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New shop is in it for the short haul

Published December 5, 2011

LOS ALTOS, CA (BRAIN)—Palo Alto Bicycles manager Jeff Selzer doesn’t expect his new venture, 359 State Street, to be in business a year from now. And that’s by design.

The new bike shop and cycling hangout in the Bay Area city of Los Altos was conceived as a temporary, or “pop-up,” store. The property owners’ long-term plans call for a restaurant in the space, but Selzer said they recognized that Los Altos’ downtown area hadn’t had a bike shop since the early 1980s, and they wanted to attract a diverse mix of people to the district. They approached him with the idea for a temporary bike shop, to be open for a year at most.

Selzer balked at first. “I’m trying not to spread ourselves too thin,” he said, noting the family that owns Palo Alto Bicycles also operates Bicycle Outfitter in Los Altos.

In the end, his decision to open 359 State Street, which had its grand opening Nov. 17, was driven by a number of factors: getting to do something very different from the other two stores, helping enliven Los Altos’ downtown (Selzer lives across the city limit in Mountain View), and warding off further business competition in the area.

359 State Street is focused entirely on commuter bikes, apparel and accessories, as opposed to the recreational and performance rigs that Palo Alto and Bicycle Outfitter specialize in. “All of the clothing is utilitarian clothing. All of the bikes are more of a utilitarian transportation-style bike—you want to get downtown, run errands, that kind of thing,” Selzer said. “The clothing is specifically designed to make it look like you’re just a guy or gal walking around downtown. You’re not the lycra-clad crowd.” Bike lines include Civia and Linus, and apparel runs toward pants, knickers and casual-style merino wool shirts.

Customers should look elsewhere for repairs. “There is no service in this location,” said Selzer. “We don’t even repair flat tires. We don’t have tubes; we don’t carry pumps.” Instead, he refers service requests to Bicycle Outfitter, about a mile away.

In place of a service area, Selzer has devoted half 359 State Street’s 3,000 square feet to a social/lounge area with a couch, soft chairs, WiFi and a big-screen TV showing cycling videos. “Part of our goal is to bring some life to the Los Altos downtown area. It’s kind of a sleepy little downtown, and they’re really trying to revive it. So we wanted to have a place for people to kick around or do whatever,” he said. Selzer offers the space for cycling groups’ meetings and has had a speaker in for a wine-and-cheese and forum on bicycle-friendly businesses.

Even with a relatively small space devoted to retail, Selzer wanted the shop to maintain an airy look and not overwhelm customers with product. “The first comment most people have when they come in is, ‘Are you going to put more stuff in?’ And the answer is no,” he said.

Opening 359 State Street also serves as a bulwark to added competition in Los Altos for Bicycle Outfitter. “My concern was if I walked away from the thing cold and said I’m not interested, my assumption is [the property owners] would’ve gone to the next bike shop down the road and asked them. Because we’ve got Bicycle Outfitter down there, I didn’t want to have a competitor in there, even if it’s only temporary, that any customer who comes in that they couldn’t help, they send them down to their main store. Right now, I’m doing that,” he said. “It’s partially a way to protect my business interest down there.”

But Selzer said he also hopes 359 State Street will help enmesh cycling into more people’s everyday lives. “Our goal is to let you know cycling is a cool thing to do. We want to let people know that cycling is something you can do outside of a toy or recreation or fun. It’s something you can incorporate into your life—run down to the post office on your bike instead of getting in the car, or take your kids to school on the bike instead of loading them all up in the SUV. If we can help people understand that and get out, then we’ve done our good.”

—Toby Hill

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