Lisa Bonvissuto
City Business

Coast In Bikes

How a librarian who wanted to open a hostel started a bicycle shop business instead.

By - Aug 21st, 2014 06:00 pm
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As business owners go, Carolyn Weber has a unique background.

Weber, the co-owner of Coast In Bikes, got her degree in library science from UW-Milwaukee at the height of the recession. But she was unable to find a job to go with the degree. So she decided to become a bicycle rickshaw driver in order to pay her bills. In the course of doing this, Weber fell in love with tourism, which triggered her idea of opening a hostel in Milwaukee. Alas, investors didn’t seem interested in this idea.

So Carolyn and her husband, Tristan Klein, ultimately decided to open up a bicycle shop instead. This would still fulfill the desire to be involved in tourism, and also jived with their love of bicycling, as both are year round cyclists — even in the depths of a Milwaukee winter like this past one. They purchased all of the inventory from a bike shop in Niagra, Wisconsin, that was closing down, and took off from there, deciding to add in a coffee shop in the back of the store where customers can relax and watch bicycles being fixed.

Achieving her goal of opening up a hostel is still in the works, though, since Weber never gave up on the idea. She has generated interest in her project and believes the hostel will be open for business within a couple years. This would be Milwaukee’s first hostel, and a big step for the city in terms of tourism. “As a local you see the stuff that annoys you,” Weber says, “but others see such a great city.” But it’s that critical eye that is pushing her to create the hostel.

Meanwhile, Weber is quite busy running the bike shop. When asked what her favorite part of owning Coast In Bikes is, she jokingly responds, “When summer is done.” Then more seriously, she says that what she likes about the bike business is it’s about “investing in people and making people happy.”

“Growth has been the biggest surprise,” she notes. “We’re growing faster than we thought we would.” Which is good for the business, but does come with its own set of trials. Weber and Klein need to keep up with the escalating demand for services.

Weber talks a lot about what makes owning a bike shop different from any other business. “You don’t just hire someone to work a cash register,” she says, as a small shop needs employees who can handle a variety of duties. Currently they have three part time employees and one intern from the Boys and Girls Club.

The Boys and Girls Club intern is something that originates from the Meg Ryan bike program, which is the oldest of its kind in Milwaukee. It allows Milwaukee teens to learn bike mechanic skills, and even receive their own bikes. The Boys and Girls Club pays teens to provide free labor to local businesses. This is largely a win-win situation. The teens develop necessary skills for later job applications and get paid while doing it, but businesses don’t lose out on paying wages to still-green interns. “We do still have to train them,” Weber adds, “which is why we can’t accept everyone.”

Since Coast In Bikes is a relatively new business (started in April 2013), Weber and her husband are in the store every day handling many different facets of the business. “There really is no typical day; you never know who is going to walk through the door,” Weber notes. There is a astonishingly wide variety of work she might handle on any given day. There is, of course, the traditional sales floor, the paperwork, the marketing plans, etc., but Weber also organizes various events such as brunch rides, and plans DIY events for people to fix their own bikes. She even makes tea and coffee at Coast In Bikes’ built-in coffee shop at the back of the store.

“I’ve worked some weird jobs, but this has definitely been the most interesting,” Weber says. Through the business Weber has made friends with both customers and fellow Walker’s Point business owners, and met so many people that she otherwise would’t have.

The Walkers Point neighborhood is a great place to own a business, she says. Weber particularly likes the diversity of income of its residents. “We get anyone from a person who needs repairs on a Walmart bike, to a person who’s prepared to blow off $400 on the latest model,” she says. Though the area is full of various restaurants and bars, Carolyn does wish there were more retail shops so people could browse around. Still, a lot of people are moving to the neighborhood, and it is vibrant and full of life.

“When Tristan and I go to local business owner gatherings, I definitely notice that we’re among the youngest there,” Weber says. Another unique thing about Coast In Bikes is that they didn’t go through the traditional banking loan system. Instead, Coast In Bikes was funded by the organization called Fund Milwaukee, which helps local businesses get started.

Coast In Bikes offers a full range of services, from bike rentals and purchases, to tune ups, mechanical fixes, and even legal quotes to the four different people who came during a recent week after being hit by cars while on their bikes. Luckily, none suffered serious injuries, and all will be biking on. Coast In Bikes also offers a 10 percent student discount on all goods and services to accommodate the large number of college students in the area.

Coast In Bikes is located at 703 S. 2nd St. and is open 8 am – 7 pm Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 8 am – 5 pm Friday, 9 am – 5 pm Saturday, 12 pm to 6 pm Sunday (with a brunch ride at 9 pm Sundays). The shop is closed Tuesday.

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Categories: City Business

One thought on “City Business: Coast In Bikes”

  1. Andy Marein says:

    There’s nothing “unique” about Coast In Bikes not going though the “traditional banking loan system.” In Milwaukee, loans to young businesses with inexperienced managers simply does not happen. Tristan and her husband were fortunate to be able to receive non-traditional community-based financing. I wish them well in the continued success of their venture.

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