Electric Lady’s Alex Kostelnik on why he’s closing the Central District e-bike shop

Kostelnik celebrates opening Electric Lady in spring 2016.

Alex Kostelnik is getting out of the e-bike showroom business. After nearly three years on the front lines of a volatile e-bike industry, selling shiny new bikes out of the Central District’s Electric Lady, he finds himself looking longingly up E Union Street where, just two blocks away, his first shop 20/20 Cycle is still grinding away to keep the neighborhood rolling.

“I’ll sit on the bench in front of 20/20, and within ten minutes I’m sharing a cookie with a neighbor and petting their dog, and they sat down to join us, and they’re going to be late to wherever they were going,” said Kostelnik during a long interview on the shop floor of his soon-to-be-closed shop at 23rd and Union. “That’s what I thought I would be doing with e-bikes, but it turns out the bike industry would have none of that. Which is too bad because I would argue that my system is actually a prescription for health for the e-bike industry, and that they are absolutely missing the boat in terms of investing in actual community.”

Founded in 2016 and staffed in recent years by Anthony Beauchemin and Lee Corbin, Electric Lady (a Seattle Bike Blog sponsor) is putting its stock of e-bikes and cargo bikes on sale and will close its doors in the coming months. Their retail space is already listed online.

Kostelnik says the business is doing well financially, but he is not enjoying the work needed to navigate what he sees as an unreliable industry where companies start up, go under, fire staff and get bought constantly. And Kostelnik’s proudly anti-corporate mentality was destined to butt heads with major players in the bike industry.

So with the used-bike-focused 20/20 Cycle up the street waiting for him to return, he is getting out. 20/20 will still sell some e-bikes, but they won’t have a showroom full of them ready to test ride.

“The bike industry is insane, in constant flux, does not know its ass from its elbow, is throwing so many spaghetti noodles at the wall to see what sticks that you’re in a room full of noodles that are sticking all over the place,” he said. “The cutting edge of the bike industry is about as sharp as a butter knife. They don’t know what they’re doing and it’s random insanity.”

He also had trouble connecting with a customer base that is very different than the customers at 20/20.

“The genesis of Electric Lady was to bring a vision of electric cycling to Seattle through my experience and my expertise and to deliver that to people, and that has worked about 30 percent of the time. The other 70 percent of people are endlessly lost in user groups and social media. They’re first time riders, but they’re not first time riders that are stepping up to the plate to hear about the community or join the community. They’re sort of strange outsider, know-it-all lonely people who aren’t really part of our community, and I don’t know where to begin with them.” The shop was open during this conversation, but the customer test riding bikes must have been part of the 30 percent because she seemed amused by Kostelnik’s trademark unfiltered candor.

“So basically, I’m just using so much energy to try to present the world of e-biking to my customers that I want to, and most of that energy is going into just trying to create status quo, and for how I see fit to do things, that’s just using up my energy. And we decided that a better way to serve our customers is to cut that overhead and be more direct with people and for our community who already get a lot of it. People who are commuting because they really well need to. That’s my people.”

Ultimately, it was “a delicious concoction that includes burnout as one of its spices” that led Kostelnik to realize he would be happier if the shop just closed. Plus he wants time to build a treehouse with his kid, he said.

He is not looking to sell because the shop is so close to 20/20, so closing the doors is the only option.

“We make money. It’s been a success. We have a beautiful shop. It’s a profitable business. I did all the heavy lifting. The non-union grocery store is coming soon across the street. The super-gentrified 30,000 square feet of retail is coming on the other side of the street. We’re poised, literally poised, for our golden year, and I’m out. Because what I didn’t factor into my business plan was me. I factored in the demographic and everything else, it was me. I ended up just endlessly being in these battles, and friends of mine would say, ‘Man, you look tired.’

“There is only so much time in the day, and I just choose not to spend it going, ‘No. What? No. Why? No. Why won’t you do that for my customer? This is entirely fair. Send that part.’ And then after like eight calls, they send the part.

