Bike Shop Tales: The customer is always right

By Chris Klibowitz 

No utterance will garner a bigger groan among the retail world than, “The customer is always right.” Having worked in shop for over fifteen years, I’ve had the misfortune of hearing it too many times. While the origin is unclear—either coined by Marshall Field or an employee of his, Harry Gordon Selfridge—it appears the phrase has lost its way over time. One source claims that the original wording was, “Assume that the customer is right until it is plain beyond all question he is not.” Of course, no angry customer is going to yell that one…

I last heard that phrase after my last big 4th of July sale at Helen’s Cycles in Santa Monica, California. The 4th is an event—people line up around the block for blowout deals. At the time, I was the P+A buyer and had scored a display of Continental road tires, one we normally did not stock. They sold out quickly.

A few days later, I was called down to the service department. A customer had bought a pair of said tires, and was pretty upset that he’d already worn through one of them. Had this been one of my usual tires, I’d have quickly assessed the situation and likely gave him a new tire without much thought—we sold thousands of our best sellers. But being a tire I wasn’t familiar with, I looked a little harder at it while we chatted. Of course, he insisted it was defective. Something was weird and I didn’t have a new one to give him so I needed to tread carefully. Pun intended.

busted tire (1)

Recalling this story now, I’m not sure what took me so long to solve this mystery. The guy had installed it inside out. Then he pumped it to 100 psi and rode it. Twice. I didn’t even know that it was possible to install a tire inside out, and I’m still amazed it held air. But as impressive as that is, the inside of a tire is a very thin layer of rubber over the casing. He’d worn completely through it all within those two rides—less than 25 miles—right down to the tread rubber, which gave way without the case to support it.

Embarrassed, he bought a pair of new tires—can’t have mismatched tires, right? I offered to install them for him—I don’t recall if he took me up on it. Then, I kept that tire hanging over my desk in the parts room as a reminder that the customer is always right… until it is plain beyond all question that he is not.

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Boiling the Frog: A Boston Commuter Journal

Words by Thom Parsons

Commuting through the winter by bike is like that anecdote about boiling the frog: if you throw a frog in boiling water, it will jump out immediately. This works much better metaphorically than it does literally. You throw a frog in boiling water—it freakin’ dies. Think about it. When you throw a lobster in boiling water what happens, does it hop out? Of course not. (And I’m glad, because that would be terrifying.) The second part of the saying goes: if you put a frog in cold water and gradually raise the temperature, it will hang out until it is boiled alive. “Well, this is rather nice; the warm water is helping work out the knots in my lower back. I should really learn to stretch prior to rigorous hopping, oh my, what the…Rosebud.”

It’s the same principle with bike commuting. If you stay on the bike through the fall and make the gradual transition to winter riding, that first 23° day isn’t going to come as such a shock, but, you take three months off the bike to focus on more important things, like getting fat and depressed, and that first really cold day is going to feel like you’ve been thrown into a pot of boiling water.

I live in a town 35 miles from Boston, a town full of giant red pick-up trucks. I work in Boston… in cycling advocacy, and up until a few months ago I rode my bike, or did a bike/train/bike commute 100% of the time. Because that’s what you do when you work in cycling advocacy and you’re not a total D-bag. And you don’t own a car. But, see, that is the thing: I bought a car. Not just a car, but a miniature van (like a van, only smaller). When that happened, scientists in a lab in Nevada saw the D-bag-o-meter go right off the charts. “Good God Phil, what the hell was that? Rush Limbaugh isn’t even on right now…I think some hypocritical loser from Boston that spends all day trying to get other people to ride bicycles just bought a minivan and decided to not ride his bike, ever.”

Then I spent over four months commuting to the city by car, hating every minute of it. I’d be sitting in traffic going: “GOD DAMMIT! WHY DID I DRIVE? I AM A STUPID, STUPID MAN.” And yet, I would get up and do the same thing again the next day. I think Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same insane thing over and over again even though it makes you totally insane and expecting it not to keep making you totally insane.

I tried to be less of a loser in certain ways. When I’d stop at our local café in the morning, a quaint little place called, adorably enough, “Dunkin Donuts,” I would ask for an egg and cheese sandwich with no bag, just the wrapper. To the staff of Dunkin Donuts this was noteworthy and I quickly became known as “The No-Bag Guy.” I’m sure if there were a woman who always insisted on a bag, they would call her “The Bag Lady.”

If you’re going to drive a miniature van to work and get a cryogenically frozen puck-of-egg sandwich at a drive-through window, one way to salvage a shred of non-D-bag-ness is to ask for no bag. (You can make your own joke about taking the bag out of D-bag if you want—I ain’t goin’ there.) Of course, a better way to achieve this is to have oatmeal for breakfast and ride your damn bike to work like a man. A man in a leotard, but a man nonetheless.

After a few months of wallowing in self-loathing, one day I woke up from a dream. In the dream I was watching T.V. There was an ad on the T.V. for Weak Sauce—“Weak Sauce: Now With More Thom.” I walked down to the bathroom, looked at the reflection in the mirror and said “OH MY GOD, A VAMPIRE!” Luckily, just before I staked it with a dental pick, I realized that vampires don’t have reflections and that I was looking at a particularly sleep-deprived version of myself. That raccoon-eyed version of me looked the other me in the eye and said, “Hey, Thom, stop being a D-bag.”

I decided right then and there that I would start riding to work again. Even if I had to jump right into that boiling pot of water…that was, in reality, a freezing cold February day.

Illustration: Julia Green

Illustration: Julia Green

When I do actually commute to work by bike I have three options:

1.) Ride my Schwinn Varsity the five miles to the commuter rail during off-peak hours, throw it on the train, ride it the mile or so to work on the other end, and then repeat the process in reverse in the evening.

2.) Ride my commuter bike, a singlespeed road bike with panniers and duct tape on it that I call the “AThomination,” one way to the city, 35 miles, then take the train home in the evening.

3.) Ride my commuter bike both ways for a grand total of 70 miles.

The first one might sound nuts to members of the non-cycling world. The second one might sound nuts to some members of the cycling world. And the third one might sound nuts to all but about three people in the cycling world. Sad thing is…I used to be one of those three people. I’m not anymore, believe me. When I tell you that I once drank luminescent tequila in a national park in Utah, you don’t have to believe me, but believe me on this one.

The first day I decided to commute, I chose the 35-mile, ride-all-the-way-in-and-take-the-train-most-of-the-way-out version. My first thought when I woke up was: “I don’t want to do this.” It wasn’t a thought so much as something I said out loud and then followed with nervous-serial-killer laughter. My ride to Boston isn’t all that intimidating, really, it’s just 35 miles of mostly flat terrain. It’s not exactly like summiting Mt. Everest without oxygen while giving a piggyback ride to a Herve Villechaize impersonator you kidnapped from Vegas. (If it were exactly like that, this would be a much more interesting story.) Still, those 35 miles loomed in front of me like a fifth helping of tuna-macaroni salad at Old Country Buffet.

I’ve jumped into the boiling pot of water and I have neither hopped out nor died. Yeah, it wasn’t really a boiling pot of water, it was just a cold week in February, but hey…I wonder if we should try freezing a frog to switch up the metaphor a little, make it more applicable to this scenario. We don’t have to use frogs, necessarily; we could use anything that hops…wallabies might work. We’re gonna need a bigger freezer.

This story originally appeared in Bicycle Times #18.

Want to commute but feel like are too many roadblocks in your way? Stay tuned for tips on overcoming commuting obstacles later this week, right here on bicycletimesmag.com. 


 

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