She’s no Henri, but my cat is certainly more in tune with French existentialism than most folks I know. She sees right through my fragile facade, and knows full well that, like the rest of the merchant class, I’m resigned to lead an inauthentic life and to forever suffer under the weight of mauvaise foi.
Few bike shop employees view their vocation as necessarily noble, but many like to rationalize the decision to pursue a chronically seasonal, underpaid career choice as having some degree of higher social value than, say, hocking iPhones. I’m not quite this delusional, but do share some form of this fantasy. It’s especially when the weather dips, business slows, hours are cut, and income plummets, that we come together and ask one another the hard questions: is it worth it? Is it time to grow up?
A decade ago or three, things might have been a little different. A certain percentage of folks have always gravitated to bike shop work for a “love of the sport,” or somesuch… and many of those would classically be described as overqualified, overeducated, or both. But in today’s economy, when work can be difficult to come by regardless of one’s collar hue, it’s not surprising in the slightest to learn that your headset is being overhauled by a double PhD.
It’s a low margin business, this. And we are witnessing the slow motion transformation of an industry, shaped on the one hand by internet commerce and direct-to-consumer sales - and the other by consolidation and the growth of regional and national retail chains. Obviously, the local bike shop isn’t going to disappear altogether, but the old guard is dying off (or being bought), and those few foolhardy souls brave enough to jump in now, are having to play by rules unimaginable even a decade ago. Here in Chicago, as elsewhere, the severe seasonality of the business leads to some pretty crummy and destructive practices: very aggressive discounting, the reliance on low wage temporary labor, and a remarkable tendency towards merchandising conformity. These are all bummers, but we are seeing glimmers of hope in the form of a few newcomers to the game.
Heritage Bicycles is equal parts neighborhood cafe and miniature bicycle boutique, but with several Big Idea twists. When word first leaked about the operation, I sneered at the Wald stems, amateur-looking frame welds, and overall aesthetic of their (admittedly made in Chicago) 18kg city bikes. But slowly, surely, I began to understand that this wasn’t just a copycat bike cafe, where coffee was a mere afterthought to a small bike shop, or even the converse. Heritage is something altogether different, and wholly unique. Its owner, Michael Salvatore, is aiming to build a brand which is some kind of fascinating mash up of vintage J Crew, Anthropologie, the OG Schwinn, doused in artisinal coffee and swathed in fine Brooks leather. It’s awesome and exciting to watch.
Many of us will remember Tony Bustamante from his days writing Belgium Knee Warmers, some from his association with Alberto’s, and a few from his days at Seven. His Velosmith shop burst out of the gate, guns blazing - an itsy bitsy and unassuming pro shop located on a quiet street in Wilmette that just happens to feature Lightweight Wheels, Parlee, and Seven. Tony is one of the premier fitters in the country, a stylist among stylists, and perhaps most importantly, well schooled in the history of bicycle riding, racing, and fabrication. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a ridiculously nice guy. How is it, many of us wondered, that a shop with no history (not exactly true, but you get the point), very little inventory, and no marketing budget to speak of, could instantly find itself among the nation’s upper echelon? Spend a few minutes with Tony, and you’ll immediately understand. It’s no accident.
Back home, I’m busy brewing a pour over cup of Half Wit Sulawesi Toarco Estate A and arguing with my cat.
“More authenticity, homie.” she says.
“OK, but that basically means I’d only be selling handbuilt steel fgcx bikes and tubulars!”
“Sure, but you’d feel less dirty.”
“I don’t feel dirty, this isn’t art.”
“So make it art!”