The bike industry at large is going through some very tough times, and e-bikes represent a growing source of sales and profit. But selling and servicing them can be a challenge when companies boom and bust, leaving bikes on the streets without a source for replacement parts. And with many makers going with a direct-to-customers sales model, it’s hard for major traditional bike retailers to stay afloat. The major industry trade show Interbike has been cancelled, which is a pretty clear omen of how things are going for the industry at large. Performance Bikes went bankrupt in November, leading to the sudden closure of more than 100 locations including in the U District, for example. And though selling direct to customers online might make the bike cheaper up front because it skips over the local retail markup, direct sales companies rely on those same shops to service their bikes. So the industry is sort of eating itself from within.

Of course, Kostelnik hasn’t shed many tears for a corporate giant like Performance. “I couldn’t be more delighted. And I’m not surprised.

“I know that bike industry. You’ve got guys with cologne in Dockers mansplaining to women about cycling who have no innovations regarding cycling whatsoever. The bike is a toy. The bike is for sports. It is none of those things, and that’s Darwin at it’s best. That’s on you, bro. That’s on you, Performance.”

He then told a story about how he used dumpster dive bikes behind the North Carolina Performance Bikes headquarters, because of course he did.

UPDATE: Kostelnik added more thoughts in the comments below:

I have learned so much. I’ll miss my little E-Bike shop- the space is lovely. The sound system is to die for. On the other hand, 20/20 Cycle is a truly special business- more than even I realized. We have a very particular, unique clientele, and we have just the shop for them- it’s punk rock, it does a huge volume of business (it always has) and we are a community like Seattle had 15 years ago- it’s a pre-gentrification fortress of joy!

Picture the building 20/20 Cycle is in: who are our neighbors? Hollow Earth Radio, Dana’s Mind & Body pilates workshop, Communi-Tea Kombucha, Cory’s Polaroid camera shop: Rare Medium- Kevin’s Central Cinema (we went to Roosevelt High School together). Heck- Cory’s wife even reads astrology upstairs.

We are arguably the most concentrated “bullion-cube-of-old-school-quality-funk-&-integrity” on the West Coast.

I really had a great run- everything technically worked at Electric Lady and I love my friends at Gazelle, Xtracycle, Grin, Bike Swift and Tern. We build a good, strong, mutual relationship. I will keep these guys- and move it up the street. (Scaled down of course!)

This entry was posted in news and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

45 Responses to Electric Lady’s Alex Kostelnik on why he’s closing the Central District e-bike shop

  1. Madi Carlson says:

    Sorry to hear about the shop shuttering, but a happy Alex is the best Alex :) Long live 20/20!

  2. Wow Tom that really captures me accurately- I’m still kind of in shock at how much I dealt with at the new shop those three years- being part of gentrification, and participating in “full frontal capitalism”.

    We’ll keep our core customers.

    I have learned so much. I’ll miss my little E-Bike shop- the space is lovely. The sound system is to die for. On the other hand, 20/20 Cycle is a truly special business- more than even I realized. We have a very particular, unique clientele, and we have just the shop for them- it’s punk rock, it does a huge volume of business (it always has) and we are a community like Seattle had 15 years ago- it’s a pre-gentrification fortress of joy!

    Picture the building 20/20 Cycle is in: who are our neighbors? Hollow Earth Radio, Dana’s Mind & Body pilates workshop, Communi-Tea Kombucha, Cory’s Polaroid camera shop: Rare Medium- Kevin’s Central Cinema (we went to Roosevelt High School together). Heck- Cory’s wife even reads astrology upstairs.

    We are arguably the most concentrated “bullion-cube-of-old-school-quality-funk-&-integrity” on the West Coast.

    I really had a great run- everything technically worked at Electric Lady and I love my friends at Gazelle, Xtracycle, Grin, Bike Swift and Tern. We build a good, strong, mutual relationship. I will keep these guys- and move it up the street. (Scaled down of course!)

  3. Steve buck says:

    I’ll miss this sweet shop but 20/20 was my shop before electric lady was. I had a fixed gear and after my son was born 20/20 built a sweet custom 3 speed internal hub rear wheel and made my first child hauling bike. 7 years later I got a tern GSD and became a full time bike commuter. Glad Alex will be in a better head space. Plus 20/20 is across the street from chucks!

    • Steve we love you! I was joking to a customer last week that 20/20 will outlive Electric Lady like Vinyl outlived compact discs…… even though vinyl came first.

