After a 31-year run Elliott Bay Bicycles (EBB) will be closing its doors at the end of September. Opened in 1983 by Bob Freeman and bicycle builder Bill Davidson, EBB is located on Western Ave near the Pike Place Market.
“Coming to grips with the news that Elliott Bay Bicycles is closing it’s doors after 30 years. Lots of emotion wrapped up in that quirky place – I worked there after grad school, worked there after a texting teen in a Tahoe gave me a two year disability, Ryan worked there while HE was in college, and they built four of the bikes in my garage, plus one for my Dad. Mostly, it’s where I met Debi…there’s gonna be a hole on Western Ave where my heart used to be.”
Over coffee (me) and an apple juice (Bill) at Cherry Street Coffee House, we spent about an hour chatting about the progression of cycling in Seattle and the changes at EBB over the years.
Bill started the conversation by emphasizing that Seattle’s bike culture as we know it is largely due to a few pioneers like Jerry Baker who, through their enthusiasm and drive, established the racing scene and organized bicycle teams and clubs, and advocacy organizations in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Bill was part of that early race scene and as you might expect he remembers that things weren’t nearly as organized as they are now: “We didn’t have that cyclocross racing where you ride until you get lapped and someone notices and you get pulled from the race then spend the rest of the time drinking beer. It was more road racing out in the countryside somewhere where there were eighty guys in the race and fifty spectators all of whom were the girlfriends or wives of the racers. The rest of us were too nerdy to have girlfriends.”
As Bill got older (30s) and started a family his interests shifted from race bikes to bikes that would tow a trailer loaded with a child, or a tandem he could ride with his wife (who he met through cycling.)
“Now the way I have fun is to ride with my with 34-year old son, and I ride with friends my own age. Every couple of years my wife and I do a 10-day winter bicycle vacation from hotel to hotel carrying a small amount of gear. We do 30-50 mile days at a talking pace riding side-by-side. Our favorite place–where we have gone numerous times–is the spectacularly wonderful Spanish island of Majorca. I think it’s the best place for cycling in the world. My wife also has family in Florida and we ride there in the winter and stay at nice places along the ocean.”
We chatted about how EBB originated.
Bill’s dad had a welding shop, and as a result Bill was familiar with how raw materials could be turned into a something useful, and he developed a knack for thinking through ways of solving problems with materials and making the fabrication process more efficient.
In the early 1970s he traveled to Liverpool where he spent time working as a helper at the Harry Quinn Bicycle Frame Shop, which planted the seed that bicycle fabrication could be a life-long passion. When Bill returned to the US he started teaching himself how to fabricate bicycles. He started making bikes out of his garage in 1973 and with Lloyd Tamura who founded Velo Bike Shop (formerly Velocipede Bike Shop). (Lloyd Tamura designed frames produced in Japan with the Sekai nameplate.)
The initial response from the Seattle bicycle community was lukewarm. Folks didn’t think bike fabrication should be local (customer were biased in favor of European-made frames) or would work as part of retail concept. Despite the negative feedback, his wife (then girlfriend) encouraged him and he kept at it. Meanwhile, Angel Rodriquez (who co-founded R+E Bicycles) felt the same way–that custom bicycle fabrication could fit with a retail bicycle concept. And as it turned out, this vision was something the two Seattle bike-builders had in common while at the same time having a competitive business relationship. Bill thinks that he and R+E have made most of the custom bikes to come out of Seattle. (See also: Hampsten Bicycles.)
Bill and Bob knew one another from riding together, and at the time Bob worked at a bicycle shop so had some retail experience. Bill pitched the idea of opening a bike shop together. Bob was initially reluctant, but soon changed his mind: “Remember that bicycle shop you were talking about? I’m ready to start.”
They found a location (the existing shop), and although they had no interest in such a big, dilapidated building the space both allowed and forced the business to include more retail than envisioned. Bill’s original plan was to just produce custom bicycles. EBB opened in 1983 with Bob taking the lead with most of the retail-related work and Bill focused on building Davidson bicycles. In the early days there were folks who wanted to learn and be around the building process while others had an interest in painting, and over time a small crew of 6-8 workers organically coalesced to help build Davidson bicycles.
Repair work was also a bigger part of bike shop’s business back in those days: “People don’t realize that today’s bicycles have eliminated a lot of the shop work we had to do back then. Gritty rainwater takes its toll around here.”
“It was pretty fun for what we wanted to do. Most of the other Seattle bike shops wanted to do middle to low-end bicycle stuff. Bob and I were cycling enthusiasts, and we wanted to serve other cycling enthusiasts.”
“There wasn’t the internet, there weren’t traveling sales reps, so you had to source everything yourself. Most of the time the brochures weren’t in English. I would go to the bicycle show in Milan, Italy to place orders for things.”
Bill’s bicycle-building influences have included Jim Merz, a legendary designer who did several stints at Specialized, designed the original Stumpjumper and is a member of the mountain bike hall of fame, and Mark Dinucci who Bill considers a bike-building genius.
As bicycle retail has evolved, Bill thinks that producing custom bikes enabled EBB to differentiate over the years.
“I’m not a salesman, I simply help my customers place the order. They’ve decided to buy from me by the time I talk with them.”
“l’ll lay awake nights thinking about building the best bikes I can. I have enjoyed all of the interactions with my customers and I’ve enjoyed being a part of helping people achieve their cycling goals. I’ve made bikes for people who have lost 150 lbs, ridden across the US, a track racer…”
A couple years ago Bill’s wife, “the bookkeeper,” told him he could retire, but after thinking about it he realized retirement wouldn’t work for him. He thought about Il Vecchio (a bike shop that used to be in Leschi) owner George Gibbs who owned the shop because he loved cycling. “For me, this bicycle thing is what keeps me going.”
“I’ve been insulated from the rigors of retail; custom bike customers are delightful. My particular form of retail has been delightful.”
After closing down EBB at the end of the month and taking time to reorganize, Bill plans to (re)open a bicycle fabrication-only shop in a yet-to-be-determined location. Bob is retiring.