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Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Bikes & Beyond is chilling me softly

A day at a cool bicycle-rental shop in Coronado

By Peter Holslin
sg-peter Bikes & Beyond employees Patrick Casey (left) and Tyler Daughn find rest on a surrey.
- Photo by Peter Holslin

Bikes & Beyond is possibly the chillest bike-rental shop on Earth. Located at the Ferry Landing center in Coronado, it has high ceilings and big patio doors. On a recent Sunday afternoon, a nice breeze flowed in from the harbor and groovy sounds piped through the stereo system—anything from Gentle Giant's madcap prog-rock to the smoky doom-metal of Sleep.

When tourists drop by each week, they don't think too deeply about this humble place. They'll rent out a comfy beach cruiser or a big surrey—a pedal-powered, multi-seat cart—and take off to ride around the island. (If they're ambitious, they'll head down the Silver Strand and maybe end up in the middle of Chula Vista or National City.)

But Bikes & Beyond is more special than you might think. For the employees, it offers a glimpse into the strange workings of humankind. Toiling in their long shifts, they're privy to people's petty cruelties and small wonders, and they find snatches of meaning within a vast pool of calm. 

I recently spent an eight-hour shift at the shop, curious to see what the store was like from the employees' perspective. All day, a great calmness reigned. Seriously, it felt like the world was standing still. Customers came and went at a steady but leisurely pace. The six employees working often found themselves standing around aimlessly, passing the time by talking about music, politics, literature and aliens. 

At one point, for a bit of amusement, the guys at the cash register started using fake names while directing customers to coworkers standing by the surreys outside. 

"Are you Malachi?" one man asked Glendon Romett, a shaggy-haired bike-shop employee in a beaten-up Philadelphia Phillies baseball cap. As the man got ready to climb into a green surrey with a female companion, he nodded approvingly: "A good Biblical name, yeah?" 

Everyone was in a good mood. Even the people who'd rented out the surreys—which, fun as they look, are horribly clunky and slow—didn't seem to mind being put through a grueling trial of endurance. All of the surreys sold out by 2 p.m.; big groups returned from their rides looking exhausted. But they looked on the bright side.

"It was a good workout," said Lee Laird, visiting from Austin, Texas. "I can't remember my legs feeling like this the last time I was riding a bike."

It isn't always so peaceful at the bike shop. When tourist season kicks in, lines stretch out the door and emotions can run high. There have been occasional threats of physical violence, the staffers say. Once, an irate customer shoved an employee. 

From time to time, the staff also must endure impatience, pettiness or rudeness from the customers. A while back, a little boy balked when the shop's longtime manager, Tom Rowden, insisted that the youngster wear a helmet. When the boy embarked on a ride with his family, he apparently tossed the headgear into a nearby recycling bin. A janitor found it later and brought it back to the shop.

Rowden, 61, has seen plenty of action. A talkative, mild-mannered fellow, he's been working at Bikes & Beyond since the shop opened in 1992. Inured to the less enjoyable parts of the job, he can recount the details of a grisly bike accident—say, a woman snapping her ankle while riding a tandem bicycle—with little more than a shrug. 

And yet he still has an eye for the little things that make life beautiful. 

"There are times when little kids come in here and you're just so happy that they're on the planet," he said. "All of a sudden, there'll be some little girl, just talking to her mom about how she loves the kites and how she's going to go for a ride." 

A job at Bikes & Beyond is the type of seasonal, low-grade service position that's normally reserved for high-school kids on their summer vacation. It's easy, but a real task-master could make it a nightmare—imagine Jammin' Z90 blaring through the speakers, employees dressed up in garish uniforms, offering up scripted greetings with robotic efficiency. 

But Rowden maintains a pleasant work environment. Many of his employees are college-educated musicians, and he encourages them to follow their creative pursuits. So, for all the drudgery of the job, all the workers I met on Sunday seemed pleased to be there. 

Late in the afternoon, one of the shop's most faithful employees, the local musician Sean Burdeaux, even stopped by with his brother to say hi.

"It's the best place I've ever worked at," he said. 

Around 5 p.m., business at Bikes & Beyond dropped off sharply. Some of the employees left for the day, and the rest sat down to wait for bike renters to return. An easiness reigned until the shop stopped renting out bikes at 7 p.m., when Rowden, Romett and another employee, Patrick Casey, started cleaning up. 

Bikes & Beyond might be the chillest bike shop on Earth, but the tourist season is coming. For the people who work there, the work has just begun.


Email peterh@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.




 
 
 
 
 
 
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