  4. Brad says:

    Alex knows his stuff. Sorry to see a bike ahop go but the bike industry has a nasty habit of eating its young instead of building a diverse ecosystem. You now have the large bike corporations sucking the life out of shops by making the buy all their P&A to get living margins on bikes all for bigger profits and to squeeze out the competition.

    • Brad, thank you.

      I think it’s worth noting that a lot of bike industry insiders are contacting me privately with shared sympathies- this is being felt all around, I’m just crazy enough to say it publicly. It’s shared by more than you and I, but these people need to protect their jobs.

  5. Pdieter says:

    “They’re first time riders, but they’re not first time riders that are stepping up to the plate to hear about the community or join the community. “

    Which community is being referenced here? Cycling community or CD? Or?

    • I’m referring to the new climate- that has taken me by surprise.

      It should sound familiar to you in one way or the other. I’ll try to describe it. It’s hard to describe- but it’s worth a try.

      More than half of my customers at Electric Lady are first time riders- they’re just getting interested (again) in cycling. It’s wonderful in and of itself! And I am a heartfelt cycling evangelist- I’ve never owned a car, & I have biked Seattle for over 40 years. I love to share this knowledge.

      But what’s interesting is that these folks are possessed by their computers. And I think they are confusing two things: talking about cycling in their social media group, (where they are bombarded with targeted advertising) and actually doing it- actually having experience- these are fundamentally two different things.

      This disconnect that is happening with the consumer is palpable- it is understandable. I believe people are scared- worried they will not be able to continue to consume like they are used to. And consuming equals freedom, it equals democracy, right? Purchase power with the median and below median income folks is at an all time low.

      And the web can fully surround you- in a virtual world that is also watching and listening to you. It promises to allow you to continue hoarding cheap goods, if you will.. That’s the hook. But the catch is that you are being wrapped in a web- you are being infiltrated- and your fears/needs are being manipulated. I am affected by this just as much as you.

      When you sit at your computer long enough, with paypal “locked, loaded and ready to go”- watching ads, drone videos of happy cyclists who just over-consumed a whole slew of bike gear, etc. etc.- It all combines to make the perfect storm. And sooner or later we will click that mouse, right? We will find ourselves next-day shipping something to ourselves.

      OK now picture me with my little shop- I am not virtual. I don’t crowd fund. I don’t make promises I can’t keep. And so I became the guy with the hard hitting news- the guy who is bumming everyone’s high- my shop is a reality check for these poor pilgrims/refugees.

      “No, the bike you bought online is actually very poorly made.” “No, there will be no support from who sold it to you.” “No, it will not last. It might not even work right out of the box.” And: “No, we can’t fix it for you cheap- the cheap part was your purchase. The company that sold that crappy bike to you does not care about you in the least.”

      So here I was greeting this person at the shop- (and remember I do have sympathy) listening and sharing what I have to offer- but the exchange sometimes does not take.

      Surprise, surprise!

      And in these situations, more often than not, the customer is flying blind yet dispensing instructions on what I should do. I don’t think they mean to be this way on purpose, it’s just that in the times we are in right now, people are kind of drunk and in a daze, wanting someone to tell them they did the right thing. Deep down they know the score- but they want others to validate their needs- and in the end it basically looks like hoarding. The consumers who are bleary eyed from e-consuming- It gets weird a lot- In this situation we can not connect.

      It’s sad, these are weird times- I do not believe we appreciate the extent to how profoundly all of this has already changed. But I have a front row seat.

      • PDieter says:

        It looks like I won’t make it to EL as I’d hope but I will make a point to drop by 20/20 to enjoy a cookie and share observations on the future of ebikes in Seattle and elsewhere.

  6. Conrad says:

    It seems to me that the makers of bicycle things these days are doing it all wrong. I dont know anything about e bikes, but new, normal bikes hold no interest for me. They are absurdly overpriced and there is a constant barrage of so called innovations that are just lousy and will be obsolete in several years when they introduce their next garbage idea. So I stick to either custom or used bikes from an era when they were not designed to be obsolete. Thank god for places like recycled cycles, R&E, and 20/20.
    This is mostly marketing gone wrong I think. These companies want to make you think it is necessary to have a few 4000 dollar bikes in your quiver in order to ride. Then people buy them, they break, they are impossible to repair and maintain and just suck in general. No wonder people lose interest. They spend loads of money sponsoring moribund professional racing/doping teams. Meanwhile their idea of sponsoring local or grassroots teams is offering up an online discount code for lousy product so you can undercut the local bike shop. Sweet.

