Kathleen Emry is calling it quits. After 21 years of owning and operating the quaint FreeRange Cycles bike shop in Fremont, she has handed over the keys to Shawna Williams.
Emry had been talking about a potential retirement for a while now so at first, I didn’t quite believe it. But in June, the 700-square-foot shop was already showing signs of change. There was a new face behind the counter and the space, once teeming with 21 years worth of trinkets — art, postcards, stuffed animal, photos — felt surprisingly bare.
“One day I came in and found all my stuffed animal chickens piled up in the backroom!” Kathleen Emry said with laugh. “That’s good though. I want Shawna to make it her own. I want the shop to represent her vision.”
The little shop that could
For Emry, her vision for a shop started in the 1980s. She hadn’t grown up biking. She and her three sisters had shared one Western Flyer among them as kids, and she didn’t start biking again until well into her adulthood. But after stepping foot into Wright Brothers Cycle Works for a bike fix, she knew she had found her calling.
Intrigued by bicycle mechanics, Emry signed up for some bicycle maintenance classes and found herself working for Wright Brothers before long.
“I remember walking in and taking classes and thinking, ‘I love working with my hands’,” Emry said. “At the time I had just completed a Masters in ministries and had come to the realization that being an out queer in the Catholic Church wasn’t going to work. My philosophy is to be one’s authentic self in the world today and for me, the best way to do that at that time was to nurture my gifts, and that was working with my hands.
“But things brew with me. It takes time for me to manifest things.”
And so ten years of part-time mechanic work went by before Emry had assembled the tools she needed, and hatched a plan with fellow mechanic Mytchell Mead to start a shop of their own.
The duo had been looking for space in Capitol Hill (on a budget of $1000/month) but the universe had other plans.
“Mytch was working at Wright Brothers also and we’d ride by this building all the time. At one point it had a ‘For Rent’ sign on it. It was just $750/month so we were like, ‘Well, [Wright Brothers] doesn’t sell bikes and Fremont needs another bike shop. Let’s do it!’,” Emry recalled.
With a primary focus on bike repair and used bikes, Emry and Mead started FreeRange Cycles in 1997 with a remarkably meager investment of just $5,000 each. They also prioritized a work-life balance and paid themselves a wage of $10/hour.
“Mytch set boundaries like ‘I have yoga on Mondays so we can’t open till noon’ or ‘We have to have a life so we need to close at 5 on Fridays’,” Emry recalled with a chuckle.
“I think that whole idea of not making it our lives but integrating it into our lives was a really healthy way of looking at things.”
Healthy and sustainable. FreeRange was successful from that very first year onward.
“We didn’t make much money but it was enough to live of,” commented Emry.
And then Fremont built up around them. The industrial businesses that had once surrounded them made way for restaurants and bars; apartment complexes sprung up; and the population of Fremont tripled.
Even the recession in the late aughts didn’t hurt.
“Those years were good to me. Everyone dusted off their bikes and started riding them again,” said Emry. “And my landlord was great and did not raise the rent on me during the recession. Those were some of my best years.”
But that doesn’t mean it was all smooth sailing.
Mead left the business just two-and-a-half years in. Leaving Seattle for love.
“He met a woman and they were going to travel around the world on bikes,” said Emry. “They got as far as California, bought a van and settled down eventually.”
And so Emry suddenly found herself in the position of sole business owner and head mechanic. And it was scary.
“Owning a shop is so eclectic. You get to fix things, you get to give something back to someone better than it was when they came to you, you get to have a connection with people on a one-to-one level. But there’s more to it. I think the biggest challenge for me, owning a business, is that it’s 24/7,” Emry shared. “And I wasn’t sure if I could do it.”
Sole proprietorship can be daunting and risky for anyone at any time. Add in that this was 1999, and a woman-run bike shop was a rarity.
“Even back at Wright Brothers, I think I was always welcome, but it was very unusual for a woman to be working at a bike shop,” Emry said. “I didn’t realize how unusual it was until I had been in the industry for a while. One of the biggest things I encountered early on was that males often wanted to tell me how to run my shop instead of me developing what I wanted to carry on my own. But I had to make my own mistakes in order to figure that out.”
Mistakes, or rather, changes, included a shift from used bikes to new bikes, and a penchant for being ahead of popular trends.
FreeRange added an inventory of new bikes after it became apparent that used bikes often came from questionable sellers. And Emry had self-proclaimed “tangents” that included 650 wheels — “before they became cool” — and a lifelong loyalty to rugged bikes begging to travel across mixed terrains.
She sold the very first built-up Surly Long Haul Trucker in the U.S. (“Forest green for a woman who was going to trade across Greenland”) and remained loyal to steel bikes even when aluminum and carbon bikes were taking over the market.
“I just like the ride quality,” she explained. “And I like the fact that a lot of steel bikes are for that median household income. It’s affordable and can last 15–20 years.”
Her affection for steel, Brooks saddles and hand-built wheels may not have served the masses but it did create a loyal customer base.
