Saturday, October 13, 2012

A crack in the brick and mortar

Uphill Grind bike shop in Cross Plains

Last weekend, cyclists in Dane County had to say "goodbye" to a great little bike/coffee shop in Cross Plains.  On October 6th, Michael Osborne closed the doors to Uphill Grind and turned the open sign off. This was the second bike shop in the suburbs of Madison we have lost in the past two years--Exclusive Cycles in Verona also had to close shop.  As I sat on the side of KP with two flats and a faulty pump yesterday, I began to think "What would we, as cyclists, do if all the small shops closed?"

I am the first to admit I've purchased some product online, however, I try my best to buy most items from a bike shop I've formed a strong relationship with.  And that's just it.  I could never form a relationship with an online store.  Purchases made online are cheap in more ways than one.  First, they don't support local businesses and staff.  Second, you don't get the same level of customer service.  Finally, you don't get a sense of community with a computer.  When has your online store set up group rides or events?  When have they fixed an emergency breakdown while you're on a ride?  It comes down to this; if we don't support our local bike shops, they won't be able to support us. 

Over the past few years, with the economy swinging, I've asked shop owners and managers how business is going.  I'm floored by the differences from place to place.  Some are having the best years on record (this past mild winter didn't hurt).  Some are barely staying afloat.  What makes one shop so successful and one not?  I've been in the ones that have closed, and I can't say I saw any problems with customer service or product--in fact, in some cases, it was just the opposite.  Some bike shops I've been in, that are flourishing, have questionable customer service and hardly any product.  I'm sure part of the issue is location.  Inner city shops just tend to do better because they get more business come winter from the commuters.  In the case of Uphill Grind, which was on the Ironman course and had hundreds of cyclists ride by daily, this was the problem.  Michael told me that winter alone was the nail in the coffin.

Being a lover of bike shops, and wanting one in every town, I've racked my brain trying to think of ways to keep them going.  Would fat bikes help since many of these towns have snow mobile trails and gravel paths nearby?  Do all of the suburban stores need to be more family orientated and stay away from the high end lines?  Would going bare bones during the winter keep the doors open?  It's so tough to say.  I see bike shops as living, breathing, organisms.  What works in one spot, won't necessarily work in another.  What works one year, might put them in the hole the next.  Being the owner of a bike store must be one of the most difficult jobs out there.  The owners all love bikes and biking but have to often times pull twelve to fourteen hour days in the summer while they twiddle their thumbs come winter.  What they have a passion for is sometimes what burns them out.

As a new year approaches, maybe one of our resolutions should be "buy local".  We think about this for food and the health of our body, why not also think about it for the health of our cycling community.

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