Back in the 1980s I worked in a record store. As a young person I loved working retail and working in a record store was a way to be around a passion of mine. I got to talk music with people all day long. But while I wanted to talk about great music—significant music—with my boss, all he cared about was whatever was going to turn units. He didn’t want a record review that said the record would be remembered for its contribution to world music, he wanted a crystal ball that would tell him if he should order 50 copies of the next Michael Jackson single—or 100.

One of my duties was to update a thing called the Phonolog. It was like a yellow pages of every record (there were no CDs yet) that was listed in the various record companies’ catalogs. It was enormous, nearly as thick as the Oxford English Dictionary, and each month I was responsible for adding new pages to it. The Phonolog was interesting because it told you about what existed—that is, what had actually been pressed to vinyl—but unless you dealt with the right distributor, you might never locate some of the records listed in the catalog.

For that reason, I was fascinated with visiting record stores any time I traveled. I never knew what I might find. There was no way to guess what gems might be lurking within those bins. And when CDs hit stores in the mid-1980s, my fervor for record stores only increased. Initially, CDs were in such short supply that there might be almost no overlap between one record store and another. For those first couple of years, CD products was largely confined to acts with a known following among audiophiles, which is why the first CD I ever saw was King Crimson’s “Discipline” and the first CD I purchased was Peter Gabriel’s “Security.”

Thirty-odd years later, record stores are dead, a cultural phenomenon as extinct as drive-in theaters. We have the iTunes store and we have Amazon. For convenience, iTunes wins, but the one enduring charm of Amazon is its long tail. If a recording has existed on CD and there’s any chance of it being available commercially, you’re more likely to find it on Amazon than anywhere else. It’s enabled me to find rare discs that I either never found before or damaged along the way and this was a chance to replace them. Still, the effectiveness of Amazon will never replace the charm of walking into Rare Records in Memphis to see what UPS had delivered that week.

When I got into cycling, my shopping experiences were much the same. Every bike shop was different, had its quirks, harbored some amount of funk that made it not just unique, but worthwhile. In my travels, I couldn’t help but purchase a souvenir. I’d leave with a cool T-shirt, a thermal jacket, a pair of bottles, a poster of Eddy Merckx.

But in those surprises were mountains of inconsistency. There was the place I walked into for a pump hose where half the lights were shut off, a TV sat on a cart in the middle of the showroom floor, in front of it an easy chair and next to it a TV table with a remote, an ashtray and in it a burning cigarette. The owner seemed annoyed that I was interrupting “Great Naval Battles” on the History Channel.

It’s a place that, honestly, deserved to go out of business.

I hate the sameness of the retail landscape, that in any 200-yard-long strip mall of big boxes, one of them is bound to be a Best Buy or Old Navy. I dislike the the creamy consistency of the Gap, and yet I must acknowledge how I love the reliability of Trader Joe’s; in a pinch, I can find snacks for my kids or the makings of a picnic, not to mention do a weeks’-worth of grocery shopping.

The rise of concept stores, which is little more than a 21st-century take on the old Schwinn Retailer model, has done much to elevate the perception of service at bike shops. However, there are plenty of shops and studios didn’t need the help; places like New York’s Signature Cycles, Wilmette’s Velosmith Bicycle Studio and Santa Monica’s Bike Effect have made their names as places that exist primarily as places of service, and they do a better job than even the best of the concept stores.

The decline of the recording industry, from record stores to the record companies themselves decimated thousands of careers. And while CDs may seem as antiquated as LPs (I wonder who among us remembers just what those initials stand for?), bikes aren’t going to go away, though the way we purchase them will change irrevocably. Were I to sum up the big question the industry faces in a single word, that word would be “omnichannel.” That is, how to balance the need to serve a dealer network, reach consumers via the web, deliver bicycles to interested consumers as painlessly and professionally as possible and still maintain price integrity.

