It happens regularly. I'm engaged in conversation at a party and someone asks, "So, what do you do?"
I give the short answer first: I run my own bicycle business.
"Oh, so you have a bike shop?"
"No, not exactly. I own a bicycle studio."
This is the part of the dialogue that tweaks the other participant. I hear something like, "A bicycle studio? Do you take photos of bicycles? Do you live there? What's a bicycle studio?"
I've grown to be so specific about how I answer this question that my response sometimes might sound canned. "I work exclusively one-on-one and by appointment with clients who are in the market for a premium bicycle," I say. Then I explain that, unlike a traditional bike shop, I don't carry tons of inventory, and I build each bicycle from scratch.
If I'm unable to adequately introduce the concept of a bicycle studio--if I've merely created confusion (or boredom)--I find myself drinking alone.
I make it a point to drink with others. So here's all you need to understand the difference between bicycle studios and traditional shops, and why you might want to visit one.
The Studio Difference
While no single attribute defines a bicycle studio, it's safe to say that this new style of retail experience often differs from traditional bike shops in physical size and focus. Generally, studios carry fewer brands and accessories, and serve customers with tailored, by appointment hours, in smaller, more intimate spaces. Here's what you can expect to find.
An industry-trained expert: The owners are not only experienced in retail, but also have generally worked for years in the cycling industry, building frames, or becoming experts in bicycle fit, or developing or designing products. For instance, before starting my business, Cascade Bicycle Studio in Seattle, I worked at Seven Cycles for five years as senior fit technician and helped design custom frames for optimized performance.
An emphasis on fit: Most studios rely on a specific, proven fit system to help you choose the right bike, size and components, and the owners have been trained or certified as experts in that system.
Consistency in interaction: At most studios, the owner is the person you work with, and the person who helps you select your components, assembles your bicycle and cares for your machine after the sale. In this way, it's more like choosing a doctor than, say, a grocery store.
Tailored hours: You don't really "drop in" to a bicycle studio. You make an appointment, similar to other personal services such as massage or physical therapy, in which you are assured that the expert you've engaged has blocked a period of time exclusively for you.
Select brands: Most studios feature products from just a few brands and concentrate on no more than three or four bicycle lines. Products are purchased for each customer on an individual basis, so you get exactly what you want, rather than what's on sale or overstocked.
A clean, modern aesthetic: Rather than the sometimes endearing clutter of a classic shop or the bustling, commercial feel of a high-volume shop, a studio uses layout and lighting to create a simple, almost soothing, feel.
Some people hear all of this and think a studio sells only ultraexpensive bikes or rarefied race gear, or is so upscale that it will feel snooty. Nothing could be further from the truth. I sell a variety of bicycles that cost less than $4,000, and the majority of my clients are nonracers. I didn't start my studio to cater to the wealthy; after 18 years in the business, working at bike shops and Seven Cycles, I wanted to work one-on-one to help people find a bike that would help them enjoy the sport I love, without the pressure to sell them products that would clear inventory or that I didn't believe in but had to sell because of some retailing agreement. I also didn't want to be distracted by interruptions to repair bikes or patch tubes endlessly to make ends meet. (I do perform maintenance for customers who bought their bikes from me, but I'm not open for general repairs.) I also want to run a business built on efficiency and sustainability, with as little waste as possible.
The Effect On Bike Shops
One of the best things about the rise of the bicycle studio is that it seems to complement, not harm, local relationships with traditional bike shops. In fact, studios tend to coexist with well-established, large-scale bicycle retailers. My studio is close to one of the largest full-service shops in the country, Gregg's Greenlake Cycles. Similarly, Portland Bicycle Studio is near River City Bicycles, arguably one of the nicest, cleanest (and most caffeinated) full-service stores.
The studio at Bike Barn, in Houston, which was founded in 2008 with Tad Hughes running the show, is perhaps the most interesting example of this symbiosis. Bike Barn is a large, six-store chain that added a state-of-the art, stand-alone studio to its stable of stores in the Houston metro area.
Just as studios offer services a bike shop can't, a good traditional store will always be there to sell someone a tube in an emergency, save a passing cyclist with an energy gel, or--with long hours of business nearly every day of the week--serve as the focal point for the neighborhood cycling scene. In addition, being in the presence of a large, varied inventory can inspire cyclists to buy something they otherwise wouldn't have (something many customers enjoy), or allow them to cherry-pick items on sale. And some people simply don't like being catered to or intensely focused on; they enjoy the anonymity of shopping at a traditional store.
The bicycle studio may not be right for every cyclist. But it's also true that the traditional bike shop isn't best for every cyclist. Some of us want something a little different, a little more personal, a little more catered to our lives. If you're still willing to have a drink with me, you just might be happy buying a bike from me.