Velo Cult Reconstructs the Bike Shop as a Welcoming Community Space
San Diego’s Velo Cult looks the part of a really hardcore, if somewhat trendy, bike shop and it’s owner, Sky Boyer, appears the quintessential bearded gear-head. But anyone who keeps walking when they pass the wide open gate, soaring ceilings, and vintage originals is missing more than half the story. This is not a place where greasy, scabby-kneed road warriors intimidate you with their superior knowledge of how your bike works. In fact, Velo Cult exists in direct opposition to that style of bike shop.
Sky has been a self-proclaimed bike shop monkey for his entire life. It was his first job at age 15, and as well as the next ten, until he finally got fed up with the attitude, the arrogance, and the exclusivity that seemed to be inherent in the business. He broke off to work on bikes on his own, collecting and selling on Ebay and Craigslist. When he got busy enough to have to move out of his garage he found a storefront along one of the major West Coast bike routes, connecting not only downtown San Diego with the beaches of Mission Bay and La Jolla, but stretching all the way from Mexico to Canada. He planned for his main business to remain internet orders, but he opened his door as well, figuring he would change a tire or replace a chain now and then.
Almost immediately, he was swamped. He hired his first assistant, Anthony Bareno—working for free at first only to become the shop manager just a few years later—to work with the influx of bike commuters who found this humble little shop, where the guys were nice and the space filled with vintage all-steel bicycles, to be something they long had been looking for. When it was time to move again to yet a bigger spot, Sky looked where his customers lived—the then up-and-coming South Park area of San Diego. Immediately he came across a dilapidated shell of a building in the middle of major renovations and had a vision of the bike shop he had always wanted to be a part of. High ceilings would allow bikes to climb the walls and hang overhead, a wide open shop floor could showcase unique bikes or be cleared for parties and movie screenings, and a loading dock in place of a street-facing wall literally opened the space out onto the street in Southern California’s year-round ideal weather.
“We packed everything up and moved to our dream location in South Park, San Diego right near downtown.” Sky wrote on his website. “With this new nicer building we set into motion all the fun neat things we’ve always wanted to do. Now we have a shop that sells things to bike dorks and bike commuters. These two segments of the population are often ignored by bike shops so we took them under our wing. The shop was built up in a way that shows permanence with handmade furniture, nice paint and a layout that shows we aren’t your typical bike shop.”
Sky and his small team worked alongside the building owner’s contractors, building out the shop and painting the floors at the same time the roof was being replaced to limit the business’ downtime. Their first community event was held before the construction was even finished, and they’ve never looked back.
Today, Velo Cult is recognized world-wide as a an authority on all steel bikes, custom builds, and vintage recreations, and will soon unveil their own first original models. Locally, however, Velo Cult is also known for proactively promoting bike culture and community. Sky also has founded an unaffiliated message board called SDBikeCommuter.com, a positive forum for beginner cyclists and the bike nerds that want to help them find the safest routes and connect with the friendliest rides. Together with SDBikeCommuter, Sky hosts “Downtownies”, morning brunch bike ride events to connect like-minded folks, suggest safe bike routes, and have some non-intimidating fun.
“They just get it,” Brooklyn-based bike blog Prolly Is Not Probably recently wrote. “They're into fixed gears and touring too (oh my!); one of those shops that hits on everything cycling related and supports the communities by documenting each with beautiful photographs on their blog.” In fact, Velo Cult has several staffers dedicated to their blog, online sales, and communicating with their customers. These are guys the public never see, but are integral to the shop’s success. Sky credits the talents of his first lucky hire, Anthony, for the gorgeous photography and unique style that define Velo Cult’s signature look. “I had no idea these other skills he had,” Sky remembers, “but he kept blowing me away this stuff and I kept giving him more room to do amazing work.”
Before you think Sky to be a total softy, you must know he also has one of the country’s most significant mountain bike collections, and is no stranger to long, dirty bike trips to ghost towns and national forests, or to bloody elbows and heavily tattooed riding companions. Its just that he will always choose the long road for the more peaceful commute.
Sky admits that he and his team are big dreamers and risk takers. But while the formula is unusual, it seems to be working. Velo Cult (né Velo Culture in its first location) has steadily grown from its inception. Each move has been fully funded by actual revenue—Sky has never taken out a business loan or used credit for his business—so even if things go bad, he’s never going to be in debt. Additionally, they can’t—or don’t—measure profitability in a traditional sense, as the store hasn’t “made” a dollar, he says, but they do grow month by month even in this down-turned economy, offering new merchandise, expanding the store, opening a second warehouse a few miles down the road, and continuing to offer free community events. He sells what he likes—all steel bikes and top quality accessories—and nothing more, keeping inventory simple.
When did they learn to be bookkeepers and businessmen? Well, they’re still working on that. But “learning to run a bike shop” may have lead him to owning a shop just like all those he grew up in. What he has, instead, is an entirely new community-oriented business, and seems to be having a great time figuring out each new direction.