By Emily Karcher Schmitt
Last October, in the kind of blazing autumn sun that has crowds peeling off layers by the hour, a record 533 racers and their families converged on the rarely glimpsed, grassy hills of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in northeast Washington for D.C.’s only cyclocross race: DCCX.
A common denominator among the spectators: many of them sported black Family Bike Shop t-shirts while they and their kids munched on Belgian frites and rang cowbells along the yellow-taped course. That day, Family Bike Shop owner Jonathan Seibold, wearing pink argyle knee socks, placed fifth in the masters 3/4 category. His shop in Crofton, Md., was DCCX’s title sponsor for the DCMTB team that hosted the race.
Even without his pink socks or his shop’s unmistakable red and yellow kit, Jonathan Seibold is hard to miss. Like a modern day pirate who lost the patch but kept the earrings, he is bearded long, shaved bald and covered in tattoos (his latest, a kokopelli riding a mountain bike with “FBS” emblazoned across his bicep. He got it on a recent bike trip out west to celebrate his 40th birthday). Jonathan’s red-headed wife, Sarah – pigtailed and beaming at DCCX – is his Pippi Longstocking, complete with freckles and exactly the spunk any proprietor needs to keep spirits running high.
The Seibolds met by chance in 1995 – Sarah still in college at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Jonathan having already graduated from Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania with a degree in sports management. That summer, both volunteered on the Cycle Across Maryland tour and were stationed at the same rest stop on the first day. They spent the next seven days together and married three years later. Today, they have two bike-loving, silky-haired preschoolers – a boy and a girl. But while the family might look storybook, Jonathan’s venture into shop ownership was anything but fairytale.
In 1997, Jonathan was embarking on a teaching degree and working for Charlie Halasz of then-Family Bikes and Skates in Capitol Heights, Md., when the store endured two armed robberies within a week. A month later, they packed up shop and moved to Crofton, Jonathan’s hometown. Shortly thereafter, Halasz announced his impending retirement, and offered the shop to Jonathan. “Owning a shop was not ever a thought in my head,” says Jonathan of his younger days working in a number of local bike shops, and coasting through life one party at a time. Looking back, Jonathan recalls that staring down the barrel of a gun – though traumatic – was just the jolt he needed to shift gears and pursue what he loved most. In 2002, with the help of a loan from his father, Jonathan became owner of the new Family Bike Shop.
After Jonathan took over, says Sarah, “he completely turned the store around.” Because he had vast experience in other Maryland bike shops, she says, “he used his observation skills in terms of what works and what doesn’t work.” What seems to be working is Jonathan’s clear focus on what his shop is all about: people. Whether it’s taking care of the people he employs or his customers, being a self-professed people-person has paid off. In the eight years since he became proprietor, Jonathan has tripled the business.
But despite such a successful turnaround on the local level, how could it be on that sunny day in October that so many Washingtonians would proudly wear the gear of an independent shop located so far outside the Beltway? Sure, it helps that the shop sponsors DCMTB, but it takes more than a sponsorship to collect that kind of fan base. It takes something far more rooted in the spirit of cycling in this region:a pure love of the sport that drives everything about the shop, no matter the customer’s experience, age or budget. “When I bought the shop,” recalls Jonathan, “we spent hours brainstorming names, and in the end, because of the community here, we figured [Family Bike Shop] would attract what I really wanted my customer to be.” That’s not to say the shop doesn’t have a number of devoted customers who race at elite levels and purchase the high-end bikes, such as Moots. But, as Jonathan says, “We are more designed and built around getting families on bikes. We definitely have a reputation for getting you started, and I like it that way.”
On Mother’s Day, a day many mothers get flowers or pedicures, Family Bike Shop was buzzing with moms (and dads and kids). Moms looking for bikes of their own, moms getting their tween boys fitted for new mountain bikes, moms embarking on their first set of clipless pedals. The smell of fresh-brewed coffee filled the shop, while a Radiohead-inspired band jammed over the speakers from Internet radio station Pandora. The staff working the floor bounced from customer to customer like balls in a pinball machine – families in all corners needing parts, tune-ups, advice or with the giddy hopes of a shiny new ride to take home.
“Come for your family, stay for yourself,” is a theme that drives a lot of the business, says Sarah. “That’sprobably how we get a lot of our high-end customers. People come in with their families and they say, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize you had all this other stuff. ’We have a lot more stuff than we ever did before.”
In addition to selling bikes to fit nearly any terrain, from hybrids,cross and mountain bikes, to road bikes, BMX and even unicycles, the shop also specializes in a wide range of clothing and accessories, including those for the many bike commuters who live and work along the Route 50 corridor.
While Jonathan declares no interest in opening a second shop, he constantly upgrades the space he rents in the Route 3 strip mall that also houses longstanding Family Bike Shop supporter, Ledo Pizza. “Every year I do something big,” he says. “I’m not afraid to put money back into the business. ”Recent additions include a computer system that has streamlined the ordering, inventory and sales tracking processes, as well as spacious new countertops near the registers, which allow customers to pull up a stool and enjoy a fresh cup of coffee from the shop’s new professional grade coffee maker. To make the shopping experience more comfortable for parents with young children, Sarah recently added a play area, which on Mother’s Day was swarmed with kids rifling through the toy chest while Elmo giggled in the background.
Something else has helped grow Family Bike Shop: the explosion of online social networking. Today, in addition to its website familybikeshop.com, the shop maintains a vocal presence on Twitter and on Facebook. The fan base continues to snowball thanks to Sarah’s grassroots marketing efforts, and those media expand the shop’s reach in publicizing its free bike safety and mechanical workshops held regularly at the shop and throughout the community. The shop also hosts year-round weekly rides and in-house trainer workouts in winter.
The shop is known for accommodating individual customer requests through custom orders, particularly because Sarah’s professional background is in physical therapy, the shop often helps people with special needs find – or in some cases, tailor – bikes to fit their abilities.
The majority of Jonathan’s staff has worked with him since the beginning – retention he recognizes as integral to his success. “If you’ve been shopping with me since 2004, for instance, the only thing you’ve seen is new employees, because since I’ve grown I’ve hired more people,” Jonathan says. If you ask his staff what keeps them happily employed by Family Bike Shop, they’ll not only point to their love of bikes, they’ll describe summer crab feasts, impromptu picnics to watch a local bluegrass band or holiday parties at hip Annapolis restaurant, Level. And true to Jonathan’s mechanic roots, he has never dropped the wrench.
On any day of the week– he often works all seven –he can be seen in the back of the shop alongside his mechanics, fixing up one of the 20-plus bikes lined up and tagged for service, his hands blackened by grease. “I love doing what I do,” he says, calling the shop his playground. “I have a big beard, and I wear flip-flops to work. I work in a bike shop. I mean, how much better can it get?”
Editor ’s Note : A good independent bicycle shop still remains one of the treasured resources of bicycling–among the best places to learn about places to ride, meet locals to ride with, and learn about new products. Oh, and they also do a super job fixing the bike stuff you break.“My Bike Shop” is a regular feature of SPOKES in which we give you a look into a local shop and the folks behind it.