Luke Breen is thrilled that sales were flat last year at the Uptown bike shop he co-owns.
There are two reasons for his optimism. One is that bike industry sales were down 13 percent nationally last year.
The other is that he junked the name that he’d built as his brand without losing business.
It’s been a year since the bike shop formerly known as Calhoun Cycle dropped that inherited name into the ashbin of history and was reborn as Perennial Cycle. So how has the year gone?
Despite some flaming online trolls, Breen has found customers supportive. He’s only lost one regular customer that he knows of, and he’s been pleasantly surprised by the opposite reaction.
“I didn’t expect new customers at the door because they supported our name change,” Breen said in a recent interview. But they arrived nevertheless, and they took time to thank him.
Breen spoke in a cluttered back room of the shop at that he waggishly calls an office but it’s mostly a desk next to a bulletin board pinned full of lists and letters. Bike posters adorn the walls, and here and there an old ride number bearing the Calhoun name peeks out.
The name change represents his learning curve on issues of black, white and brown. “Institutional racism was not something I ever studied. I was pretty naïve up until two or three years ago,” said Breen, who grew up in western Minnesota. A family trip that took in civil rights sites in the American South was one factor in his personal evolution. “The more I studied, the more I realized things had to change.”
The name of his shop originated in a predecessor business called Calhoun Cycle Cellar that was logical at the time because it rented bikes from a basement at the corner of West Lake Street and James Avenue South for people to ride around the adjoining lake. Breen bought it from the previous owner, shortened the name and then moved to his current 3342 Hennepin Ave. S. storefront 15 yeas ago.
Dropping Calhoun’s name was a twofer. Not only was Calhoun an abashed advocate for enslaving blacks as a positive good, but he also engineered the infamous Trail of Tears in which southeastern tribes were forced on a harsh march to what then was known as Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. He also planned a string of frontier forts that included Fort Snelling, and its garrison stamped Calhoun’s name on a lake regardless of its previous Dakota name.
Yet rebranding the store was a risk in an era when it seems nearly every urban corner sprouts a bike shop owned by a former bike mechanic. That’s just what Breen is. Growing up in Benson, Minn., he pedaled a cheap gas station chain bike across town to school, and then made deliveries by bike for the family drug store. He didn’t own a real bike until he was a junior in college, when he bought a Bianchi touring bike. He cycled Europe for five months, grasping the utility of the bike as a family vehicle there.
Back home, he needed a job. He had “high mechanical aptitude but zero experience” aside from keeping his bike maintained for the European swing, using skills he learned from a book.
But that was enough to get him a job at the entry level of bike mechanic jobs — assembling bikes for sale. He eventually parlayed that into a business.
“We struggle to stay viable,” he said. But that’s not just Perennial, and it’s not just bike shops in an online age. “Any single-storefront retail business, they have to work hard to stay in business.”
Perennial does that with a carefully defined niche. While suburban chains cater to the weekend recreational rider, especially those riding high-end bikes, Breen serves a market that’s the American version of those European families
“This is an urban bike shop,” he said, which means staking out customers who bike for utility as his market. That’s a good fit with the young Uptown-area population, people who may eschew car ownership and bike or bus to get around.
“They see a bike as a tool, not a toy,” Breen said.
They depend on upright, more stable bikes to get around, and they depend on keeping their bikes in good repair, which redounds to a thriving service business that’s also at the core of Breen’s business model.
Before changing the shop’s name, Breen assembled a list of dozens of tasks. They ranged from changing the checking account and utility billing to making sure that the mail-order side of his business didn’t disappear online in the name change.
While others helped Breen last March to mark the passing of the Calhoun name with such theater as a mock burial of the letters than spelled the old name, two people toiled online for hours apiece that night to assure that social media accounts reflected both the new name and Breen’s reasons for the shift.
Although most of the heavy lifting was completed when the store’s new name was hoisted into place on an overhead sign late last year, replacing a temporary banner, new tasks occasionally crop up. He learned this month that the shop was still listed as Calhoun Cycle on a Nextdoor page.
At age 53, he’s looking back with no regrets. The change, he said, reflects the kind of world in which he and his co-owner and wife, Mary, want their three daughters to grow up.