Concept stores have been a way for the industry to respond to the changing retail landscape, maintaining the practices, services and habits of traditional retailers while offering most of the service found in high-end retailers like those I just mentioned. It’s a business model that is scalable and trainable, though it’s almost impossible to replicate the personality of one of those operations, so something is lost.

It’s a painful time for the industry. Evolution has been thrust upon it and not all of those changes are going over well. Yet I’m hopeful because I see the bike industry adapting and meeting this challenge.


Image: Mike Mozart, Flickr Creative Commons

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  1. Miles

    I wholly agree that I hate how homogeneous everything has become ( strip malls, food, really everything) but I don’t think the record store is thaaat much deader than the LBS. It sounds like you might be unaware of the resurgence of vinyl has fuelled the growth of niche record stores. I think in a lot of ways mirrors this resurgence of steel of the past 5-7 years. I’d venture to guess that most towns which have a few bike shops also have at least one record store and major metros have many of both in a roughly 1 to 5 ratio.

  2. Chuck

    As someone who still has all his vinyl from high school/college days and remembers what LP stands for, love the analogy. 🙂 We’re about to see some homogenization in my neck of the woods. LBS Revolution Cycles was bought by Trek and will become Trek factory/concept stores. If you’re a Trek fanboy, you will probably be happy. But if you want an LBS where you can compare different brands and have choices (especially more “esoteric” choices), these are not the droids you’re looking for.

  3. Brent

    The biggest thing my LBS does for me is to save me from doing something stupid, which is worth paying for. They know me by name, they know my riding style and they know my level of ability. And I have told them that they should tell me in no uncertain terms when I ask for something stupid. They’ve prevented me from ordering stuff I read about that would not have served my needs as well and recommended something better. They also contribute to my enjoyment of cycling by funding and organizing the area’s best club, with 500 riders, some of whom are now personal friends.

    I’m going to buy a touring bike in a couple months, and if I had the choice of ordering it on the Internet for 20% less versus buying it in the LBS, I’m going to go to the LBS because of the fitting process. I’m at an age when the knees might start to decline faster if I don’t get a great fit, so that’s certainly worth paying for as it could prolong my riding career significantly. That’s easily worth $500 to $1,000 of my hard-earned cash. It’s certainly cheaper in blood and treasure than knee replacement surgery.

    The nearest Trek dealer is now a “signature” store about 30 miles away from me. When the local Trek dealer closed last year, none of the 5 shops in the area became Trek dealers to pick up the slack. I don’t know if that was because of those shops commitments to other “big 4” (Trek, Giant, Specialized, Cannondale) manufacturers or whether Trek is actively trying to protect their “signature” store by giving them a larger geographic footprint to pull from. I think it’s the latter — there was some horsetrading among major brands between the nearby shops once that shop went away, so somebody could have picked up Trek. I’m not sure that unique features on any Trek bikes are sufficient to get me to go 45 minutes to get to their store when there are no dealers among the 5 shops that are less than 10 minutes away. So this strategy of a small number of Trek-only “signature” dealers may end up backfiring.

    I could see this homogenization as leading to an accelerating revival of small brands in the high-end bike market not unlike what has happened with micro-brews over the last 10-15 years. People got tired of the homogenized product made by the ever-shrinking number of ever-growing mass brewers and started to embrace craft brews, which are now the only bright spot of growth in the otherwise slowly declining beer market. We’re actually seeing mega-brewers buy up craft brewers, by the way, something that bike industry mega-distributor QBP has done with its Surly, Salsa, All-City and Cogburn (cammo-painted fat bikes with gun racks for hunters and sold at Cabela’s) lines.

