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A Bike Shop On Her Own Terms
I met Sarah Johnson a few years ago while living in Omaha, NE. I think we officially met at a fundraising event for a local nonprofit, but I had known of Sarah and her bike advocacy super powers long before that first meeting.
After moving to Omaha in 2010, I stopped regularly bike commuting because the roads felt unsafe. There weren’t a lot of good low volume connectors where I needed to go, and I was often intimidated by people in cars who were unused to seeing a woman on bike, just trying to get to work.
I attended an event a few years later that Johnson had planned -- Heyday on May Day. It was an open streets event designed to reimagine a desolate corridor of downtown as vibrant and bike friendly. I biked there from my house downtown. It was awesome. I felt a shift in the city after that first event, and was interested in catching up with Johnson and see how things were going. In the past two years she has taken on the adventure of opening up her own bike and coffee shop Omaha Bicycle Company. She specializes in custom builds, favoring steel frames and classic cycling accessories like wool jerseys and Brooks saddles.
Her story from bike shop employee to sole owner of her own shop is an interesting one. She had moved back to Omaha after living in Grand Lake, CO. She got a job managing a local shop, and she started one of the first women only social rides in Omaha. It became super popular, and positioned Johnson as a sort of role model to women getting into biking. A falling out with her boss led to her getting fired. Unsure of what to do next, she kept getting asked when she was going to open up her own shop. Her customers wanted a place to still receive the high quality customer service she was known for. She raised the money to start her business by running a successful crowdfunding campaign, and her shop opened a few months later. Johnson said of the incident, “I felt like I started a clubhouse at my last shop and got kicked out. Being a full owner was a way for me to build a new fort.”
Her shop has become a hub for advocacy and building bicycling community in Omaha. She hosts monthly potlucks and social rides. Her business also petitioned for the first bike corral in Omaha. Her influence can be felt all along the neighborhood business corridor Benson, where her shop is located. On a recent visit I noticed how crowded all the bike racks were on a chilly night. Biking has taken off in Omaha, and Johnson has been piloting the movement.
Omaha Bicycling Company is a bit of an anomaly when it comes to Independent Bicycle Shops. Johnson used her 14 years of bicycling retail experience to create a retail model that exemplifies her values as an advocate and bucks some bike retail norms. She hates credit, so she owns all her inventory. She keeps the shop closed two days a week so she can go on camping trips and participate in local advocacy meetings. She has spent zero dollars on advertising. The result is a successful business that not only is getting more people to ride bikes in Omaha, but serves as an entry point to advocacy for many of her customers.
How many people do you employ? Do you offer benefits?
3 employees currently, up to 5 in the height of the season. Benefits: ummmm, yes if you count all the coffee you can drink and cheap bike parts. :)
What's your bike story? As a young woman growing up in Omaha, how did you first get into bikes and what has sustained you to keep investing in the bike movement?
I actually grew up riding bikes from the time I was maybe 4 years old. My folks like to take credit for my love of bicycles and often tell the story of how we as a little family rode 5 miles through the city to my grandparents' house when I was 5 years old. But really, I got back into it while I was at University of Nebraska-Lincoln pursuing my degree in Journalism. I bought a bike from a poster in my dorm lobby. It looked like a boring grey mountain bike that was $100. I thought, "Geeeeeez, $100?! That's a lot for a bike. I wish it were a more fun color than grey." But I went and took it for a spin and ended up buying it. I took it in to get a tune up (because that's what the guy I bought it from told me to do) and the guys in the shop literally laughed out loud at me when I told them I bought it for $100. So, of course feeling like the ignorant girl with a bike, I was totally embarrassed and begged them to tell me what was so bad about my new bike (thinking I totally got ripped off and it was maybe only worth $25 or something)!
Then the story takes a turn for the better: they informed me that it was a super sweet, super rare Specialized S-Works steel mountain bike with titanium internals in the cool old Rock Shox fork, blah blah blah. Bike-speak. Most of which I didn't understand. That is, until they said I could probably sell it right then and there for about $500 since it was so sweet. That part I did understand: I had a super rad bike and I felt cool about it. I'll never forget that initial feeling though of being laughed at for my ignorance. I hated it! That's why now I always emphasize that there really is no such thing as a stupid question! I don't think anyone should have to feel what I felt (although I know that all the time people, and women especially, have to go through that feeling/judgement) and I really want to encourage asking questions. What has kept me going over the last 14 years is the people and community. Straight up. The bike community (from trade shows to customers in the shop) are some of the most fun, interesting, wonderful people I have had the pleasure of getting to know. And bikes are the common thread that gives us all a reason to talk to each other. Also, giving women in the area a place where real talk is ok and encouraged is something that is pretty cool. Most shops you walk into are full of dudes, so I hear all the time how refreshing it is to be able to get a gal's perspective on bike stuff.
Even though you spoke about feeling a responsibility to your women customers on bikes, do you have a sense about the gender break down of your customers at OBC?
Do you feel you are equally supported by men and women in your community for your advocacy work? I know we are equally supported, maybe even a bit more so by men than women. Well, at least in dollars. Women also have to think about purchases for a lot longer than men it seems. A lot more entry level bikes (hybrids, etc.) to women and then $5000+ custom stuff has been mostly dudes so far. There have been a handful of cool custom bikes for gals though, to be fair. :)
What's been your biggest advocacy success since moving back to Omaha?
This year I was at a City Council vote that passed an amendment to the budget that the Mayor proposed which eliminated the Bike/Ped Coordinator. There is now a position in Public Works with funding, that is dedicated specifically to bike/ped/active living stuff, which feels great! We had a rally [ed. note: this rally attracted over 300 bike riders in the pouring rain], encouraged folks like mad to write their council folks, and show up to the public hearing.
Also, I planned a huge event, the Heyday on May Day, which had bands on stage, the street shut down with painted (in chalk) bike lanes, protected by donated trees, food trucks, a photo booth, the previous mayor was on stage in a helmet in front of hundreds of people...that was awesome. I was pretty proud of that one too.
What are you most proud of as a business owner?
About two years ago another area shop owner was telling me that it is impossible to be super involved in the advocacy community and make many meetings when you own a shop. I'm proud to have proved that statement untrue. When you re-prioritize and money is not at the top of your list, you can do all of those things. I'm also proud to have the doors locked two days a week and still be doing ok financially. Somehow it's two years (Halloween) and the lights are still on, I'm paying three employees, and go out of town from time to time. I ride my bike and love it when people that I don't recognize wave and say, "Hey Sarah!" while we're passing during our commute.
What is some advice you would give to women interested in opening their own bike shop?
Don't do it for money! It's got to be about trying to make a difference, one bike at a time. Also, make it YOUR SHOP!! Don't let patriarchy get you down!! Ha. But seriously, make it different than other shops out there.
Interested in learning more about innovative and inspiring efforts like Johnson's? Come to the National Forum on Women & Bicycling this March!