Independent bike shops have suffered through a notable decline over the years, but you wouldn’t know it from talking to Nechama Levy. She and her business partner, Joe Lawler, launched their full-service New York City shop, Bicycle Roots, in 2012, and they have been on a roll ever since.
“There are people who just fall in love with bicycles, and I am one of them,” Levy said in a recent interview. “We plan to be in this location and serving the neighborhood for a long time.”
Free Enterprise recently caught up with Levy, a former bicycle mechanic originally from Queens, NY, to chat about what makes independent bike shops special, how her shop competes with other stores, and her advice for fellow entrepreneurs.
Why did you decide to open a bike shop?
Most people who work in the bike industry don’t want to be an employee for their whole lives. They usually have a career goal that will take them to the next level. For me, after working as a mechanic for years, the goal was opening a shop.
Why is it important for entrepreneurs to work behind the scenes before opening their own small business?
Working as an employee before you become a boss helps you learn to recognize scenarios that will be time pits or money pits—situations where no one will win. It makes you more discerning.
That being said, it’s not always a bad thing to follow the established industry model or routine in the beginning. If you can perfect it and distinguish yourself through outstanding customer service, friendliness or great products you can succeed without the fear of failure.
What’s it like being a female entrepreneur in a somewhat male-dominated industry?
It’s not something that I’ve really thought about, but it definitely isn’t something that discouraged me from opening my shop. You open a business because you think you’re going to succeed, not because of what other people will think. I’ve encountered unpleasant situations with customers, but professionally my colleagues have never doubted my work or experience.
Why do you think it’s important to have independent bike stores?
I don’t think a consumer can have a satisfying cycling routine without the help of a bike shop. We learn the ins and outs of our customers’ cycling lives to make sure they, and the people around them, are safe.
Bike shops are facing a lot of challenges from mass-market retailers, internet retailers and the secondhand market–which in New York City pretty much means the black market for stolen bikes. Owners have to adapt and learn how to compete with competitors who many not have the same limitations or expenses.
In light of that, how do you and your team keep the store profitable?
You learn to be extremely competitive and fight for every sale by building trust and creating not just a satisfying shopping experience, but a satisfying cycling experience after customers leave the store. We explain to customers why they should buy their bike in a bike shop, and we do our best to help them see that they are getting professional assembly, as well as a high-quality bike that will last longer and perform better over time.
What do you wish you had known before you launched your business?
I inherited some money and took out a loan that allowed me to open the shop, but I actually wish that I had invested less capital in my business initially. In this business, you can get a lot of your product on credit, so the amount I invested in at the beginning was much higher than what I needed. I took on debt that I didn’t have to.