So, due to an odd combination of circumstances I have found myself in a position that I haven't been in since high school. After six years of battle in the trenches of bicycle retail and summers spent slaving in steaming southern kitchens before that, I've found myself unemployed.
Since moving to Portland almost exactly three years ago, I devoted the vast majority of my time and energy to the sometimes impossible task of moving an old neighborhood bike shop into the future against the will of a jaded, middle-aged owner who seemed bent on the shop's destruction. At first, I wasn't thinking about it that much. I was hired in November of 2009 to head the service department, so that's what I did. I buried myself in the monumental task of organizing the scattered mess of shelves, bins and drawers full of parts and tools, sorting the useful from the useless and assembling the shambles I inherited into something resembling a professional bicycle service department. Arriving as I did on the end of a string of good mechanics that didn't stick around and bad mechanics who only seemed capable of botching repairs, I was immediately forced into damage-control mode, assuring customers that I wasn't like those who had come before and could be counted on to deliver their bicycle on time, on budget and in the best condition possible. Slowly, the shop began to regain a reputation for honest, quality repair work.
I was happy working at the repair stand and keeping an eye on other mechanics to be sure every job was done right, but as older employees moved on I was steadily saddled with greater amounts of responsibility. Eventually I found myself managing the shop, tasked with completing or delegating every task necessary for daily operation except paying the bills and managing finances, still the responsibility of ownership. I worked hard and came home exhausted after nine to ten-hour days swimming upstream, trying to make the most of the situation for the good of our current and would-be customers. I was able to make a lot of positive changes and bring the shop many steps closer to actually meeting their needs, but was only able to do so much. I could see huge possibilities and ways to define a niche, become a true destination shop in the Portland area and even for the entire Northwest, but kept running into the roadblocks put up by an owner determined to maintain the status quo of mediocrity without a thought for the shop's long-term health or potential for growth. His only objective was to pay down the shop's debts and get out of the bike business. Fair enough.
I did all the spin-doctoring I could, answered customers questions about why the floor was so empty, explained to sales reps why we couldn't bring in any new product, smoothed over neglected credit reps and tried to make up for the shop's shortcomings with my hard work, personality and that of my coworkers. After enduring the beatdown and making excuses for several months, I was nearly at my wits end. Business was picking up as the springtime sun began to show itself, and we were on track for a disastrous summer for the shop and my sanity if things didn't change, and soon. At the end of the previous summer, after three months of constant toil at the expense of my mental well-being, I had told myself that I wouldn't endure another summer of work like that one but my overinflated sense of responsibility to our customers had kept me on the job and I found myself staring down the barrel of another selling season. Something had to give.
Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I either needed to buy the shop or put in my notice. Again, my sense of responsibility to the customers and the neighborhood was a huge factor in my thinking. If I couldn't make the changes as a manager, maybe I could as an owner. I had always seen myself owning a bike shop at some point in my life and despite the strain my decision would put on my marriage and the truly massive amount of work I would be burdened with for the foreseeable future, it felt like the right thing to do. So, I started down the path toward buying the shop. Early in the mornings and on my days off, I sat hunched over business plans, financial records, market research, and loan applications. I strategized, planned and struggled to make sense of the realities of small business ownership. I've never had a head for business but was convinced that I could make the bike shop profitable through passion, hard work and common sense if I could only get the old owner out of the way. Unfortunately, the only way I could effect that change was with a big, fat check. Even in the shop's depleted state, the amount of money necessary to buy the place outright was a daunting figure and banks aren't exactly thrilled to hand out business loans to starry-eyed kids whose only collateral is a stable of bicycles. I had reached what felt like an impasse and would either have to redouble my efforts and find the money to hire an accountant who could help me over the wall or walk away from the deal altogether. I had done as much as I could on my own.
The decision and its consequences weighed me down heavily. Days at work seemed impossibly long and draining but I had convinced myself that I was working for my own future as owner-to-be and managed to disguise my exhaustion. So much of my sense of self-worth was now wrapped up in the shop but I still wasn't in control of its destiny. Beer after work and mountain bike rides on the weekend kept me going but only barely. I knew that I was at a crux. To get the shop moving in the right direction for 2013 I needed to take over the captain's chair by the fall of 2012 when new dealer agreements are inked with bicycle manufacturers and other vendors. Time was running short.
At the end of June, my family came to Oregon for a visit and India and I joined them for a long weekend in Bend. I was so preoccupied with indecision and internal struggle over buying the bike shop that I was barely able to interact and be present with my family. I was in another place altogether. Finally, India and I got a chance to get away for a mountain bike ride and things started to make sense again. All I needed was to go out and lose myself on the trail for a few solid hours before the lost sense of clarity began to return and I realized that buying the shop was not the right thing for me to do, that it would be a wrong-headed, selfish decision. My ego was so wrapped up with the shop that I could see no other way to justify my existence and prove myself than to take it on. I had convinced myself that I was doing it for the customers, which was part of the truth. Below that level of altruism I was doing it to prove something to myself and to the world, to prove that I could do it better, that I was smart enough, had the skills and passion to make the shop profitable and successful; a shop I could be proud of. In the process I had lost myself completely, lost the sense of humor, adventure and excitement that used to permeate my life and make every day worth living. The time had come for me to leave the bike shop and recenter myself, to recapture the abiding sense of joy and peace that used to move me through the world.
These thoughts bore themselves out over the next couple of days and one more long ride on the amazing trails outside of Bend and I returned to Portland ready to put in my notice. The day after Independence Day, I made my announcement to the boss. He responded with ambivalence initially but reacted with anger and aggression three days later when I reminded him that I would soon be leaving for a week of vacation with India's family. This vacation had been planned, approved and on the calendar since February when we booked our flights and even though I had already made all the preparations for my absence he informed me that that day - Monday, July 9th - would be my last. So, depending on your perspective I either quit or was fired after two years and nine months of hard work. I packed my things and unceremoniously headed out the back door after closing that night. It was the end of an era, both for me and the shop. My only regret is not being able to say goodbye to the handful of regular customers who made the job worth doing and reminded me why I had started working in bike shops in the first place. I hope they don't wind up thinking less of me and have to imagine that they will somehow understand what brought us to this point.
So, here I am. Between careers in the middle of the Northwestern summer with long, sunny days to fill with bike rides, exploration and self-discovery. Even though the situation has all the makings of a classic quarter-life crisis, I couldn't be more excited about the possibilities.
This won't be like those carefree teenage summers when gas was a dollar a gallon and my biggest concern was how to round up $20 to fill the tank of Alex's boat so we could spend the day dragging each other around Lake Lanier, catching air on wakeboards. There are bills to pay, rent to make, food to buy. No job equals no money, and even though I'll be working for some framebuilder friends and doing the best that I can to build my writing abilities into a business, it will likely be some time before that work starts to pay off. Severe austerity measures have been imposed and the value of little luxuries like a pint of beer at the pub or a food cart lunch just got much greater. Though this could be seen as a setback, I'm excited about the opportunity to simplify my life and take the time to truly appreciate those little things that I may have taken for granted before. Fortunately, we're good at living cheaply, bike rides are free and I have a highly supportive wife who is more invested in my mental and emotional well-being than the paycheck I bring home. It's going to be a great summer, so crack open a cold one any way you like and raise a toast to today and the future!