The neighborhoods of New Orleans have learned to be self-contained. They function best when the focus is local: local bar, local restaurant, local park, local coffee shop. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that local bike shops have been a part of the city for years– both pre- and post-Katrina.
As the city continues its economic recovery, local bike shops have been slow to return. Before the storm they could be found tucked away in the various neighborhoods, now they are only in select parts of the city. I live in the Lower Garden District, but my bike shop of choice is Gerken’s Bike Shop in the Bywater. There are a few places I could take my bike that are closer to my house, but Gerken’s has everything I look for in a bike shop. Despite the distance, it is my local bike shop.
In 2008 three friends and bike enthusiasts, John Gerken, Andrew Ochsenslager and Shelly Jackson, decided to pool their talent and open up a bike shop on St. Claude. Since biking is my only form of transportation, when it came time to look for a trusty bicycle mechanic, Gerken’s came highly recommended. Their laid-back style and passion for bicycles have kept me coming back repeatedly for maintenance and biking gear.
I have had a few bad experiences at bike shops. Whether it is an over-zealous salesperson or a bike snob who would rather see my bike in the dump than repaired, instant deterrents prevent a novice from delving deeper into the cycling world.
Gerken’s Bike Shop is different. Walking into the store, one finds a casual atmosphere with bikes displayed on the left and merchandise on the right. The counter is straight ahead and manned by friendly, hipster-styled employees – this is the Bywater, after all. Most notably, the atmosphere is friendly, relaxed and the staff is deliberately approachable.
I sat down with Gerken to discuss how this no-frills biker’s bike shop came to be.
It became clear during our conversation that it wouldn’t occur to him to run his bike shop any other way. He has an innate understanding of how attached people become to their bicycles, so he and his staff are happy to work on them, no matter what condition they arrive in. They do not talk down to the customer and they give honest advice. They offer frank appraisal of which problems can be fixed and cannot.
Gerken’s specializes in rehabbing older bicycles by piecing together parts to create interesting new frames from old ones – a process known as “chopping.” An outgrowth of this is the double-decker bike, or “tall bike” — a popular New Orleans style.
Gerken laughs and admits they really do work on any bikes that come their way. Just the other day, while working on a particularly vintage bike, one of his employees commented that at any other bike shop, they would just tell the owner to save themselves the hassle and get a new bike. “It’s true, we just fix people’s messed up bikes,” he muses.
Before opening the bike shop, Gerken worked at Plan B: New Orleans Community Bike Project for six years. (Plan B is a community-run bike project that supplies the space, tools and volunteer staff to build and repair bicycles. Recently, Plan B has become “Homeless, but not Powerless!” due to building occupancy sanctions. Follow their facebook page for updates on Mobile Plan B.)
Gerken ultimately decided to open a bike shop with Ochsenslager and Jackson when the hobby of fixing up and repairing bikes on the side became more and more time-consuming and expensive. Combining their ten plus years of bike expertise, it is no surprise that this unpretentious bike shop fits in well with New Orleans’s unique bike culture.
“That’s what I love about the bikers in New Orleans,” Gerken says. “In every other city, the people that bike are a very specific type of people. They are a very defined group. It’s so refreshing here. There are so many different types of people who bike. They don’t think about it. They aren’t trying to be a part of anything. They just want to get around the city.”
Have a question about your bike? Looking for bike parts or advice? Stop by Gerken’s Bike Shop at 2703 Saint Claude Ave. Phone: (504) 373-6924.
Mariposa Stormer is a regular contributor for NolaVie.