A Non-Judgmental Bike Shop Comes to Somerville

When I emerged from the basement digs of Open Bicycle on Friday evening, the day’s grey and rain had dissipated, replaced by blue skies. I had a souped-up bike and a warm, fuzzy glow that had nothing to do with the recently reappeared sun. The only thing missing was a helmet, so I could have taken in the evening from the seat of my bike, zipping down the road back home.

susanxx-R1-052-24AI came late to bike riding. It wasn’t until 2005 (the same summer I learned to drive and, well, tried to learn how to swim) that I pursued bike-riding lessons. Luckily, a lovely woman in Somerville, Susan McLucas, specializes in adult bike-riding lessons. . (See picture at left of me during a bike-riding lesson.) I remember being astonished the first time I was on a bike, feet off the ground, and not falling over. In time, I was zipping down the bike path, riding between my house and Davis Square and enjoying the feeling of transportation independence — no bus schedules, no engine maintenance, just me and two wheels.

Those two wheels, however, were purchased somewhat ill-advisedly. I found a good deal on Craigslist of some guy looking to get rid of a bike, helmet and lock. The bike was in fine shape, but I bought it not knowing anything about different kinds of bikes, what kind I needed, what size was right for me.

Over the past couple of years, as I’ve ridden my bike around, I’ve always felt like I’ve been slower and more sluggish than other riders I see on the road, and I knew it wasn’t me. I figured there were probably some changes — whether simple adjustments or more comprehensive work — that could be made to my bike to make it more adaptable to my needs and my body. Failing that, it would probably be time to buy a new bike, this time in a proper manner.

I’ve been taking my bike to Paramount in Powderhouse (now Ball Square) as long as I’ve had it — in fact, I wheeled it over there directly after buying it — and I’ve never gotten anything but quality work done there. But this year, as I looked to give my bike its annual tune-up, I also felt it was time to confront all these existential questions I had about my bike. And, well, I didn’t feel like I could go to Paramount for that. The work’s always been good there, but I somehow felt like I wasn’t “bike-y” enough to be there. Like since I wasn’t some hardcore, calves-of-steel, all-season biker, I was a bit of a pretender. And I didn’t feel like having my ignorance thrown back at me or being subject to someone’s judgment. Maybe that wouldn’t have happened, but based on previous vibes, that was my fear.

I first saw flyers for Open Bicycle a few months ago, a few blocks from their Union Square location. Then I began to hear a bit of a buzz. And the buzz was… they’re nice. Some nice young men running a bicycle shop. Isn’t that lovely? And Yelp backed up the buzz. I did some more research and saw they were very into art and coffee and community. This seemed like it might be my kind of place.

So, two Saturdays ago, I rode to the Union Square Farmer’s Market and then brought my bike over to Open. They’re located on Washington Street, just two blocks from the Square, in a basement next to a beauty supply wholesaler. The exterior belies the funky little shop and gallery space they’ve created inside. Once inside, I talked to Zack and explained my situation. He and one of his co-workers examined my bike and talked through what might be causing it to feel so heavy and slow. Wrong fork. Knobby tires. The energy I put into it, they said, gets sucked right out by those things.

So, I left my faithful bike with these nice young men, to get a new basket and a tune-up on top of the other changes. To my shock, they told me they would have it ready on Wednesday. Wednesday. That’s just four days after drop-off.

Wednesday night, however, I was at the Freedy Johnston show, and Thursday brought downpours. So after work on Friday, I took the bus over to Open.

When they wheeled out my bike… it turns out they had installed a rack and not a basket. I had been afraid of this, actually. During our conversation on Saturday, I had asked for a rack, but one of the guys said a basket might be better for my needs, and I agreed. When I got the call on Wednesday that the bike was ready, there was still some lack of clarity about whether I wanted a rack or a basket, but eventually it was decided that I would pick out a basket when I got there for the pickup and they would install it while I wait.

When I saw the rack and no basket, I explained my Wednesday phone conversation. It seeemed like there had been a miscommunication between the guys at the shop. They told me they would take off the rack and install the basket.

With the new fork, however, getting the basket on proved to be a tricky proposition. They had to shave some metal and do other bike-magic things that ended up taking about an hour. I was slightly annoyed, but I also felt bad that a confusing conversation had given them all this unexpected work to do. Because even in just the hour, hour and a half that I was there — between 6 and 8PM on a Friday, mind you — a bunch of people came in: some picking up, some who had just gotten flats, some who had other problems. In just a few months, Open has built up quite a following for themselves.

When the work was finally done and Zack and I exchanged apologies, he rang me up. To my shock, for the trouble, they dropped all the labor charges off the whole bill. The final total for all of that work? $105. I had been quoted $160. I was floored, and impressed. While they could probably stand to come up with a better system for confirming orders, the service was still high quality, and they were more than willing to account for any problems that came up.

I told Zack why I’d come to Open: that I’d had all these bike questions I wanted to ask in a non-judgmental environment, and I had heard they were nice guys. He smiled and shook his head, lamenting that there seemed to be a lot of bike snobbery in the area. He said it didn’t make sense to judge people for not knowing everything about their bikes.

“If they did, they’d probably work in a bike shop,” Zack said.

“And wear a cool hat,” I said, referring to his short-billed bike cap. He laughed. “I don’t know if I’d say cool hat.”

Zack said that if I wanted a city that was the opposite, where bike-riders were not expected to be two-wheeled geniuses, I shold try Portland, Ore. I think I’ll pass. If Open Bicycle sticks around, I think Somerville will be good enough for me.

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4 responses to “A Non-Judgmental Bike Shop Comes to Somerville

  1. This was super helpful. I have some of the same issues with my bike (it’s slow, it’s not as optimized as it could be) and feel the same way — that the questions I have (I love that you term them “existential”) will sound stupid to a bike shop staff person. Union’s not convenient for everyone, so it would be nice to know of other options in the city that are as unpretentious as this shop, but for now it’s great to know that there’s at least one setting a different kind of standard for customer service and bike culture in Boston.

  2. This was a good review that seems well deserved. Thanks for bringing this shop to people’s attention.

  3. Pingback: 16.25 Miles « Safe Digression

  4. wow , great post. and exactly what i was looking for. a bike shop in somerville that wouldn’t treat me like a fool for asking basic bike questions. thanks!

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