from Bridgestone for prices like this (about $400). Fenders, built in front and back lights, dutch-style back-wheel lock, basket, coaster brake....

      http://global.rakuten.com/en/store/machinori/item/bs_lococo27/?s-id=borderless_recommend_item_en

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  6. The shop reminds me of our local bicycle "transportation" store - A Streetbike Named Desire. Other bicycle stores in the Palo Alto / Stanford area focus on high dollar, race type bicycles. But Streetbike carries excellent (and reasonably priced) real, live transportation bikes. Their latest editions were the Bakfiets - fascinating machines. And those pregnancies? We're seeing something similar in The Bay Area. Both spouse and I are schoolteachers and we appreciate the signs of continuing employment!

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    1. I visited Streetbike Named Desire when we were in Palo Alto last year. They even let me take a Brompton for a spin. Very nice store.

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    2. We recently purchased three Retrovelo bicycles (a Paula, a Paul and a "modern" series Alfons) from A Streetbike Named Desire. We're in Seattle, and local bike shops have seemingly lost interest in selling European-designed bicycles. We heard about the Palo Alto bike shop via their advertisement on this blog.

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    3. Nice. I love the Retrovelo Paula, or even better Klara. Too bad so few US bike shops sell them.

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    4. Velouria, have you seen the Retrovelo mixte Anna? http://www.retrovelo.de/anna-28.html
      I've not seen it for sale in the US, but it is available by special order. It comes in two versions - one with 26 inch wheels and a version with 28 inch.

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    5. Only in pictures. I suspect it's heavier and more relaxed than I prefer a mixte to be, but looks nice. I like the option for different wheel sizes.

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  7. I wanted to make it to the opening party but was out of town... looks like it had a great turnout! I hope it does well.

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  8. I think for a lot of shops it's intimidating having that much money tied up in cargo bikes. Great to hear someone is taking the plunge, and in the right area too.

    Wonder if she debated "Kickstand Cyclery" while brainstorming names? :)

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  9. Does the shop have a bike mechanic? I've seen transportation/utility/cargo/family cycling shops start out well, but fizzle out and eventually rely on repairs, flats and fixes to maintain the business, and a local bike shop offering repairs -especially on specialized bicycles is a big plus. Some of these bikes are quite expensive, so the bike shop I am thinking of just could not sell enough of them to keep going, and eventually the business closed. All the little bike bits are helpful, as would be trail a bikes, child carriers and the like. Boston area looks like the right place for Bicycle Belle and I hope it does well!

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    1. As I understand it, the plan is to focus almost exclusively on sales - offering options at different price ranges. The Beater, Papillionnaire and Bobbin brands will be accessible to many, and their sales volume should balance out the higher-end bikes. There are also lots of everyday accessories available at different price ranges that should sell well along the "bicycle superhighway."

      As far as repairs, the idea is they will mostly be done at a sister shop that specialises almost exclusively in repairs - the nearby Hub Bicycle.

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    2. this sounds like a logistics nightmare. often when people buy bikes small adjustments are required and sometimes parts need to be swapped out, especially if one is focusing on the high end market....also, when warranty work needs to happen, which is quite often, what then??

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  10. Pregnancies = economic optimism.

    This is the bike shop I joked about opening awhile back. Cool looking, seemingly locale-appropriate stock. The red lacquer is cheery, needed for those long winter days.

    Your existing bike shops are conservative as well, reflecting Bahstan.

    What are the negative comments about? Financial viability is one thing, to hate on it for its mere existence is sad.

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    1. Just financial viability skepticism, nothing dissy.

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  11. Bicycle Belle should do well in Boston. Other commuter-based shops in older urban areas like NY, Philadelphia and SF seem to do OK. I think its strictly a question of supply and demand. Traffic in older cities almost mandates commuting by something other than car and there's enough of a demand for commuting gear within the city that its possible for commuting-based shops to succeed. In the burbs, and in more spread out cities like LA, Houston, Vegas, etc., cars continue to be king and there isn't enough demand for commuting based bike shops to survive. Local shops around here offer some commuter options from big manufacturers like Trek and Giant but nothing very interesting and I can't really blame them. There's just not enough demand to tie up money in better commuting bikes and gear. While I think it'd be cool to see a couple of commuter-based shops open up around here, it wouldn't be so cool to see them go out of business a couple of years later after blowing their lives' savings. Anyway, keep your fingers crossed for your new neighbors!

