The neighborhood of Fairmount, Philadelphia combines big city sights with small-town charm. On one side, a paved trail winds along the Schuylkill River, where people picnic on sunny afternoons. On the other, high-rise office buildings mingle with the Greek revival facade of the art museum. Whether you’re a tourist or local, one thing is clear: It’s the perfect place to ride a bike.
Shelly Walker, owner and founder of Fairmount Bicycles, first grasped the promise of the area while bike commuting across the neighborhood in the early 2000s. She was working at a coffee shop while managing customer operations for a low-budget bike repair business—fixing bikes in a warehouse and selling them on Craigslist. After a couple rides to and from work, she noticed Fairmount lacked a bike shop. The realization ignited an entrepreneurial streak that—combined with her customer service skills—helped Walker grow her business idea into two bustling bike shops and a top-rated bike tour company, Philly Bike Tour Co.
Today, the business’s approachable atmosphere and commitment to customer service helps keep the shop full—even in an unprecedented bike shortage. “We’re known for being friendly. We’re known for being down to earth,” Walker said. “From the get-go, the goal has been to have a bike shop in Fairmount and then have a bike shop in Brewerytown. I was coming at it like, there’s a need, and I’d like to fill that need.”
A queer, woman-owned business, Fairmount Bicyles also serves as a safe space for anyone looking to make connections in the cycling community—or simply to get their flat fixed, a service that became essential in the pandemic. “I fell in love with the utilitarian aspect of bikes—getting from point A to point B. But it also could be somebody’s way out of their neighborhood. It could be somebody’s way to work for free,” Walker said. “That you could ditch your SEPTA [transit] card if you have a bike—that’s huge.”
“Busy since day one”
Armed with a diverse resume and a passion for connecting with customers, Walker brought an array of unique skills to the business. “[My experience] gave me a lot of perspective that other shop owners might not have,” Walker said. “We can look at this and say: How long does this take us? How much should we charge? How much would I pay for this as a consumer?”
From the start, Walker did things differently. A film major with mostly restaurant experience, she had never worked in a bike shop before. Joining forces with two bike mechanic friends, she focused on tuning up her business skills and enrolled in a class at the Philadelphia nonprofit Entrepreneur Works. There, she learned how to communicate her business plan to investors (mostly friends and family). “I had expressed in the class that I was nervous about telling anyone about my idea,” Walker said. “[My advisor] was like: ‘If someone had the idea they’d be doing it already. The more people that know, the more people who can help.’”
Sure enough, Walker’s presence alone on Fairmount Avenue helped get the word out. Even her landlord told her, “I would love for there to be a bike shop here.” Since the shop was situated near a popular bike path and meeting an obvious need, neighbors began flooding in—and haven’t stopped. “We’ve been busy since day one,” Walker said.
Almost unintentionally, Walker also tapped into a desire for a queer-owned bike shop in the city. This is especially powerful, given that many customers are apprehensive about the stereotype of a “condescending bike mechanic,” as Walker put it. “Word of mouth has spread where people do come because it’s like, chances are this is gonna be a safe space—I love that,” she said, adding that she also goes out of her way to support LGBTQ-owned businesses. “Especially when you’re in a setting where you might be condescended to, it just seems like one less barrier.”
When work becomes essential
While Walker may have found her market, the customers who come into the shop need a wide array of services. “I feel like bikes are equalizers,” Walker said. “We see people who have $5,000 toys that they play with on the weekends, and we see people whose bike is a Huffy from the ’80s, and it’s their only possession.”
This is a balance Walker navigates daily but especially during the pandemic. The same time the lockdown halted bike production in China, demand for bikes skyrocketed in Philadelphia and across the country. People with essential jobs were biking to work to avoid exposure on public transit, and people with remote jobs were desperately seeking safe forms of recreation.
“It made the divide very clear: What’s actually essential right now is fixing bikes, but what’s paying the bills is people buying bikes,” Walker said. At one point, the shop was entirely cleared out of merchandise. Still, the team stayed hard at work, splitting repairs and sales between their two locations to ensure that customers could get a bike repair on their daily commute.
A commitment to their neighbors kept the mechanics coming in every day, but it was up to Walker to figure out how to pay the bills. One solution was bike rentals—a cheap and reliable addition to the business that helped cover the cost of fair wages and other mutual aid initiatives Walker launched during the pandemic. For example, born out of a desire to help people biking to protests last summer, the Brewerytown location now redistributes funds through its “community card,” offering $2 flat fixes to anyone with an EBT card.
Making sustainable changes
Financing remains a major challenge for Walker, but she never wavers on her commitment to her staff. She said she spends much of her time thinking about how to be a better employer: “A lot of people put a ton of value on what it takes to run a business. What I think about is you couldn’t run a business without everyone who works there.” This is especially true for small businesses, which often have an outsized impact on a local community but lack the funds of a large corporation to pay for offerings like diversity and inclusion training or paid time off. “Whatever decision we’re making, whether it’s the community card or people’s wages, I want to make sure it’s sustainable,” Walker said.
After all, making changes to a business model is rarely easy. When Walker opened the shop in Brewerytown—which lacked the built-in customer base from the Fairmount bike path—she struggled for six seasons to make a profit. Starting in June, she will highlight the new location with a venture headquartered right next door: a beer history bike tour. The ride features fun facts about Philadelphia’s history, stops at local breweries, and “a little bit of beer testing.” (“We’re not doing a pub crawl,” Walker said.)
Her favorite stop is the site of a historic brewery in Fairmount, demolished years ago. Cyclists will listen as a guide tells them that before fridges were invented, beer makers dug holes in the soft rock of the riverbank to keep their drinks cool. “There might actually still be vaults underground,” Walker said, getting animated as she described the scene.
To put it another way: Business owners have been using their location to their advantage for decades—it just takes knowing where to dig.