In praise of a back-street bike shop

Guest post by Joe Plommer, a photographer and writer based in Camberwell. You’ll find Joe on Twitter.

local bike shop

Illustration via Mayumi Mori.

I must first have visited Bob’s Cycles, on Walworth’s John Ruskin street, in around 2006. I was a student, and had recently left my long-standing part-time job at one of London’s major bike shop chains. This visit was to be my first step in the potentially painful process of re-adjusting to the idea of paying for repairs, after years of free access to workshops and mechanics.

Bob’s densely packed, slightly chaotic premises – the operation’s centre of gravity more out on the pavement than inside the shop – was a stark contrast to my former place of work. Where we had required paperwork in duplicate and a computerised cross-reference before taking in so much as a puncture repair, Bob – who seemed to know most of his other customers by name – gave my problem a quick glance, before informing me, over his shoulder as he steered the bike inside on its back wheel, that it would be fixed by the following day. As indeed it was, and for a significantly lower charge than our supposedly competitive conglomerate would ever have countenanced.

The tone and manner of Bob’s verbal exchanges with his customers were also radically at odds with those I’d encountered in my old job. Where our staff of early-20s mountain biking enthusiasts had approached its clientele of hybrid-wielding white-collar commuters with polite – or occasionally, smirking – incomprehension, Bob’s dialogues were forceful, and sometimes mock-aggressive. But they also felt palpably to be founded in a deep connection to, and understanding of, the people he was serving.

When I began working in cycle retail in the early 2000s, many of London’s independent bike shops – especially those which had emerged with the rise of mountain biking in the early 90s – were disappearing. Their fragile market sector of enthusiasts was being gobbled up by more omnivorous chains who did the bulk of their trade in the fast-growing commuter market while also catering to more serious riders – and had longer opening hours and more convenient locations than the independents could afford. But Bob – with his stripped-down business model and formidable knowledge of his customers, seemed to have been little affected by this trend.

In the last few years, a new wave of independent bike shops has appeared, aimed neither at weekend enthusiasts nor practical, high-vis loving commuters, but rather targeting those who cycle as an all-round mode of urban transport. It was to one of these that I guessed I’d soon become indebted when I discovered, a year or so back when about to head home from a job in Clerkenwell, that my saddle and seat-post had been daringly liberated. To my chagrin, though, neither of the airy, wooden-floored boutiques into which I then pushed the injured machine could supply the size of component that my old steel frame required. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bob, who returned to his by-then-closed shop after my pleading call to his mobile, found the required part with the briefest of rummagings.

Bob’s shop is pretty orderly these days. In 2009, he asked me to photograph his new tyre rack – a diverse collection of treads now hangs tidily at head-height. By last year, he had even made room for a display case of model cars. He’s opted not to cash in on the hipster bike boom that’s fuelled the appearance of so many fresh rivals to his business, but if quality speaks at all, he’ll have his fair share of this new market. After I asked one newly- opened shop-cafe nearby to tighten on a damaged crank (because I hadn’t decided which sort to replace it with yet), the offending component fell off again within a few miles. I don’t blame the mechanic – the part was on its way out. But when Bob drove the thing back into place again the next day, it stayed put for six months.

You’ll find Bob’s Cycles on Google Plus.

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As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.

One Response to In praise of a back-street bike shop

  1. John H 21/02/2015 at 1:40 pm #

    To a certain extent we here in the Republic have our fair share of “Bob’s Shops” still operating.
    I am undecided as to whether this is a blessing or a curse.
    The standard of service received in most cycle retailers is pretty poor and attitudes towards the buying public depends on the individual concerned.
    I know the amount of BS spoken from both sides of the counter would drive a sane person to drink or worse a lot of the time. I have been waiting now for over a week and a half for a price on a certain item and know that I will still be waiting this time next week.
    This is not uncommon in every other retail sector, and the concept of “customer service” has all but disappeared since the corporate sector has begun to train ,Retail Sales Representatives or whatever the title of the moment is today.
    Its as bad with HSE and EQ and all the rest of Multinational speak . I would advise one looks these up if unfamiliar with the meaning of same.Perhaps in ones employees handbook under FAQ’s.

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