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  12. Best wishes on the new adventure. The Wheel House shop in Santa Barbara was similar in purpose but closed at the end of 2012. I don't believe they made it to 5 years. I've given thought to such a shop here in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles but that's as far as it's gone. I'll keep myself updated on their progress.

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  13. I don't know how bike shops make their money but I suspect the mark-up on bikes is low compared to parts, accessories and service. Most folks I know (over many years and many cities) who use their bikes daily prefer a versatile one, reasonably light weight, capable of additions and ultimately have little to no concern as to what it looks like and long as it works for them. Price and versatility only...and they often find it on the used market either ready to ride or easily adapted to ones preferences which, seems easier on older bikes than with new ones. There are a few, even, who excitedly purchased upright transportation bikes and eventually parked them in the garage because they were either too heavy or just didn't give them joy while riding. Both were women and I found that interesting....Were they misinformed?

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    1. There is great variety in upright bikes. If the ones they got felt sluggish, uncomfortable, or just somehow off, the reaction is not surprising.

      And you are correct about the margins on bikes vs parts/accessories.

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  14. It's my first time here and I just wanted to say hey and I'm really enjoying it. Going to have a proper nose around.

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  15. Wishing all the success in the world to any new business meeting the needs of the bicycling community....Cheers!

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  16. Just happened upon Bicycle Belle two weekends ago and bought two great Bern helmets. Carice was so knowledgeable and just overall a joy to converse with. We are so thrilled to have this bike shop in Boston. Best wishes for the success of the store.
    ~RLJ

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  17. Looks great! Best Wishes to Bicycle Belle!

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  18. Having followed your blog for a while, today's read put a smile on my face. Congrats on the shop. Three of us St Pete FL cyclists recently returned from a Brugge Belgium to Amsterdam bike and barge week. City bikes are everywhere, and not surprisingly, very little obesity, as compared to St Pete!

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  19. I love the retro colors and the low-tech of these bikes.

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  20. And all this time I thought it would be you, who would open a bike shop!

    Congrats to Carrice/ Biking in Heels on the new adventure!

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    Replies
    1. No way, that was never in the cards. But it is lovely having one so close by!

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  21. Hello All,
    I was just re-reading Velouria's post on "The Symbolism of Cargo Bikes" and looking at all the many people who said "Boston needs a shop that sells cargo bikes." And here I am, and I've already pre-sold a Bakfiets and an Edgerunner, and they're not even here yet, so I'm cautiously optimistic. I know that the bulk of my market will be in the cheaper Bobbins and Papillionaires, but I believe that there's a pent up demand for them as well that's not being fully met by shops that sell the Allant or the Linus bikes "on the side"

    It's true that cargo bikes are a big investment-and in a market where many bikes are sold on no money down "terms" they're an up-front investment with lots of hassles and extra costs involved in the import process. I'm hopeful that my enthusiasm will be contagious, that that there is not only a pent-up demand for them but an expanding market as people see them out and about.

    Several people have asked about service. I'm committed to servicing what I sell, whether that's in-house or through my arrangement with the wonderful Hub Bicycle. I've laid in some supply of bakfiets specific parts, Schwalbe tires and IGH supplies, so I'm prepared. At the moment I'm the salesforce, mechanic and chief floor sweeper, so service is limited to what I sell- I just don't have the expertise or parts to service every bike that comes in the door.

    I do have moments in the small hours of the morning where I worry I'm crazy to have left a good professional job that I enjoyed to launch this endeavor that lots of people with more experience in retail in general and the bike industry specifically have decided is too risky. I just have to hope that the shops that have lead the "bicycle shop 2.0" movement- places like Clever and Adeline Adeline and JC Lind are not aberrations and that Boston's bike community is developed and diverse enough to support this kind of shop. I appreciate all the messages of support!

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  22. Loved hearing about the new shop. It brings a question to mind. How would you look at the geometry of an old bike to find a similar current bike? I love the lines of the Raleigh 27 but it is way too big for me.

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  23. That's great. Nice images also. All the best.

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