    1. Geoffrey Knobl

      This clicks some interesting cogs in my mind. One of our three LBS has always carried Trek, at least just pre-Lance. But they also carried Klein, LeMond, GT and Giant from what I remember. That pretty much went away in the mid 2000s so that they only have Trek now for all intents and purposes. You can get other bikes from them but they are for not the average rider. They will get Independents custom made for you for instance. To me, this is a great loss for the consumer. If I want to experience some other brands I have to go to one of the other two stores and one of them doesn’t carry brands but just used bikes so it doesn’t count. As a result, I only have about three brands I can choose from for bikes and parts. I ended up going with Gunnar for a semi-custom made bike. They’re a subsidiary of Waterford but with some pre-made frames to keep costs down. Still, I ended up with an over $3000 bike. For me, that’s as much as I can handle. I used one of the other LBS shops to get the frame built up. I’m not too sure that shop was happy having to do that. I’ve had enough trouble getting the bike correct, specifically many issues with the rear wheel, that I’ll go back to using the Trek LBS for most things. Plus, they’re closer to me.

      And yes, I do think this is a bit like beer. I do NOT like how InBev has bought up seemingly everything under the sun, including some craft breweries. One friend will say “don’t we all benefit by greater availability of these beers” but I think of where the profits ultimately go – two Brazillians via a Belgian conglomerate – rather than staying in the area the original brewery was located and my stomach turns over (nothing against Brazilians nor Belgians mind you). So I consciously spend my money with companies that have stayed small and local. It’s okay if they open a subsidiary brewery or two, I’ll still buy them over a corporate monstrosity that has far too much power for any one organization other than a national government. Thinking back to the founding of our country, I can’t help but feel that they’re anti-American at they’re root.

      Screw the modern day Honorable East India Companies! Bring on the local breweries and LBSs!

  4. TomInAlbany

    I miss record stores too. I also miss book stores – though those have hung on a bit better.

    As a kid, my father had a big, furniture-sized record player/radio. It had all FOUR speeds!!!! I can tell you, Easy by the Commodores was as much of a gas on 78 as it was on 16.

    As regards shop homogenization, I see it here in Albany, NY. Though, truth be told, none of the shops are single-branded – yet. Shopping for a bike does feel like shopping for a car, though. You’ve got to drive all over town to see the different models that are available and, if you’re lucky, they may even have the one you think you want available for test drive, but not usually.

    1. Author

      A four-speed (16/33/45/78) record player was pretty high-end. That was always the sign of good stuff.

      We can blame Borders for the demise of most independent book stores. There was a pretty fascinating series of pieces somewhere (Publisher’s Marketplace maybe?) about how different Borders was from Barnes and Noble, and how their business plan predated independent booksellers by offering a broader selection (more square footage) and lower prices (which ultimately tanked them as well). One of the most interesting revelations in the articles was how much less efficient Borders re-order system was. It predicted their bankruptcy before they actually went under and it cited their inability to stay on top of restocking the way B&N does that contributed. Ultimately, though, they sold books so cheaply not only could they not turn a profit, they couldn’t stay in business, but they took most independents with them. The MBAs killed most of an entire retail sector.

  5. mike mcgary

    Ain’t it the truth. If you go to say, the Etoile in Paris or the Marien Platz in Munich or the Dam in Amsterdam you’ll find that most of the stores are homogenized as well and they offer the same stuff I can find at the Mall of America.

  6. Scott G.

    The Get of My Lawn book of the day for Padraig is.
    “The Revenge of Analog, Real things and why they matter” by David Sax, from your LBS.

    Vinyl sales are at a 28 year high.

    1. TomInAlbany

      Who’s buying the vinyl? Is it a last gasp from older generations or are the whippersnappers catching on to the warm, fuzzy tone of a good LP?

  7. Chuck

    Lots of millennials have apparently discovered vinyl. Turntables have made a bit of a comeback and are an “in” thing. Also tube amps. Go figure.

  8. TomInAlbany

    To run totally off the rails here, may I make a shout-out to non-homogenized milk? I used to love getting the creamy layer off the top of the milk jug!

  9. Tman

    Actually, Drive in theaters and record stores are on the upswing after hitting the bottom. Here in the Black Hills we have a NEW double drive in with another on the way and 2 true record stores, one new devoted entirely to vinyl.

