Evanston resident Tony Bustamante grew up in a bike shop.
When he was a little kid, the Highland Park native would go to work with his father, Alberto Bustamante, at in Hubbard Woods. Alberto owned the Winnetka shop for 30 years, and Tony worked with him throughout high school and college, before moving to Santa Monica to work at bike shops there. After considering it for a decade, Tony and his wife Julia Bustamante used that lifetime of experience to open in Wilmette in April.
Velosmith is not your typical retail shop. Business is mostly done by appointment and the shop primarily deals in custom bikes.
“It's a passion-based industry that we're in,” Julia said. “When you have this kind of passion, people are always looking for something unique. Having a studio rather than a conventional bike shop kind of caters to the value they place on this passion.”
“People cut back on other expenses, maybe larger expenses, and a bike fits in.”
It’s rare for a customer to walk out with a bicycle on their first visit.
“What we do is we slow the process down, and we try to focus on the little details that go into the purchase of a bike that is as sophisticated as the bikes that we sell,” Tony said. “We believe really strongly that we provide just exceptional service. We like to operate one on one. That allows us to talk very, very closely with the client. That allows us to flesh out what they're looking for.”
The Bustamantes chose Wilmette because the location would allow them to keep the connections to the community Tony built at Alberto’s, while also being close enough to Chicago to be accessible to customers there. The space on Ridge Road is also along a major cycling thoroughfare, attracting cyclists from Chicago to Skokie.
“We had a fantastic year,” Tony said. “We had a pretty warm welcome and this mild winter has been really helpful. People are all still focused on riding their bikes.”
Tony worked in the bike industry during the Gulf War and dot-com bubble burst and said he wasn’t concerned about starting a new business during the most recent economic downturn.
“People cut back on other expenses, maybe larger expenses, and a bike fits in,” Tony said.
In an article published in The Huffington Post, Sustainable Energy Transition founder Dennis Markatos noted that while bike sales did drop by 30 percent between 2008 and 2009, the effects of the recession were even worse for car manufacturers, who experienced a more than 35 percent drop in sales. Approximately 2.6 million bikes were purchased in the United States during the first quarter of 2009, compared to 2.5 million cars and trucks.
Beyond selling bikes, Velosmith works to promote biking culture in the area. The store is the starting point for weekly 62-mile, three-hour road rides to Libertyville and back. Tony said the rides bring out about a dozen people on average, though their relaxed pace means that they sometimes will pick up stragglers from faster rides traveling the same route.
“It's a group that is open to everybody,” Tony said. “We have a lot of people that were strong riders, but lacked the knowledge about how to ride in a group setting, so we spent a lot of time educating them about etiquette.”
Julia also organizes events at the shop for cyclists and their families, including guest speakers, book signings, film screenings and yoga for cyclists. The events include food, beer and wine and apple juice for kids. The next event is March 23, where Rob Vandermark, founder and CEO of Boston-based bike manufacturer Seven Cycles, will discuss the past, present and future of bicycle materials and design.
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