June 23, 2018

How's Business? Novel Ideas Build Community at Topanga Creek Bicycles




Bike riding enthusiasts attend a race at Hurkey Creek (Idylwild). From left: Errin Vasquez, Kris Mathur (Topanga), Max Flaxman (Topanga), Julie Thorton, Luke Macfarlane, Danny Henderson (works at TCB), Ryan Steers (works at TCB), Vassily Filippov, Chris Kelly (owner, TCB), Scott Verdekel (works at TCB), Eric Wu, (TCB website) and PD Briseno.

In July 2008, when wallets were on red alert, conventional thinking would have led Chris Kelly to stay put and rely on the solid customer base that he had built over a 10-year period as the only high-performance bicycle shop in Hollywood.

Chris Kelly is not, however, a conventional thinker.

“We had ten times more customers than we needed, but we were burnt out. The fringe element [on Hollywood Boulevard] was too much,” he said.

He closed up shop and took his staff of three to mountain bike and watch the Tour de France in the Swiss Alps. Inspired, they agreed that Kelly should find a similar location back home. One where the skyline was green and the stars were visible from above, not embedded in the sidewalk.

On an early Saturday morning, Kelly took a bike ride in Topanga to clear his head. He was at Entrada Road, looking at the sign for the State Park, when the lightening bolt of certainty lit his brain on fire.

“Topanga!” he said. “Game over!”

His blue eyes lit up with the recollection on a chilly Thursday night, sipping mint tea next to the crackling woodstove inside Topanga Creek Bicycles (TCB).

The first time he stepped inside the door of the cabin-like shop, he said to the realtor, “I’ll take it.” He knew the location was right. He also knew that the zoning on the Boulevard, between Froggy’s and Theatricum, was ideal. What he didn’t know was if his customers would follow.

He said, “We took a huge hit in dollars and in margin for the first couple of years. It was tough.”

He made another unconventional decision when moving by eliminating road bikes from the inventory (the kind you see packs of cyclists riding on the boulevards). Kelly chose to focus on mountain and long distance touring bikes.

Each year, on average, 1,000 of the 5,000 bike shops in the country close. In 2008, all bike shops were struggling to survive. It was a bold move, cutting out a large pool of customers.

“It’s like life,” Kelly figured, “Just do a few things really, really well. Do them the best you can.”

He added, “And that worked. We’re on target to be just under our 2008, pre-recession numbers.”

TCB inventory may be less diverse, but it is best in class. A customer can spend anywhere from $1,500 to “the sky’s the limit” on the bike of their dreams. Bikes and components come from small companies such as Orbea, Devinci, BMC, Salsa, Pivot, Surly, Niner and Crank Brothers. The selection of Brooks Saddles (a company that’s been making leather bicycle seats in England since 1865) is unparalleled.

TCB accommodates adult cyclists of all shapes, sizes, needs, and skill levels. Providing a great customer experience includes taking care of the friend who came along. Craftsmen rocking chairs, books on subjects other than bikes and good music make for an easy wait.

Yet, if a race is happening, the shop will be closed. Unconventional? Yes. But enjoying the sport grows community and makes the business of selling bikes more fun. TCB posts the race and dates on its website, www.topangacreekbicycles.com.

Technology is also fully embraced. From Facebook and email newsletters to web posts about racing and Saturday morning bike rides (which TCB organizes), to blogging about the progress of a custom built bike, to online budget calculators and mobile map apps, TCB stays current and connected.

Kelly also embraces advocacy. He donned a tweed sport coat and natty bow tie to attend the National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C. last month. He was one of three California shop proprietors, and one of 24 in the country, to receive a National Bicycle Dealers Association attendance scholarship. Their purpose was to encourage passage of the transportation bill, which includes significant funding for bicycle projects.

Locally, Kelly joined the Topanga Chamber of Commerce as soon as TCB opened its doors. Two members warned him that “Creek” in the name might be associated negatively with the transients known as ‘creekers.’ Their worry stumped him for about a day. But the name prevailed, because Kelly reasoned that none of us, including the canyon, would be here without the creek.

The Chamber also connected Kelly to local artists. His only instruction to Rebecca Catterall for making ceramic mugs was to “be creative.” He’s over the moon with the results. When Jennifer Babcock said she’d research online before designing racing outfits for the shop’s award-winning team, Kelly responded, “Could you not do that? Just do what you think might be great.”

He added, “She came from that creative Topanga place and they’re awesome!”

If the future is anything like the past, Kelly said it will bring unforeseen obstacles and frustrations and the solutions to those obstacles will be growth.

Game Over. Awesome!