Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Women Bike PHL Interview #5: Shelly Salamon

Shelly Salamon owns Fairmount Bicycles, a full-service bike shop located at 2015 Fairmount Avenue that opened in June 2010.

What's your history with bikes?
I rode a bike as a kid, but I didn't really think of it as a mode of transportation until I moved to Philly. Once I started riding, I fell in love with bikes. Getting directly from point A to point B is just awesome, and you never have to pay for parking. Initially, I had no interest in learning how to work on them.

How did you start using bikes as transportation?
I have a car, and I enjoyed driving in the city. It seemed like somewhat of a puzzle figuring out the best way to go. I had friends who weren't afraid of biking in the city, and they encouraged me to try it. Riding with other people was really helpful. Applying that same puzzle mentality to bikes was even more fun.

How long have you been biking in Philly?
About 8 years.

What was the incentive for opening your own bike shop?
A friend of mine worked on bikes for fun, and he started putting ads in a newspaper in the suburbs saying "bicycles wanted". He would fix them up and sell them on Craigslist. I suggested that we go in on it together and get warehouse space. We found a reasonably priced warehouse space in Kensington and signed a lease. We'd go out to the burbs to get bikes, bring them back to the warehouse, fix ‘em up, and list them on Craigslist. That’s where I learned the basics of working on bikes.

I was living in West Philly, and the warehouse space was across town in Kensington. Initially, I would bike there by going to Center City first and then head north. I was trying to find different routes and eventually found Fairmount Ave. It’s a nice wide road with coffee shops and restaurants, but did not have a bike shop. I talked to a couple of friends that lived nearby, asked them where they went to get their bikes serviced, and they said, “Oh, I have to go all the way to this neighborhood, or that neighborhood.” That’s when I started looking into the possibility of opening a shop. Once I had that idea, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I took a business course at Entrepreneur Works, which helped me with the basics of getting started, and here we are.

How has being a shop owner changed your perspective on biking in the city, if at all? Have you been exposed to parts of bike culture that you hadn't encountered before?
I guess I would say that I used to be turned off by cyclists who wear spandex. My perception of them was that they must feel superior to us commuting cyclists, so it just seemed that we were at odds. But that’s obviously stupid because we all agree that bikes are awesome. They’re having fun on their bike, just like I’m having fun on mine!

I also tried mountain biking for the first time last summer, which is so fun. A lot of the folks that work at the shop went mountain biking weekly, and that's how I got interested in it. I started seeing everything you can do with a bike, whether it’s utilitarian or just for fun.

Do you know what percentage of your customers, as a ballpark, are women versus men?
I don't have actual numbers, but I would estimate that it’s close to 50/50.

One common question that comes up frequently in women and biking is the issue of companies not making women-designed gear, especially racing and touring stuff. Are there any equipment purchases that you make especially with women in mind, or anything along those lines?

I went to the Women's Forum at the Bicycle Summit in DC, and it was so great to hear everybody talking about how to get more women on bikes. One thing we do to cater to women at my shop is carry Terry bicycles. A woman named Georgena Terry started the company about 25 years ago, and they design bikes for women. They take women's geometry and the fact that women tend to be shorter into consideration... Because I’m 5’1”, I know it can be difficult to find a bike that fits when you’re smaller than average, so I make sure to carry a range of bikes in smaller sizes, which has become a bit of a niche market for us.

As far as having products tailored for women, there seem to be two schools of thought. Some women don’t want pink and purple stuff, and some women want to walk into a shop and immediately see that they cater to women. I don't know. A lot of things don't need a gender. For example, Bern makes women's helmets. Why? It's the exact same helmet, but the Bern logo is in pink, and on the box it says "women's helmet." A dude could like pink. So, that kind of bugs me. I'd rather things just exist for people - especially when it’s obvious that it doesn’t need a gender. Clothing is a different story, and we just don’t carry much in that department.

What about your personal approach to biking, what kind of bike do you ride?
I ride a Surly Long Haul Trucker. The Trucker comes in my size, which is exciting. It has 26" wheels, which also helps make it look like a normal bike. That's the problem with most bikes that are made in smaller sizes. They still have the big 700c wheels, and you compromise around that with frame geometry. I've ridden bikes that have 700c wheels, and it just looks awkward. I am a big fan of the Long Haul Trucker. It fits wide tires, and it’s comfortable—it was designed to be a touring bike. I took it on a long trip over the winter, but it’s also my daily commuter.