  10. EvoDavo

    Back when I would travel a lot for business one of the things I enjoyed was visiting bike shops in different parts of the country and the world. Their offerings were typically shaped by the local weather. What I would find in a shop in Detroit was quite different than the offerings of Scottsdale. I loved what I would find in Europe and was disappointed when I entered a shop in Tokyo only to find a store full of Trek and Bontrager.

    Over the years I have seen the oscillations reduce as all the shops seem to be tending toward the same vanilla offerings. Kudos to those shops that buck the trend!

  11. Les.B.

    Just to note, “service” in the LBS sense includes not only servicing the hardware, but the rider too, i.e. fitting.

  12. Author

    I get that it’s great fun to poke holes in the conceit of the piece by citing growth in vinyl sales and new drive-in theaters but it is really just a distraction from the actual conversation. And then there’s the fact that citing figures like vinyl sales being at a 28-year high aren’t going to sway anyone into believing that LPs are going to become the dominant medium for music.

    The reality is that the recording industry was destroyed by Napster and iTunes finished off record stores themselves. There’s only one record store in my town that I know of. We have plenty of bike shops. The differences between the recording industry and the bike industry are significant.

    The central point of the piece, and it seems there are a few who missed it, is that while this is a painful time of change for the bike industry, I don’t see it suffering the demise that the music industry did. That’s something to celebrate.

    1. Chuck

      The bike industry may not go the way of the music/record industry, but the LBS will certainly change. It has to change. Especially if Trek, Specialized, Cannondale, and Giant decide to become more direct retailers (either corporate/concept store or direct-to-consumer sales). Maybe LBS’s become Tesla-like showrooms for bikes and bike fitting? Maybe more mom and pop shops sell “off” brands (assuming there’s enough of a local market for all those cools bikes that so many of us love but are hard to find because they don’t have the same distribution network as the big four). So maybe an opportunity for brands like Felt that got bought up by Rossignol? But because of the internet and consumers who want convenience and are willing to shop around to get the lowest price possible, I don’t see LBS’s being able to sell bikes the way they’ve traditionally sold bikes. If i was opening up a brick and mortar LBS today, it would be very small footprint. Stock just the essentials and accessories that can be moved. But the “big stuff” would all be “virtual” and I’d invest in a way for customers to “interact” with product. Maybe lots of VERY LARGE touchscreens that dominate the walls. Of course, a service department. But I’d also do mobile service. Maybe even mobile fitting. Deliver bikes to customers. Offer lots of different classes to educate customers. And I would spend a lot of time/effort/resources focusing on the women’s market as, at least right now, it seems to be largely untapped/under-serviced. BTW, I say all this as someone who isn’t hands-on involved in the bike industry or LBS other than as a customer.

  13. Phillip Cowan

    The real shame here is bicycles so complicated nowadays that people have to take them to bike shops to be repaired.It’s a bicycle not a Formula 1 car. They should be simple, relatively cheap and easy to fix. I have nothing against bike shops trying to survive but a few hours labor these days can easily top what the bike is worth. It’s hard to attract new riders with $3000 bikes and $250 tune ups.

    1. Author

      There are plenty of great bikes out there for only $1000. And while that’s not chump change, when you consider the cost of a gym membership, home exercise equipment, a motorcycle or the equipment required for many other sports, it’s not unreasonable. And sure, service on bikes is more complicated now, and service is more expensive, but if several hours of labor can top what the bike is worth, the bike wasn’t worth much. The alternative of course, if the sore spot is the cost of service, is to learn how to service your bike yourself. Good quality tools are more available than ever before and thanks to Youtube you can find videos that will walk you through how to do any procedure on your bike. I’ve used them to remind myself how to do something I don’t do very often, like sync the shifters for Red eTap.

