At Pioneer Bicycles, a focus on bike fixes, not sales
on January 4, 2012
Pioneer Bicycles is littered with bikes and bike parts. Most of them aren’t for sale.
Near the front door of the shop, which is located on Rio Vista Avenue right off of Piedmont Avenue, there are dozens of bikes lined up in cluttered rows near the front door. Only two are new; the rest have been repaired and are waiting to be picked up by their owners. In the middle of the shop, there are boxes of new, unopened bikes that will only be put together when they’re ordered, stacked in the middle of what used to be the sales floor.
The owner of the shop, Edmond Gee, said the place is in need of a spring cleaning. But it’s also organized just the way he likes it, with a focus on service, not sales. “Buying a bike here is kind of difficult,” said Gee, a 52-year-old Oakland native. “I’m not a good place to browse.”
Pioneer Bicycles has been in business for 39 years, in three locations, all within a block radius of its current location. Gee has worked at the shop for most of that time, starting when he was a junior high student at Westlake, through his time at Oakland Tech (class of 1977), while he attended UC Berkeley to study physics, and after he graduated. He has been the owner for the last 15 years.
He runs the place in his own, unique way. He’s the only employee, for example. He also keeps a large number of different kinds of parts in the shop, instead of a large inventory of only a handful of parts—he’s got 40 or so different kinds of inner tubes. He also doesn’t have a computerized record system. “It would be a nightmare,” Gee said, “because I have so many small parts.”
Other bike shops in Oakland have a particular focus, like Cycle Sports on Grand Avenue, which is centered on road bikes, or Montano Velo on Piedmont, which highlights single-speed bikes. For Pioneer, it’s bike service. “I’m basically focusing on what I’m good at,” Gee said.
It hasn’t always been that way. Back in the 70s when Gee was a teenager looking to earn spending money so he could buy a Rally International bike, Pioneer was owned by a man named Terry Gowan who ran it as a more standard retail-oriented bike shop. Back in those days, there were a few employees on a sales floor that featured racks of bikes, and few more employees in the back shop, working on repairs.
For years, Gee was one of those employees manning the sales floor, talking with interested customers. He didn’t mind the work, but preferred to be in the back fixing a wheel or tinkering with a frame. When Gowan became ill with cancer, he put Pioneer up for sale. Gee said he’d heard talk of the shop closing down, so he bought the place to “keep Terry’s legacy going.”
To keep costs down, Gee decided to run the place himself. He soon tired of all the time he had to spend on the sales floor. “I don’t like selling stuff,” Gee said. “I just don’t have the patience for it.”
“I also don’t like pushing something on someone they don’t need,” he added.
As Gee has gradually retreated to the back repair room at Pioneer more often and for longer periods of time, sales drastically slowed. But at the same time, Gee got to know the people of the neighborhood, who come to chat with when they swing in to drop off a flat or a wheel to be fixed. He tries to make sure he has every possible part on hand to make a quick fix and send the customer on their way.
The problem is, he’s fixing bikes a lot faster than people are coming in to pick them up, hence the long stack lined up near the front door. He’s got about 30 other bikes in the store that need some kind of work, and less than a dozen for sale, just in case someone wanders in and wants to make a purchase.
More likely, someone will walk through the door with a bike they’ve already bought that needs mending. Gee said business has been especially good the past two years during the recession. “It seems like everyone has this old bike in their garage,” Gee said, “and people are deciding to fix them up rather than replace them. It’s keeping me pretty busy.”
And off the sales floor. Just how he likes it.
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