And so even in today’s bike scene, where there’s a plethora of bike shops and so many commuters ‘race’ to work in lycra on their featherlight carbon bikes, FreeRange lives on.
Her secret? Relationships.
“You make money in being passionate about your product and making connections and building personal relationships,” said Emry. “It would be a hard shop to duplicate, and that’s why I want Shawna to make it her own.”
Critiquing her own work, Emry added: “The shop could have done a better job with the community building aspect. I just never had the energy outside of the shop to do rides and such. But Shawna hopes to do some of that, and being a woman-owned shop is a great place to start.”
New ventures ahead
So why retire now? The Seattle bike scene is steadily growing, and so is the market for steel and adventure bikes.
“I’m tired,” Emry admitted.
“I just don’t have the energy for it anymore. And to be honest, I needed the income until I got Medicare. Plus, I have been working towards my new job as a spiritual director. It’s time. I feel good about it.
“There is nothing more I have to prove to myself. I have run a successful business for 21 years. I learned that I can combine my passion with my work ethic and create something that is truly uniquely me.”
Emry said that while a grieving period will surely follow, she’s excited for her new ventures in spiritual counseling.
That’s not to say that she’s done with bikes though. She’ll continue to tinker at home, give advice (“I do have a degree in business after all…and 21 years of experience”), and maybe put in some volunteer time at the Bikery, if only just to keep the hands nimble.
Introducing Shawna Williams
In Emry’s 21 years with FreeRange, several dozen people have gotten their start in the industry under her tutelage. So it seems only fitting that FreeRange Cycles’ new owner is one of Emry’s former employees.
Shawna Williams, 28, is no stranger to the Seattle bike scene. As a student at SPU, she spent many an afternoon and evening avoiding homework by taking her friends’ bikes apart and trying to fix them.
“I was studying political science, but I realized that I really just wanted to work with my hands. So after college I went to UBI [United Bicycle Institute] and Kathleen hired me on shortly after that,” Williams said.
At FreeRange, the real learning began.
“I came away from UBI feeling really confident. Then I worked here for a little bit and realized how much I didn’t know,” Williams said laughing.
“I think that going [to UBI] is like taking a drink of water out of a firehose. There is just so much information and it’s ten days straight. It wasn’t until I actually started here, in a shop, and problem solving every single day on different kinds of bikes that things really started to click.”
Williams worked at FreeRange for 15 months but left to go to BikeWorks in Columbia City, where she worked in the shop and later ran youth programs.
“I taught kids how to ride bikes and how to fix their own bikes, which in a lot of ways cemented my knowledge — through teaching somebody else. I did that for the past three years and now I’m back.”
Back as the owner, that is. A reality that hasn’t quite sunk in yet.
Just a few months ago, Williams never imaged she’d be holding the keys to her own bike shop. In fact, she didn’t even know she had wanted a shop of her own.
When Emry put the shop up for sale, Williams met her for celebratory beers. It was here that the conversation quickly turned from Emry’s retirement to Williams’ future.
“Yeah, that was a scary conversation for me. I hadn’t realized that there was a part of me that also wanted to take over and buy the shop. But Kathleen pointed out the skillsets I have and was confident that I could do this, but it wasn’t something I had considered before she said that,” Williams explained.
“I think at one point I even said something like, ‘OK, we need to slow down this conversation!’ But then I couldn’t stop thinking about it once I left. It was all I could think about.”
What drew Williams to the idea was a creative outlet, meaningful connections with people and building onto the foundation that Emry has laid.
“I love getting my hands dirty and solving problems. When somebody comes in and something is broken, there is sadness because I think people build relationships with their bikes. And I get to fix it. I love the feeling that I get to make it work again so that they can feel connected to their bike again,” said Williams.
“In general, I think what bikes have meant to me is that it’s a way to connect to people. And I think that is something that Kathleen has done really well for the entire time it’s been open. It’s those relationships why people keep coming back. You know, you don’t have a relationship with your Amazon Prime account or whatever, but you have that here.”
“I think that relationship component is the most important thing Kathleen has taught me. That and doing the right thing. Not cutting corners and prioritizing what’s right over what’s easy. I still learn something every single time I’m in the shop.”
And like Emry, Williams has an affection for steel bikes, and so the look and feel of the shop shouldn’t change too much.
“What the shop has done really well is being the go-to place for commuters and those wanting to bike tour. That really resonates with me. Those are the two main bikey things I like to do,” explained Williams.
Changes to FreeRange will be seen mostly outside of the inventory.
“Something that I’d really love to do, perhaps not this year but in the future, is I really want to offer classes and create more of a community hub feeling with classes, speakers, group rides, camp outs and things that keep people engaged,” Williams explained.
“Plus it’s very important to me to continue fostering that presence of women in the industry. Unfortunately women often aren’t given the same opportunities in anything mechanical or hands-on, but I’m really hoping to bring more people on board. The idea of a women-owned and run shop is pretty cool and needed. They are few and far between.”
For those of you wanting to wish Emry and Williams well. FreeRange will be hosting a Happy Retirement / Welcome Shawna party on July 28th from 5 – 8 p.m.