Friday, March 14, 2008

momovelo, you are missed

As I was admiring a fine commuter bike I saw on the street yesterday, I was reminded of the late, great momovelo. momovelo was a bike shop in Berkeley run by a guy named Kai and it was one of the most clever niche retailers I have ever seen. Kai put together bicycles to suit the flaneur crowd. momovelo used well made and unique components but had a classic quality; these weren't the showy, gadgety bikes you see the masses riding around in. These were objects of utility and beauty simultaneously. Kai's website featured pictures of them in urban settings – one bike, a spartan looking city bike in robin's egg blue was pictured with some type of squash attached by bungie cords to its rack, as though its owner was returning with an impromptu purchase from a farmer's market or roadside stand. Great stuff for those of us who see bikes as some cross between work tools and slightly mystical objects.

His retail shop was a stylishly decorated boutique, with a small stock of affordable bicycles and accessories displayed like art and usually some sort of obscure psychedelic chanson music playing as you sipped an espresso. His website featured a vast selection of cleverly sourced items – Swedish military surplus straps that could be repurposed as reflective pant leg protectors for riding your bike in street clothes or clever bags for carrying your Moleskine and camera. One got the feeling that bike racers, the lycra and spandex bicycling crowd, were a different market and were possibly aliens to artful, leisurely and practical cycling. momovelo was also an early importer of some of the more interesting European and Japanese bikes, all fine examples of utilitarian beauty.

The heartbreak of momovelo is that I believe Kai was too good at his marketing. Disclaimer: all of my impressions are subjective and completely unsupported by facts.

I have no first hand information about momovelo's disappearance, but my guess is that the web site was very appealing to a small but fervent group of people. I have heard complaints online of late orders and general dissatisfaction with the service provided, but I sensed unplanned demand, not malfeasance. I myself was an eager customer who was frustrated in my attempt to buy one of momovelo's beautiful bikes. I imagine that this boutique maker of bikes was too successful in tapping this underserved market and ended up being quickly overwhelmed by the response. I ended up having my own built from scratch and I definitely got close to the ideal of a momovelo bike, but only after a very long and arduous search for every piece. That bike, unfortunately, was lost in the floods of Katrina and I still miss it.

But the lesson I take from all of this is that of understanding where you want to scale to. We can end up being much more successful than we want to be, or should be. From my one trip to the momovelo, I got the feeling that the owner wanted nothing more than to do a little work, share some stories and connect with a small number of people he could talk to face to face who shared his passion. The web may have been the wrong way to ply his craft. While I appreciate that while a web site may seem like a business necessity, sometimes commerce on steroids can be too much when all you want to do is trade in a few items of enduring beauty.