It's the Friday afternoon before Labor Day weekend. What are you doing? Probably something related to whatever leisure plans you have for the three-day weekend. If you're thinking about cycling, odds are you're at the bike shop. So it's not the ideal time to chat up Scott Smith, co-proprietor (with Eric Ohlgren and Tina Rosling) of Tennessee Valley Bicycles. But it is an ideal time to observe that this bike shop—still stretching to fill its new, expanded space on Old Magnolia, a couple doors down from Marie's Old Town Tavern and in the shadow of I-40—has a unique energy.
There are a couple people who just wheeled in to shoot the breeze and don't really need anything. There is a couple picking up a refurbed 10-speed; after a spin around the block, some minor adjustments are called for. There are three dudes touring together, one of whom has popped a spoke. They've been guided here by a local and hustle to remove panniers so the ailing bike can be hoisted onto a stand. The front wall of the store is a roll-up overhead door, so cyclists passing by on Magnolia or on the sidewalk seem to be pedaling through the store, all bells and waves and shouts. Passers-by recognize mechanics or customers and coast in to catch up. This shop appears to have a constituency or population, rather than merely a clientele. Some have called it a scene. Instead of waiting in line for service, the various customers mix and mingle around the different bikes in need as if they were punchbowls.
As mentioned, a good afternoon to be Scott Smith, but not a good afternoon to talk to Scott Smith. Fortunately, walking through the Old City afterward, your humble reporter runs into Ohlgren. On his bicycle.
"Anyone can open a shop and start selling bikes, the trick is setting yourself apart from what's already being offered in your market," says Ohlgren, who spends his days at his wood cabinetwork business, Heuristic Workshop. "When Bill first opened the shop in 2006, he saw a hole in the local market and he filled it with commuter and used bikes."
Bill is Bill Delinger, who originally opened TVB on Chapman Highway. He moved the store to Magnolia in May of '07, and the current owners bought the store on New Year's Day, 2008. The shop had an improvised air, with a huge homemade tricycle above the door, and not much demarcation between sales floor and mechanics' space. In May of this year, TVB moved into its current spot—more than twice the size of the previous store front, with expansion into adjacent space seeming imminent—and put more effort and energy into organization and design. In the previous shop, it was not always clear what was for sale and what Smith might be using for his own commute. Less so now.
"Bill also tapped into that culture of biking for fun's sake," says Ohlgren. "When we bought the store from Bill, we inherited the goodwill and the posse that he created. We've just expanded on what he started. The only thing that separates us from our customers is that we're on the other side of the cash register. Other than that, we all share the same enthusiasm for the different bike disciplines that our customers do and that's something the customers pick up on and appreciate."
TVB's new wares are not uncommon by any stretch. They sell road bikes, mountain bikes, cruisers, and hybrid combinations of sorts, made by proven, popular brands like Kona, KHS, and Breezer. They selectively stock and sell accessories. They also sell used bikes and archive odd old used parts, in an effort to keep bikes on the road after their makers have ceased to service them. It may well be what's not for sale at TVB that sets it apart. The store has become a networking hub for cycling activists and enthusiasts. By supporting or instigating events like the increasingly popular Alley Cat races (pseudo-scavenger hunts that send cyclists all over town on what you might call roads less traveled) and other get-togethers that are far more social than competitive. The shop hosted a screening of "hobo art" films in July. And their now-legendary grand opening in May—with art and a keg and three acts of entertainment—coincided with First Friday. For most regular FF hot spots, it wasn't until Monday that they learned where their usual Chablis-imbibers spent the evening: TVB. When TVB formed a racing team, they partnered with Knoxville's other premier hangout, Tomato Head.
"I think most bike shops end up being hangouts," says Ohlgren. "Walk into most bike shops and you'll find stools around the mechanics' area for customers. When designing the new shop, we put an emphasis on both outdoor and indoor party space where we can hold events. Movie nights, Alleycat rides, bands and First Friday openings all contribute to the hangout vibe. The roll-up storefront also invites people to ride their bikes in and hang. Free beer and brats on occasion doesn't hurt, either. And fun. TVB: First in Fun."
Even Ohlgren has a hard time putting his finger on that certain something he and his partners have hit upon.
"I think we do brats and beer better than any bike shop in town," he observes. "Other than that, I would have to say that our commitment to the average cyclist, be it the commuter, the greenway rider, the mountain biker or the road rider, is our strong suit. Hence our tagline ‘Bikes For Everyone.'
"We send subliminal messages out on our website that tell visitors to have fun in life. Biking rules."