“I can’t let you leave here with those handlebars,” said Dean sternly.
I looked at my mechanic in surprise. Those handlebars were intended for my new bike, and I’d chosen them carefully. I thought they’d be extremely comfortable, and they looked stylish to boot. “Why?” I asked a bit defensively.
“They just don’t look right on you,” he growled.
Dean was brusque, but something about his confidence made me want to trust him, despite my own perception of the situation. I’d never spent so much money on a bicycle as this one and while I wanted to be confident that I’d chosen the right set up, I still harbored some doubts and let the bars go back on the shelf.
Weeks earlier, when I’d called around to different stores to have a bicycle assembled from scratch, most of the places I spoke to were willing to do the job, but provided an air of indifference or hesitation which made me feel that they didn’t do it often enough to roll away with a good product. Dean, on the other hand, answered my questions as if they were elementary. I felt that at Dean’s Garage, as I came to call his shop, building new bicycles was done on a daily basis. Dean was inseparable from the place, and aside from his occasional and kindly foil, Jen, he was there day in and day out. He was also the dominant voice, piping in from the shop area or ambling out to help a customer regardless of who else was working the counter.
For a cautious consumer like myself, a single phone call wasn’t enough to decide. An internet search produced rave reviews and scalding criticisms of Dean’s Garage. “When I bring my ordinary commuter bike in, it gets treated like a Formula One racer at a pit stop,” one customer gushed about the attention lavished on her ride. An acquaintance didn’t mince words or refrain from four letter words when he described the, “bear-like ogre who lurks behind the counter.” It would take me a year or two to see that both perspectives were true. But it didn’t take me long to realize that what I thought was my new bicycle was really Dean’s bike: he just let me use it.
To make my final decision, I visited Dean’s Garage in person. I had typed up a list of criteria for the new bike which included extra beefy wheels, a comfortable enough fit to ride all day in regular clothes, and the ability to carry lots of stuff. All this had to be executed on a budget that I felt was fair, but not large. Dean looked over the list with an expression of approval, but when he got to the budget line, he frowned a bit.
“I can build this for you,” he stated with no hesitation, “but you’ll need to put in another $300.”
I was impressed by his forthrightness, but I wasn’t sure I could splurge. In the past I recoiled at the idea of spending $300 on a whole bike. There was no sales pitch, just an acknowledgement of what would be necessary to do it right. Despite the extra cost, I dipped into my emergency fund and hired Dean for the job.
He measured all my limbs, eyeballed my current bike and double checked all my requirements. I left feeling hopeful; no bike shop had ever shown me the attention I’d received that afternoon. Dean gathered the parts and completed the build in a surprisingly short time period. Further, I learned that he hadn’t just ordered the wheels; he’d built them in-house.
When the bike was ready, Dean led an extensive fitting session where he adjusted everything from the seat height to the angle on the grips until everything was to his liking. As I left the shop, Dean called after me, “You’re part of the team now. You get a shop discount on anything you buy here.”
I rode around with my dream bike and my not so dreamy handlebars for a few days, wondering if I’d made the right choice of bars and of mechanics. I called friends for counseling sessions. I thought about going to another mechanic, but as the month check-up approached, I resolved to get the bars I really wanted and I was going to get them from Dean.
When I told him I wanted the original bars back on the bike he rolled his eyes, wrote me a claim check, and rolled the bike away indifferently. When I picked it up and saw the size of bill, I was flabbergasted. I was reluctant argue, but when I questioned how Dean had come up with this number, he was visibly miffed. Who taught this guy about customer service, I wondered.
The customer isn’t always right at Dean’s Garage and I felt it that day and for the next couple of weeks as I paid repeat visits to trade parts in and out until I found just the right stem for the bars. After the second or third visit, Dean threw up his hands in exasperation. “I just don’t know what to do for you!”
Eventually I did start to feel like part of the team. When I came in for an adjustment, shop staff greeted me by name and Dean stopped what he was doing to get my bike going again. He was impressively adept at fixing things by making minute adjustments that I never would have tried. Over time, I discovered that my role was to explain the problem- never to diagnose it- that was Dean’s job. He remembered which parts had been replaced and what was due next better than I did. And although I was occasionally stunned by Dean’s honesty or surliness, I also came to feel appreciated as a customer.
Over time I learned that never to ask what something would cost- I just trusted Dean. He never charged me for something that was unnecessary and he was crestfallen if I came back a few days later if something he repaired wasn’t working right. It wasn’t uncommon for him to look disappointed or even to razz me a little if I hadn’t oiled the chain well enough or let the rims get too dirty. Dean really cared. After all, it was his bike.