Mon Petit Malaise

Among the many stupid things I did in college in order to catch a cutie’s eye was read Émile Zola. My neighbor was signed up for a French lit class that included “Au Bonheur des Dames”, and, you know, in order to seem worldly and exude an effortless savoir faire, I figured one day that I’d read it first. Then weeks later, when she’d begin poring over the text, I’d casually drop references to Octave Mouret or Denise Baudu, and then we’d share a cigarette. Needless to say, things didn’t quite work out this way.

But I did get obsessed with Zola and ended up reading seven or eight of his novels. The series takes place against the backdrop of the invention of the department store in mid-19th Century Paris, and what amounts to, in many ways, the coming of age of modern retail. Earlier this year, the BBC produced an 8 part miniseries loosely based on these novels, and it’s fantastic.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about these stories. It’s around this time of year that I consider how life in Tativille has been, and make changes and improvements. 2012 marked the shop’s relocation to Wicker Park, smack dab in the middle of the city’s densest bicycle commuter population and amidst a vital and exciting retail scene. For the most part, I toiled away in my little box, doing the same sorts of things that I did when I was 13: building and repairing wheels, gluing tubular tires, and listening to Miles Davis. I kind of ignored the realities of the shop’s new locale, but paid very close attention to the trials and tribulations of all the other shops nearby.

The retail bicycle industry is odd. It’s odd because there are vast numbers of educated, perfectly employable folks in their 20s, 30s and even 40s who choose to remain in this shrinking industry, without health care, without a living wage, without savings, and without any realistic opportunity to remedy these things. Meanwhile, things are changing rapidly. Internet sales are increasing at a rate of 18% per annum. 7% of all independent bike shops close each year. The supply chain is transforming, with chains and big box stores growing rapidly. Big brands are experimenting with company stores, mimicking the automotive industry in an effort to eliminate middlemen. The industry is growing overall, and there are surely some success stories, but real income in the industry has shrunk for 13 straight years.

Here in Chicago, we’re going to see a pretty exciting 2013 on the retail scene. Several new, well financed shops will be opening their doors. A few of the mid-sized independent shops have gotten serious about their marketing: discounting, promotions, bait-and-switch are the weapons of choice. I suppose all of this new competition is probably good for consumers, at least insofar as one won’t really have to pay retail for parts, bikes, or services any time soon.

I went back and read “Au Bonheur des Dames” last week. It’s shockingly modern. Octave himself is a ruthless and effective executive. Using innovations such as home delivery, massive sales, heavy advertising, and an in-store cafe… he methodically destroys his smaller competitors one by one. And his customers love him for it, for at the same time his store delivers an exciting and intoxicating array of the very best products, flawless service, and an overwhelming selection. Then again, his employees are essentially indentured servants, working (admittedly at will) for pauper wages, living in company dormitories, and dreaming of better lives that will never materialize. But in this way, is it not prescient?

Of course, that my takeaway from one of the greatest novels of all time is more about its purported relevance to bicycle retail than its real intent, exploring the mysteries of the human heart, is, on this cold wintry morning, mon petit malaise.