[This piece also runs in Momentum magazine.]
Great bicycle shops often feel like community centers and Uptown Bikes definitely fits that mold. It’s located in the ethnically and economically diverse Uptown neighborhood on Chicago’s north lakefront, where Charlie Chaplain once made films at Essanay Studios and Al Capone held court at the still-popular Green Mill jazz club. The store sits on a gritty stretch of Broadway under Chicago Transit Authority elevated tracks. A lit-up cruiser bike mounted on the roof greets train commuters, and an Indonesian pedicab with a volcano painted on it sits outside the front door.
Uptown Bikes focuses on affordable repairs and bikes for practical transportation to keep all community members rolling. The small, scruffy but well-organized shop sells new Raleigh, KHS and Rocky Mountain bikes, plenty of rehabbed rides, Planet Bike accessories, Detours panniers and other useful commuting gear. Collections of old cruiser saddles and rear-wheel “pie plates” line the walls. I talked with owner Maria Barnes about the store’s history and philosophy, and her perspective on the local bike scene.
How did you get into biking?
I’ve been a bike commuter since college but when I came to Chicago I met my life partner Tim Herlihy, who founded this store. When I met him he had a small community bike shop in a garage and I became involved with the cycling community because of him.
What was the shop like in the early days?
Before opening Uptown Bikes, Tim was living at the St. Francis Catholic Worker House [a socially-conscious intentional community in Uptown] and fixing bikes in the garage. Neighborhood kids would see him working on his own bike and ask Tim to fix the kids’ bikes. In return he’d have them sweep up the yard or the sidewalk, things like that.
He decided to take it to the next level and rented a storefront across the street from the Catholic Worker, and we moved in together in a flat upstairs. The store continued to be a community-based shop, employing kids in the neighborhood. I was more of a support person then because I had my own full-time job, which helped pay the bills.
I had come to Chicago after studying architecture in college and worked in a homeless shelter in Uptown. At the age of 30, I joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and eventually became a journeyman. I was on a crew working on the CTA Blue Line renovation and was laid off three days after 9-11. That motivated me to return to work as an architect for a construction project management firm specializing in public works.
In 1996 Tim and I bought a commercial space on Broadway and the shop continued to grow with the neighborhood and Chicago’s cycling community. In 2004 Tim decided to hand over the reigns to me and we incorporated and became more of a conventional retail operation.
The cruiser bike on the roof saying hi to passengers on the Red and Purple Line trains.
Did the old shop used to have an earn-a-bike program?
Yeah, at the time, in the early Nineties, Uptown had a lot of immigrants and lower-income families and a lot of kids. The demographics have changed a lot since then. Tim’s sort of an anarchist so we didn’t really define it as a program. It was just building relationships with kids in the neighborhood who would come and learn how to work on their own bikes.
Some of the kids stayed with us. We had one guy, Tony Morales, start with us at 14. He’s 31 now and recently graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology. He recently got a full-time job as a computer tech guy but until last year he was still working here during the summers. So we’ve had long-standing relationships with some of the young people who kind of grew up in the shop.
What’s unique about Uptown Bikes today?
Tim really focused on creating a culture of education at the shop. He took that really seriously in terms of providing practical skills and knowledge. At the root of it was just learning how to work together. Even though we’re more of a conventional retail operation now we’re still a respect-based shop. We’re willing to work with just about any customers who come through the doors.
The culture of education has continued and I’d say it’s more professionally focused, which is the way the bike industry is going. There are more professionals who take this job seriously and view this as a career. We are continually encouraging everybody who works here to discover who they are and take their education to whatever level they need to take it so that they are successful.
Ancient saddles on the wall inside the shop.
As a Filipina-American you are probably the only woman of color who owns a bike shop in Chicago. What can be done to bring more women and people of color into the local bike scene, particularly in leadership positions?
I came into this business because I had the opportunity and the support of wonderful people in my life, including the people who work here but also my family, Tim, his family and our community. I might be a person of color but I’m from an upper-middleclass family – my parents were physicians.
So I had every opportunity and access to do whatever I wanted to do. This is just really something that connected with my ideals of “communitarianism.” It was easy for me. I’m a feminist and I identify with the feminist struggle of women of color, but I don’t think that’s why I’m a successful bike shop owner. I think it’s because of my background.
So, because of my good fortune and privileged life, I am not the best person to answer that question. You should ask a woman and/or a person of color who is struggling to break into the establishment and gain respect.
I can tell you that I want to differentiate myself from the old boys’ network, which pretty much existed in Chicago before the current bike culture revolution. Nowadays there’s a different breed of bike shop owner. We realize in order to be successful we have to identify with our customers and build relationships with them. It’s not just about making money. Part of the reason we have such a loyal staff is because this shop exists for the staff and for our customers. I’m really dedicated to the people who work here and they know it.
We are located in an ethnically and economically diverse neighborhood and I think we’re a good example of a shop that welcomes everybody. There’s a broad range of people that work here, including women. That provides a very positive experience for our customers. I would say easily 60% of our customers are women, not just because there’s women working here but also because we have developed a culture of being friendly and accessible but professional. I know that appeals to a lot of people in general and I know it brings in a lot of women.
We have a huge LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered] customer base, not just because we’re close to Boystown but also because we are who we are. People like us.
How many female mechanics work here?
Just one, Nora Gallagher, but she’s the manager. The shop wouldn’t exist without her; she’s such an integral part. She came up through the ranks. She started with Tim when she was at Columbia College and she worked as an apprentice, pulling apart three-speed coaster brake hubs. So this shop is a launching point. A lot of people who are in the cycling community today came through these ranks, like Alex Wilson [director of West Town Bikes community bike shop].
Anything else you want to tell me?
No, just that we don’t have air conditioning. Thanks for the publicity, which I’m sure will bring us a huge increase in sales and eventually result in us being able to afford a new HVAC system. [Laughs.]
4653 N Broadway
Grid Chicago is a blog about sustainable transportation matters, projects and culture in Chicago and Illinois, by John Greenfield and Steven Vance since June 2011.
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