What's your commute like?
It's from West Philly. It's about 3.5 - 4 miles, something like that.

You mentioned you have a car, and you like driving too. Do you commute on your bike every day, or do you drive sometimes?
No, I drive sometimes, if the weather is... winter. I did get some winter gear this year and I biked much more than I have any other winter. If it's pouring rain, I feel like the only reason I would be biking is to prove to myself that I can; not because I would be enjoying it. So, sometimes I'm just like, “Nah, I'm gonna drive.” I prefer to bike, but if I'm sick or the weather sucks, it’s just not as fun.

Do you dress differently for biking? Do you change?
In the winter, I had lots of layers - about 3 to 4 layers of warm, lightweight wool, and a rain jacket/windbreaker. I would definitely de-layer once I got to work. Besides that, no. I'm a t-shirt and jeans kind of gal, so that's what I wear to bike, and that's what I wear to work.

I wanted to ask about people who want to buy their first bike. I think that can be a barrier for people because they imagine $400-500 will get them a nice bike and a lot of times it tends to be an entry-level price. How do you tend to direct people when they are looking for their first bike?
Actually, I think most people want to spend $200, and they think that’s going to get them a nice bike. Sometimes, it’s tough to explain that it doesn’t. We do sell used bikes in the $175-$300 range, which really helps. Even then, if you don't have the right kind of bike in the right size [in stock], it just doesn't work out.

Because you can go get a bike at Walmart for $200?
Exactly. I heard one of the guys who works here explaining the difference to a customer. He said, “You can buy a pint glass or a styrofoam cup. They both hold water, but one of them does a better job.” I think that’s a good analogy. Plus, if you ride a department store bike, and then ride a shop quality bike, you’ll be able to tell the difference.

My dad had actually never ridden a shop quality bike until I opened the shop. He rode our rental bike, and he loved it. He said it felt like he had never ridden a real bike before! So the best thing to do is actually get people on test rides, and then even if they don't buy a bike that day, they will just know that there’s a bike that exists that they like.

Another intimidating stereotype associated with bike culture is that you have to know how to do it all yourself, and know what every single component does. But sometimes all you want to know is how to fix a flat. As a bike shop, you obviously do repairs, but do you want to balance that with empowering people to understand their own bikes?
Only if they want to. We are as transparent as possible, and we have a repair class. Occasionally people ask to watch us fix their flat, and we’ll gladly explain what we’re doing as we go. On the other hand, if you don't want to learn how to do it, there’s nothing wrong with that. I don't want to learn how to fix my car! We also hear from people who know how to fix their bikes and maybe just don’t want to. A good friend of mine definitely knows how to fix a flat, but will not do it. She doesn’t want to get dirt and grease everywhere, and figures for $10, it’s worth it to not have to deal with it.

What other things go on behind the scenes in a bike shop that your average commuter who comes in for a flat tire wouldn't know about?
We have a ton of regular “customers” that like to hang out at the shop. Customer is in quotes because they are generally under the age of 12 and don’t purchase anything. [Laughs] Most of them are really nice kids that just ask us lots of questions. Our nickname for them is Awesome Squad. They’re constantly recruiting new members and dropping others. Besides that, the only thing that goes on behind the scenes is lots of nerdy bike talk. We talk about our own bike projects and new products. Tim and Sara are dressing up a tandem bike for the Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby. Evan just ordered a giraffe unicycle. Kyler is working on making his own frame. I’m planning on building up a wheel with a dynamo hub, which generates electricity to power a headlight. I just found a headlight that has a USB cable coming out of it, so you could charge your phone as well. Pretty cool stuff.

Having been to the summit and owning your own shop, where do you see transportation biking going in the next few years? Do you see any kind of trends that are shaping up?
Not sure if this is just because I’m at the bike shop all the time, but it seems that people are driving less. Gas is expensive, insurance is expensive, and people are realizing that they can make this initial investment and save a ton of money in the long run. Hopefully people will stick with this mentality. It’s a great way to save money and stay in shape. I'd love to see more people on bikes, especially some of my friends who don't ride. For them, it seems so overwhelming. That's what I want to do with the Take Your Time bike rides: take away the intimidation factor and make biking in the city more approachable.

This interview is part of our Women Bike PHL Campaign. If you are, or know, a woman who would be a good subject for a profile, contact Katie Monroe at katie@bicyclecoalition.orgInterview conducted and transcribed by Claudia Setubal.