From a speeding vehicle, the Roll Up Bike Shop and Art Space looks like any number of warehouses that pervade the industrial district of Fruitvale. Its gray, indistinct building sits in the perpetual shadow of the BART tracks. If passerby blink, they could easily miss it. But upon closer inspection, the unassuming neighborhood bike shop teems with vibrancy and passion. During the day, a large, boldly spray-painted, rolling, warehouse door proclaims the space as “The Roll Up Bazaar,” and at night, a neon sign pulses the same phrase.
The Roll Up, which currently holds third place in San Francisco BayList’s “Best Bike Shop” rankings, has been around since 2007, but it wasn’t until recently that the business narrowed its focus. Two years ago, the somewhat scruffy and soon-to-be-32-year-old owner Jefferson Ross Maloney changed his business model from what he called “a glorified goodwill” to a model that focuses primarily on bikes. Specializing in new, used and custom-built bicycles for sale and repair, Maloney can build whatever kind of bike his customers can envision and afford, whether that means blue wheels and a pink frame or converting a two-wheeler to a tricked-out tricycle.
“We are genuinely passionate about bikes and interested in teaching people about them, and that’s good for us because most other bike shops have a bad reputation for bad customer service and kind of like a condescending and intimidating atmosphere,” Maloney said.
Lousy service, Maloney suggests, tends to be the status quo for many bike shops because it isn’t a high grossing industry.
“There are exceptions to the rule, of course,” Maloney is quick to add.
The Roll Up’s Facebook page indicates that Maloney’s shop is one of those exceptions. The page is covered with links to patron’s blogs that rave about their service.
“Half the fun is building a bike yourself but I simply do not have time to hunt for all the stuff on Craig’s List and eBay so I commissioned Jefferson, owner of the Roll Up in Oakland, to build the bike for me,” wrote Bob Tilton in his blog WERK CREW.
But Maloney is not alone in delivering his customers the bikes of their dreams. The Roll Up welcomes volunteers, including young teens that want to earn their ride.
“They just kind of came in and expressed a desire to be there,” Maloney said. “It’s kind of like a tough love thing though; you’ve got to set rules and enforce them. It kind of sucks to send a kid away, but if you break a rule you gotta go…. Like screwdriver fights! You’ve definitely got to put your foot down and go ‘No! You gotta go.’”
The volunteer drop-in sessions began after Cycles of Change, a local non-profit that strives to educate children about nutrition and sustainability by encouraging hem to use bikes as transportation.
“The kids can come in and work while learning and also be working towards their own bike. It’s a lot of lending advice and stuff,” Maloney grinned.
The shop remains popular with adults as well. Even on a rainy day, customers find their way inside. Most leave without purchasing much, but many leave intrigued.
One patron, who passes the shop daily on his commute from Berkeley to Hegenburger, stopped in for the first time and was impressed with the breadth of stock.
“I’ll definitely be back in,” he said as he purchased new valve covers.
Inside the shop, bicycles of all sorts and in varying degrees of assemblage are organized and displayed; some even hang from the lofty 25-foot ceiling. Surprisingly neat and tidy for a bike shop, a workspace boasts a plethora of tools, all dedicated to the fixing and constructing bikes. Several gilded mannequin torsos – some gold, some colorfully decoupaged – observe the shop from conspicuous corners and add to the ambiance.
Carlos Ramirez, a senior at the California College of the Arts, was a first time customer after he heard about the Roll Up from a friend.
However, he met Maloney before in a class all about “frankensteining” bikes, salvaging old parts to make new bikes. Under Jefferson’s tutelage, the class converted a two-wheeler into a tricycle.
“Jefferson was and is our bike expert,” Ramirez said. “He steered us in the right direction.”
In addition to building community through bikes, the Roll Up hosts after-hours events throughout the year. Annually, they host the Bike Joust. Dressed in homemade armor – often a helmet and some strategically-placed padding – contestants ride bikes at each other from a distance and try to dismount their opponents using long, plastic jousting rods. The competition allows bikes of all sizes – some tall, some micro-mini, all scraper bikes with a mission.
The jousting often goes on for several rounds, provided it doesn’t get shut down. Two years ago, due to a lack of permits to block off the street, police stopped the competition. Last year, for the same reason, there was no joust. But due to high demand, the contest will take place on Friday, March 25 from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.
According to Maloney, events like the Bike Joust can be a fun way to raise funds but only if they’re safe.
“My favorite events are the ones where nobody gets hurt, we made some money and we had some fun,” Maloney said.
But in the end, Maloney believes that it’s all about the bikes and just how universal they can be.
“Anybody can work on a bike,” Maloney said. “It’s just a combination of steel tubing, cables and rubber. You just have to be able to work with tools and pay attention.”
The Roll Up is located at 4401 San Leandro St. in Oakland. For information on pricing and discounts, visit their website: http://www.rollupbikeshop.com/