  7. Pingback: Central District e-bike showroom Electric Lady shutting down | CHS Capitol Hill Seattle

  8. Aaron Goss says:

    Alex, I look forward to you having more time so maybe we can go for a bike ride!

    • Hi Aaron

      Yes! Perfectly ironic. I cracked the nut of capitalism. And inside? It was hollow! If I can’t even find time to ride a bike with my friend Aaron, what am I doing.

  9. Hannah says:

    Cheers to you Alex! You gave it your all and we are all better for it.

    I bought my second bike(Faraday) from your shop a couple years ago and love every minute of riding it up these hills. I will rely on yall at 20/20 to keep my legs strong, my heart happy and my non-Puget-powered cycle tuned-up. Can I bring in my Faraday for maintenance at 20/20?
    Thanks for being a great neighbor

    • alex kostelnik says:

      Hannah! We look forward to seeing you at 20/20. Hot tip: my friends DJ & David at Electric & Folding Bikes NW in Ballard has Seattle’s best collection of Faraday parts. (Just scroll down from the 12 ads for Rad Power bikes and viola! google has their info

  10. Jessica says:

    I’m a fan of 20/20 and glad they are not going away! They saved me during an alleycat race- replaced my rear derailleur in real time between stops on the race! Thank you!

    • alex kostelnik says:

      Hi Jessica, you are a priority!

      We just signed our third 5 year lease. We’re going to have a party Feb. 2020, it’ll be our 14th anniversary. Catering by… Union Market! (It was mechanic Anthony’s idea)

  11. Neel Blair says:

    So sad to lose this local resource for work on my Xtracycle 10e (which I love and is my family’s 2nd car). But I understand and can appreciate how crazy and chaotic this space is right now. Especially in Seattle where everyone is trying something new it seems.

    Thanks for the shop, and I hope I’ll find a new resource soon. Any suggestions for Columbia City-area (or south Seattle) source for service and parts for Xtracycle 10e’s?

    • Steven Buck says:

      Alex is still working on ebikes at 20/0 :)

    • alex kostelnik says:

      Neel! I have been selling and repairing Xtracycles before anyone else in Seattle, and I don’t plan to stop now. Bring your bike to 20/20 Cycle- we have you covered.

      And anyway, I have so many great E-Bike tools and skills now- I plan to ride, sell and service E-bikes from here to infinity. ;-)

  12. Bruce J. says:

    Hey Alex:
    Understand your motivation but we’ll miss you! And yes, that neighborhood has amazingly changed so quickly. Anyway, we’ll have two Felt electric bikes that we do enjoy thanks to you!
    All the best,
    Bruce and Gretchen

  13. Hey Alex, congrats on choosing life! I’ll look forward to more rambling conversations about underground streams in Seattle, the early days of “Grunge,” the mysteries of global capitalism, classic science fiction, and occasionally anything and everything related to bicycles and human-powered transportation back at 2020. I’m writing this from my little apartment in Mysore, India, where the ancient guy who fixes my 60-pound single-speed Chinese bike does so from a roadside shack with most of his repairs performed sitting on a wooden block with plumber-sized monkey wrenches and a rubber mallet. We communicate in sign-language and pigeon-Kannada about cricket, the Modi-led Indian government and the right tire-pressure for carrying me and my groceries over the potholed streets. The spirit of 2020 lives on around the world!

    • alex says:

      Dave this is beautiful. Thank you for your eloquence and depth. I miss crossing paths with you on 29th & 30th

  14. Alistair says:

    Great piece. I don’t know Alex, but I like the cut of his jib, and I will definitely make the effort to patronize his bike shop.

  15. Tom says:

    Good for you Alex. See you at 2020.

