A little after 11:00 a.m., Dale Mattson wheels up Foothill Boulevard in Claremont, California, parks his bicycle (with its stuffed-full panniers) off to the side, and opens the door of The Velo, “the world’s smallest bikeshop.” Reaching inside the door, he grabs his portable repair stand and sets it up on the sidewalk in front of the window that displays his current stock of fixed up bikes ready for sale.
During the next ten minutes, he hauls these bikes outside and stations them on the two bike racks. Only then can he step inside the shop—55 square feet small—to access the computer, display case of mostly used parts, and small collection of classic jerseys available for purchase. The one bike that stays inside is a gorgeous and pricey vintage Colnago road bike with original Campy components.
Last thing out of the shop is the boldly lettered sign Cash for Bikes, “the best merchandizing idea I’ve ever had and key to my business,” Dale tells me.
“And what is that business?” I ask.
“We buy, sell, and trade quality used bikes, parts, and gear. Bring me your bike and tell me how much you want for it. If I like it, I’ll buy it. If we can’t agree, I suggest that they give it to someone in their church or fellowship group. That’s it.”
The Velo is next door to the guest facility that I occupy when doing research in the cluster of theological schools in Claremont. While I was assembling my orange Co-motion road bike, the seat post binder bold snapped, which meant that I couldn’t use the bike until I replaced the bolt. Dale didn’t have one, but he improvised a solution that would last until I could buy a proper binder bolt at the full-service bike shop down Foothill a mile or two.
While we talked, a student from one of the Claremont colleges walked her Specialized knobby tired bike up to the shop and handed Dale a half-inflated tube. Someone at a student-run repair service had tried unsuccessfully to repair a flat. “When I sold you this bike, I told you to bring it back to me if you had any trouble,” he told her.
He installed a new rim strip and after testing the tube to be sure it was air tight he put everything in order and sent her on her way.
Somebody came by with an early Gary Fisher mountain bike in decent shape except for the tires. Dale liked it at the price the owner wanted and bought it. A couple hours of his time, new tubes, and maybe tires, and the result would be a beautiful, solid, modestly priced bike for someone, and a fine return on his investment.
A middle-aged couple drove up in a pickup. “We saw your sign the other day and brought you some bikes to look at,” she said. “We need to clean up our garage.”
Dale looked at the bikes and added them to his inventory. Two were cheap kids bikes that needed work. “I don’t buy, sell, or fix cheap bikes,” he told me. “If people want to get rid of them, I’ll take them and give them to people who are glad to get a free bike they can fix and make work.” A vintage woman’s Schwinn with trailer attachment, however, he was glad to buy at the price they asked. Fixed up and displayed out front, it would be exactly right for someone and a very good profit for the shop.
In his 20s, after working as a mortgage banker, Dale had quit his job and traveled around the United States on his touring bike, using cash he’d saved. In 1995, he leased this tiny space on Foothill Boulevard and went into business, first as “Cash for Levis,” then as a futon shop, then incense, and then mid-century and modern antiques. “I’ve been a junker all my life,” is the way he described himself.
“When I was thinking about getting out of antiques, someone offered me nine dead Schwinns for $50. That was June 2008. On July 19 of the same year I went strickly bikes and opened The Velo.
“In my business, I take a negative and turn it into a positive. Nine times out of ten, there’s no sale. When I can, I send them to a local shop where they can get what they need. The way I do my business takes the competition out of the relationship.”
Coming as I do from Portland, where bicycles are part of the emerging artisan economy and new way of urban life, I am glad to include The Velo on my short list of the nation’s great bike shops.