  14. Phillip Cowan

    I totally agree with what you”re saying saying and I love working on my own stuff. However for people used to $150 Wallyworld BSOs even $1000 seems crazy. Someone needs to fill the gap between the two. I really don’t know if an LBS can be profitable in that range. It’s probably best served by companies like Canyon and Planet X/On One.

    1. Ron

      As someone with a lot of nice bikes and not much else I spend any money on (I play soccer, but a pair of cleats every other year ain’t much dough), it blows my mind what people spend their money on. They throw away $5 for a morning coffee, $8 or $10 for a sandwich, which adds up so darn fast. I eat well, but I enjoy cooking for myself, it kills me to spend $50 on dinner with the wife when I’d rather just make it for myself, but she enjoys going out.

      People will just burn through money unnecessarily and then you are selling a used bike and people think something like $200 for a bike is insane.

    2. Author

      That shift in priorities is one of the things that makes the world so fascinating. I just wish some folks didn’t have to conclude their priorities were the *right way* to do priorities. I’m with you, but I don’t much care for hearing how I’ve got it all wrong.

  15. Jackie Gammon

    Truly enjoyed this article and all of the replies! As a shop owner, I have searched for years to have great service and find the areas that folks are interested in, in terms of stocking products. After 911, the entire area I live in has struggled, with many businesses closing and others hanging on… but not sure what to do. As a female shop owner/mechanic. I’ve always had lots of women customers… yet find it extremely difficult to sell women’s clothing. I’ve had several brands over the years and with different price points, and regardless of whether it is women’s or men’s… well sales are exceptionally slow. Now, I’m not here to tell you all of the issues of trying to keep a shop profitable these days, but all of this does make me think. So, I appreciate all of the folks that took the time to respond to this article… and I appreciate sites like this that sometimes sheds new light on a subject or shares a great ride… and in the end, isn’t that we are all searching for?

    1. Author

      Thanks so much for sharing you perspective. I’d be fascinated to hear more about your shop and the things that work vs. what hasn’t worked. I’m also curious to know what city your shop is in and what your understanding is of how 9/11 affected your local economy. Regardless, it’s great to hear from a woman in retail. Keep it up.

    2. Jackie Gammon

      The area that I live in is a papermill industry, which of course has been affected by foreign trade for too many years to count. Several different owners later, and they seem to be hanging on but folks still think that the bottom will drop out at some point. this is one od the biggest industries in Maine, and many have already closed. When the mill has a layoff, or even a threat of it… everyone stops spending useless money, even if they personally aren’t affected by the layoff.

      My area is small and in the Western part of the state in the mountains. An incredibly gorgeous area if you like the outdoors, but a very difficult area to earn a living. The younger generations are moving away because there aren’t lot of fulltime/year round jobs, And for road cyclists, the majority of roads are narrow and without any sort of shoulder.

      Hopefully with this new President, jobs will start to be brought back to the US… regardless of what side we all are on, we definitely need that.

  16. Ron

    My CD carousel changer has been working oddly for awhile now. Sadly, the only local guy who used to fix them no longer works on them. Hmm. Thus, I’ve been listening to radio and records, which is fine by me.

    I know I’m very lucky, but my mid-sized city has three independent bike shops within 2 miles of my house as well as a newly opened classic record shop. Oh wow. The crappy local chain bike shop, which carries Specialized bikes, moved from downtown to the awful strip mall area on the edge of the city. Good riddance. You take your life in your hands trying to get there on a bike. Ha, I can ride side streets to my favorite LBS and be there in probably 4 minutes. The owner is awesome.

    As for homogeneity, I was living in New Zealand following undergrad graduation and traveled to a tiny town on the South Island. In such a unique place, near the bottom of the planet, I found a KFC and a McDonald’s. From that day forward I have never patronized a chain fast food store. I like diversity, I like mom ‘n’ pop restaurants, and I hate Sysco. (I’m a trained chef and have cooked for a living.) That was in 2002.

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