Little Shop of Spokes

Last August, when a gallon of gas was poking over the three-dollar mark, Chris Kelly would sit behind the counter of his Hollywood bike shop, chuckling and rubbing his hands together like an Enron executive conspiring to game the California energy market. “Oh, I’m a bad person, I’m a bad person,” he’d say, grinning madly, a diabolical glint in his crystal-blue eyes. “I get so happy when gas prices go up!”

Sure, higher fuel costs usually bring brisker bike sales, but Kelly, who grew up in Glens Falls, New York — “Hometown, USA, 1944,” he says — really believes the whole city would be a nicer place if people got out of their cars and pedaled. “You discover all the little streets lined with coffeehouses and restaurants,” he says. “You meet people. We always say Hollywood is a great place to bike — just get off the busy streets, and pretty soon you’ll realize it’s easier, faster and cheaper than it ever was to drive.”

Kelly’s shop, Hollywood Pro Bicycles, is tucked into the north side of Hollywood Boulevard, just east of the Hollywood & Highland mall. You could drive by it every day for a year and not know it’s there — only a red-lettered sign in a deco font marks it among the rows of tchotchke shops that line the street. But if you bike in Hollywood, Kelly soon becomes a familiar face, his store a refuge when you hobble in after coasting downhill with jammed gears for him or the store’s redheaded racer mechanic Scott Verdekel to put right. If you’ve been in more than twice, he greets you like a friend. “How’s that Giro Pneumo?” he asked me one day when I walked in, without the helmet he’d sold me three months earlier. I assured him not a week went by without someone coveting it.

Hollywood Pro Bicycles began when Kelly teamed with Michelle Fitzgerald in 1999 to offer bike tours to out-of-town visitors. The business flatlined at first — nobody booked a single paid tour in the first eight months — then sputtered along until tourism crashed after 9/11. Kelly, who was operating out of a small shop behind the boulevard, pared down to essentials. “We even canceled call waiting on our phone lines — it was just too expensive,” he says. Fitzgerald left the business that winter. But slowly, people from the neighborhood began popping in to rent bikes or get their old ones repaired. “They’d come in and say, ‘Can you fix a flat?’ And I’d say, ‘Of course I can!’ It wasn’t what we were there to do, but we could do it, so we did.”

By the late winter of 2003, sales were healthy enough that when the landlord offered a storefront on the boulevard, Kelly took it. Just before that year’s Los Angeles Bike Tour, he and Verdekel built and prepared 35 bikes to rent — more than they had space to store. They moved over the weekend. “People had to rent the bikes from the old place and return them to the new one,” Kelly remembers. “If we hadn’t moved, we wouldn’t have had anywhere to put them.”

Now Kelly pays less attention to tourists and more to the people who work, live and bike in the neighborhood. On any given day, you can catch lawyers in suits, dreadlocked musicians and ordinary Hollywood characters hanging around to get their tires changed or to check out the eccentric collection of new bicycles, which start at around $250 and soar into the elite-cyclist stratosphere. Packed into the current shop is everything from a sleek Jamis touring bicycle to a super-fat-tired Surly Pugsley, an ugly duckling fit to coast through mud and slush. In its own little spot toward the back stands a handmade Gilles Berthoud, $8,000 of fetish-worthy metal painted Provence blue and light enough to lift with your pinky finger.

I want it bad, but Kelly will probably sell it before I save that much, and good for him: Business has not dropped with the gas prices. Funny thing, though — he’s never restored call waiting. “It ended up being good for our business not to have it,” Kelly says. “When you call us, you get our undivided attention. Just like you do when you walk in the store.”

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