A nation of shopkeepers

“L’Angleterre est une nation de boutiquiers.” —Napoleon I

Think of the first time you walked into a bike shop. My memories are the “ding” of the bell above the door. The smell of oil and leather and a glass counter with a man in a brown workshop coat standing behind it.

Inside an Aladdin's Cave (from calamitous annunciation .blogspot.com)

Where you buy your bike says a lot about you; almost as much as the bike itself. These days retailing’s not just about selling products, it’s about “customer experiences”, “retail theatre”, and a “multi-channel experience”. Bike shops aren’t exempt. Just as with bikes themselves, there are many different types of bike shop.

Most towns, suburbs and some villages will boast an “Aladdin’s Cave”. These are the life-blood of mass cycling. If you can get in past the doorway you’ll find a tiny store overflowing with every kind of bike for every kind of cyclist. In the ceiling, frames hang from their drop-outs, a pile of winter clothing jams the rails, two tiers of bikes against the wall with a rack of second hand offers on the pavement outside. A radio will compete with the gentle cursing from the workshop. Their attitude is, “if it’s broken, we can probably fix it. If we haven’t got it, we can order it. If we can’t order it, you don’t need it.”

Then there’s the “Art Gallery”, to be found tucked down quiet metropolitan side streets. The atmosphere is austere, reverential, a cathedral to worship the instruments of suffering. There’s not much to look at: perhaps a few alloy and carbon sculpted components rest on plinths. Maybe a framed jersey from last year’s world champion might be mounted next to a team issue machine. But you won’t be here to browse, more likely a fitting for a custom machine.

A new breed has started to take hold; “The Supermarket”. It’s well staffed, well stocked, well lit, well located, well publicised and …..well ….soulless. Buying a pair of pedals has been made as convenient and about as exciting as buying a pint of milk. The Supermarket is functional, but ultimately sterile.

Finally there’s “The Mecca”. This is an old breed of bike shop that isn’t defined by size or stock level but by it’s location. These stores hold a special place in the cyclists’ heart. Often they’ll have started life as the outlet for a frame builder. Cross their threshold and you’re on hallowed turf. You’ll be leaning over the same counter as the greats of the sport. How many sports can offer that level of connection to its stars? They’ll be known fondly by their address:Greys Inn Road (Condor), Tanners Hill (Witcomb), Stanningley Rd (Bob Jackson), Walton Rd(Harry Quinn) are just a few examples. You’ll know you’re in one of these because somewhere on a wall will be a faded poster or a small signed photo in a frame of one of yester-year’s professionals riding one of their bikes.

I’ve shopped in all of them, but the Aladdin’s Cave is my favourite. Perhaps it’s because my bikes have usually been bought from the second hand rack outside one of them. But despite the resurgence of cycling, many bike shops are feeling the pinch.

So where do you buy your kit? Just think about it when you next click “add to basket”.

  1. Nice post.

    Have had some experience with the Art Gallery type here in Scottsdale: http://bicyclehaus.com/ I’ve been in for parts and tools occasionally. They always seem to be about to roll their eyes. When I asked where the paniers where the guy says “We. Do. Not. Stock. Bags.” Very. Slowly. Implying serious cyclists don’t need them. Unfortunately they’re the only bike shop on my route to work, so I will still likely buy things there on occasion.

    Where I bought my bike: http://landiscyclery.com/ is a much more pleasant place to visit. Whenever possible I give them my business. They don’t really fit in the above categories though. They’re not really an Aladdin’s Cave (too big) and they do have high-end Gallery bikes, but they also stock lower end stuff. They’re not a supermarket (although they do have several locations in the Phoenix metro area). Maybe they’re a Mecca?

  2. Wanted to add that it must really irritate bike shops when people go in and look at gear before ordering on-line. I like to get service and advice, so will always favour a real shop vs. on-line, even if it costs me a few bucks extra.

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