[leadin]Three hours of sleep. Tired eyes. It’s a quiet Saturday morning at Velo Cult, but Sky Boyer is eager to show me around. “It was a late night last night,” he quips. “You want a coffee, or a beer?”[/leadin]
Sky Boyer founded the Portland, Ore., venue four years ago this spring. It’s since evolved into a community hub, a bike shop that happens to have a bar, a stage, a theater in the basement, and, as the name implies, the air of a sanctuary honoring all things bike.
“We dim the lights and put out candles every night,” Boyer said.
I was suited up to ride and thus declined the beer. Instead, Boyer gave me a tour of Velo Cult, a 10,000-square-foot storefront in Portland’s Hollywood neighborhood.
A veteran of the bike industry, Boyer said he built the space for himself first and foremost, not wanting to duplicate what he calls the “sterile” experience he found in many bike shops.
“I made a place where I would personally want to visit and hang out; I wanted to create this man cave and not focus on bullshit and point-of-purchase displays and whatnot.”
The shop itself is open and inviting. Mechanics stands sit adjacent to the bar, next to a stage, and half-obscured by the museum of new and classic bikes propped up for sale, hanging, or curated along a ledge over the workbenches like art.
We walked through the main level as customers (cult members?) filtered in dressed to ride. Custom bikes, commuter gear, apparel, and tubes are offered for sale among tables where you can grab a mug and hang out.
Downstairs things got weird. We pass a screen-printing station (“we make our T-shirts here,” Boyer noted) then head down dark steps to a lower level “V.I.P. room.” An eight-track player, couches, lamps, mirrors, Burt Reynolds (supine, nude and very furry, on a poster), and Jane Fonda pictured as Barbarella, create a time capsule and completed 1970s vibe.
A full theater is in the next room over, then more bikes. Then the raw basement under the front of the store, with dark walls and weird passages. “We’re thinking about a two-seat absinthe bar back there,” Boyer said, pointing into the black.
Back upstairs, into the light again, I sat down with Boyer to talk about his four years building the shop and living the Velo Cult lifestyle. He wrenched on a bike and told me a few things about the experience.
Did you have any template for Velo Cult when it started up? Are there clubs/venues from which you drew inspiration?
Honestly, no. This business started as somewhat of an accident. My personal workshop [in San Diego] suddenly became an accidental bike shop. From there, after the move to Portland, this business grew out of my desire to build something with myself in mind as the customer. My theory was my workshop became popular because people liked being in “my” environment. This led me down a path of constantly asking myself what “I” wanted to see for product, the atmosphere of the shop, and the customer experience. This took me down a very unique path, and Velo Cult today is the evolving product of this business path. I do not consider what is normal for a bike shop or what I think my customers would want. Instead it’s about me, and people seem to like this honest and real approach.
Why does the intersection of biking and “culture” work here?
Well, I think people want to spend their money locally but they also want more out of their shopping experience if they do. Sit down with a coffee or beer while you get your flat fixed and in the corner there just happens to be a 15-person gypsy jazz band playing. It’s a fun experience that makes you question the cold shopping experiences we all know too well.
Would this same kind of venue and shop work for climbers, runners, skiers, etc.?
I think this model is viable for a lot of industries but not all. In fact, my model has been written up in many business journals and lectured on as the “future of retail.” I don’t think it works everywhere and for everything but for non team sports like you mentioned I say it’s a win so long as the shop is in a mecca for that particular sport.
Who is your average customer?
There really is none. I have never worked in a bike shop with such a diverse customer base. We shoot for non cyclists as well as shaved legged, Lycra wearing cyclist just the same. Each day can be different depending on what the venue is doing but I would guess 20% or so each week would be in the non-cyclist category. On top of that older folks come here for live bluegrass, or people come here for a punk band, or perhaps here for a fundraiser or comedy club. Being a bike shop, bar, and venue draws in all types.
What is your biggest challenge with owning and operating the shop/venue?
Time. Being a business owner for a bike shop is time consuming enough but adding a bar and venue with much longer hours is hard.
What is new this year at the shop?
This year we expect to broaden our products in the shop and really work to bring the shop’s customer base together with the launch of our Velo Cult Team, which will be on the large side. This spring we bring a lot more Velo Cult merchandise to the table and a vastly expanded product line. Up until now we have focused on the unique aspects of the business and now it’s time to work on the sales floor more. Also, we have a bunch of really fun bike nerd themed monthly events to add to the venue.
Where will Velo Cult be in five years?
I try not to think that far ahead but I don’t see myself wanting lots of locations or anything like that. It would be nice to make enough money to go on vacation and have time to ride more. I say this business is only about 10% along, so really I just would like this business model and the rest of my unique ideas to be rolled out incrementally. I have a fun unique business model and oddly I want to prove to myself that this business model is viable and successful. The model itself has become a project.
Beyond your shop, what trends are you seeing in the bike world right now?
I see the trends moving people further and further into nature or into utilitarian cycling. The road cyclist of yesterday is today’s gravel road explorer. Now touring and off road touring are making huge strides. People really want to get out into nature more than ever, even if they are not on mountain bikes. And let’s face it, the cities are changing. You have hoards of cyclists that use their bikes as tools and look at them as such. Just simple ways of getting around their cities where not too long ago cars dominated transportation.
–Check out Velo Cult in Portland at 1969 NE 42nd Ave.