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Bay Area shops thrive by focusing on niches, community

Published January 29, 2013
BERKELEY, CA (BRAIN) — The BRAIN Dealer Tour went multi-model on its first day Tuesday, visiting shops in Berkeley and Oakland by bike, with transfers across San Francisco Bay via ferry and the BART rail. The day wrapped up with a reception at the Chrome Industries headquarters back in The City.
 
BRAIN editors and other Dealer Tour participants saw a wide variety of shops in between 20-plus miles of riding. In Oakland, we visited two shops focused on the commuter market. Tip Top Bikes and Bay Area Bikes each kept their focus tight, avoiding any temptation to offer other kinds of bikes or accessories. In Berkeley, we first stopped by Wrench Science, an online retailer that focuses on high-end road and mountain bikes — with an average retail price estimated at around $8,000. And Berkeley's legendary Missing Link Coop remains a community institution for roadies, collectors and UC students.
 
Here's a quick look at the shops. Be sure to check the March issue of BRAIN for more complete write-ups. And this week, follow along on the website and via Facebook and Twitter as we visit stores in Marin County on Wednesday and in San Francisco Thursday.
 
Bay Area Bikes, Oakland
 
When new owners Glenda Barnhart and Clay Wagers took over Bay Area Bikes less than five years ago, the store on Oakland's "auto row" strip had just a dozen bikes on the floor. 
 
Since then the neighborhood has bounced back a bit and the store is packed with about 400 bikes. Barnhart and Wagers have opened a second full service store in another developing neighborhood, 30 miles away in Pittsburg, and opened a rental and service location near Oakland's Jack London Square, a growing tourist destination. All this growth came during the economic freefall after 2008.
 
Barnhart — who came to bike retail from a career in high-tech, and Wagers — who is a bike retail lifer, have built the business by focusing on the commuter market. The main store offers affordable commuters from Raleigh and Giant, plus folders from Tern, Dahon and Brompton. The folders are key for the shop's clientele, which includes commuters who use the BART system to get across the Bay to San Francisco, as well as a few folks who live on boats, and others who live in small apartments or simply prefer to be able to store or transfer bikes in their car trunks. 
 
The store offers quick turnaround in its service department and a targeted selection of accessories and softgoods, including raingear, fenders and helmets. Barnhart is on the board of the East Bay Bike Coalition, where she's been working to get BART to lift its ban on full-sized bikes during rush hours. Lifting that ban might have a small negative effect on sales of folding bikes at bay Area Bikes, but will encourage the commuter market that the store is focused on.
 
Tip Top Bike Shop, Oakland
 
Walk in the front door of Tip Top Bike Shop, and you’re immediately met with a row of women’s-specific bikes. Jog to the right, and you’re greeted by a broad selection of commuter and road helmets from Nutcase, Lazer and Pryme.
 
So it’s little wonder that the nearly 6-year-old commuter and transportation shop moved more than 800 brain buckets last year and boasts a customer base 60 percent female. 
 
But Charlotte Oelerich, a British expat who co-owns the shop with her American husband, Richard, also has a lot to do with it. 
 
“I’ve been treated not so nicely in shops before,” said Oelerich, who strives to eliminate the intimidation factor and make Tip Top a welcoming place for women — many of whom are pictured in framed displays of all the smiling customers who bought complete bikes during Tip Top’s first five years in business.
 
And what about those strong helmet sales? 
 
“I had a big crash a year ago, and I think that’s really helped us push helmets,” said Oelerich, who occasionally shows customers the souvenir cracked shell that saved her noggin.
 
Wrench Science

Tucked away in a very industrial part of Berkeley, Wrench Science is easy to miss. But that’s OK; owner Tim Medina has built up a reputation as a destination shop for enthusiasts who want to build up their dream bike online, carefully selecting every part, frame and even color—all from the comfort of their laptop or desktop computer. The shop invested heavily on its website’s programming, which allows customers to find the right fit and select their bike and components, making sure all parts selected are compatible.  

Medina keeps $300,000 worth of frames at any given time from such brands as Niner, Pinarello, BMC, Knolly, Intense, Turner, Ibis, Ellsworth, DeRosa, Moots, Yeti and Merckx among many others. The average bike it rolls or ships out of its doors retails for $8,000. 

Mail order/online sales make up the majority of business, but 25 percent of bikes purchased on its website are picked up in-store, Medina said, with buyers driving from as far as two to three hours away. Medina said Wrench Science couldn’t survive as a high-end custom builder serving only the Bay Area. “I really need a world market.”

Missing Link Bicycle Cooperative

This shop got its start as a student-run worker co-op on the University of California, Berkeley, campus in 1971. In 1978 it moved to its current location on Shattuck Avenue, just a couple of blocks from the campus. And in 1994 it split off its service and repair department into a separate location across the street. But students remain a big part of its clientele and business; its bread and butter are $400 to $700 hybrids.

As its name implies, Missing Link is collectively owned and run by 18 employees — soon to be 19. One current employee is working toward becoming a member of the cooperative, something that the employee members vote on once a worker has put in 360 hours of time at the shop. As such, there’s no hierarchy, no boss or manager. Everyone has equal say in different matters, everything from hiring, to shop hours, wages and health care policies. And employees also have the freedom to choose what they want to do and will rotate between sales floor, wrenching, buying product, receiving inventory or other back office duties. 

This business model is appealing to Berkeley residents, who have remained loyal customers in spite of growing competition, said Bill Sparks, an employee-owner who started working there in 1990.  

Topics associated with this article: BRAIN Dealer Tour

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