  16. Matthew says:

    Alex, you will always be punk rock! You are a shining light in the corporate darkness.
    Best, always

  17. Chad Hoerner says:

    Alex has always been a straight shooter and always willing to help out a fellow human.
    I had the privilege to work with him @ Gregg’s/Greenlake and he opened his home to me when I went through some relationship strife. If more people took the time to actually emotionally connect like Alex the world would be a better place. Cheers and go pay in that tree fort! Chad Hoerner

  18. Mikey from Blue Monkey says:

    Hey Alex, I feel your pain. Blue Monkey Bicycles was doing fine for years as a local shop, but frustrations in the bike industry left us longing for a better work day. I’m moving onto media, specifically eBike media without a store or sales ambition.

    If you’d like to chat about it sometime on video, I’d love the chance to try out pod-casting (via video chat). Lemme know: info å bluemonkeybicycles˛com

  19. Pilder says:

    Right on. Cheers Alex. this is the greatest thing I’ve read about the bike industry and Seattle in years. I always said you were ahead of your time and if you just waited for the neighborhood to catch up you’d sell all those Kalakalas. But the neighborhood didn’t catch up it just went someplace else, someplace I’d rather not be.

  20. Bob says:

    I just want to say to Alex that was a hell of a refreshing and honest write up you made on the biking industry…..Thats pretty rare today in the world ……I am not much of a bike rider myself but I know if people could speak this directly and honestly about what ever business they were involved in….. Society as a whole would be moving in a much better direction in short order….
    Bob

    • alex kostelnik says:

      Hi Bob

      Thank you.

      I have a penchant for wanting to turn over rocks, to see what’s underneath. Sometimes you find good stuff, sometimes you find bad- it can go either way- that’s the appeal!

      Most consumerism is basically not sustainable, and it’s a dead end. Buying a bike out of need, that’s what I get excited about- using a bike to unlock a problem- to break out of the cycle of hoarding and driving- now you’re talking.

      I thought I could bring this philosophy to E-Bikes but I underestimated the overwhelming power of how dysfunctional the industry is! I was not able to make much of a dent. It was humbling- and that is fair- there’s other ways to do this.

      I’m going to re-focus and stay invested in e-bikes, but in a way that I’m not sucked into, and bogged down in, “the game”.

  21. Shirley says:

    It’s okay because 20/20 was our shop before EL opened. I will feel a bit guilty bringing my HUGE bike in to have the disc brakes changed but that’s okay. 20/20 gave birth to my Metrofiets and EL helped maintain it. It was a good run and I will miss the space and excellent sound system.

    I am excited for your family to be able to spend more time with you and hopefully get to see this awesome tree house you will be building.

    Our family appreciates everything you have done and future bike thingies to get us riding all year round.

    • Alex Kostelnik says:

      Thank you Shirley!

      You are an important part of our bike community. What’s most precious to us, I think, is that you know when to cheer, and you know when to fight!

      We’re proud to have you as out friend.

  22. Aubrey Pullman says:

    I bought a Faraday from Electric Lady a few years ago. I wanted an ebike so I could keep riding despite some knee issues. There were problems with the bike, but Alex and his crew made a heroic effort to support me and this bike, which have made me a happy bicyclist again. Alex, Lee, Rob – Thank you so much!

  23. Amy says:

    Alex, I’m not your customer, but I bought an ebike brand whose maker stands behind what they sell, and it has been a pleasure to own and ride my ebike (I ride an average of 300 miles a month). I have experienced great customer service and it keeps me riding and having confidence in my ebike. I advise folks not to buy a cheap online bike, but folks are easily dazzled by what looks to them like a great deal. I tell them that local bike stores may not repair that cheap online bike … but folks get that glazed look that tells me they are already decided. I’m not in the ebike business, I’m just a happy ebike owner/rider … but I want others also to buy a solid bike that can be locally serviced. Companies that sell ebikes that they won’t support are just producing garbage for our landfills, erasing the promise of ebikes to improve our communities.

  24. Amy says:

    Alex, one more comment. I was looking at your website and was surprised at the challenges you have had with manufacturers, considering that you only service the bikes you sell. Do you have any advice for others interested in selling ebikes? That’s not me, as I said, but I’m just curious. I want to see transportation transformed, and I think ebiking is the key to that transformation. How can a shop have a viable business selling and servicing ebikes? How can they choose brands whose makers will truly stand behind what they sell? How can our transportation be transformed if we are creating landfills full of disposable and unfixable ebikes?

Comments are closed.