Shelly Walker: On a roll

Shelly Walker. (Photo by Avery.)

Earlier this week I bought a daffodil plant. There were no blooms on it, but to my great joy and delight, when I came down the next morning I was greeted by 5 yellow waving friends. It was a happy reminder that spring is almost here. Time to get outdoors, feel the sunshine, take a walk or for some, go on a nice bike ride. If you’re one of those who like to get your pedal on, now would be the time to take out that dusty bike and get it tuned up and ready to roll; and I know just the place to do it. Fairmount Bicycles is queer owned, but what’s most impressive is their dedication to community and fair practice. Their website states, “We like bikes and social justice, and are always looking to partner with organizations and efforts to fight against white supremacy, the patriarchy, transphobia, homophobia, and all that is wrong in the world, especially if it has anything to do with bicycles.”

We took a moment to sit down with charming owner Shelly Walker to talk about her philosophy on business and her path to entrepreneurship. 

So where did your trip begin?

I was born in South Florida and lived there until I was about 13 when we moved to Chester County, Kennett Square. 

Oh yeah, the mushroom capital. I keep trying to get there for the big mushroom festival and each year I miss it. So an important question then: do you like mushrooms?

[Laughing] I do not! And I’m not a fan of the smell associated with the mushrooms! 

So what was it like where you grew up? Beach area? Inland?

We were probably about 40 minutes from the coast, west of Fort Lauderdale. But we were not beach people, I went a few times, but that was not a part of my childhood. I grew up in a very suburban area. We moved into a relatively new development where everyone had kids my age, so it was a super fun place to grow up. I had a ball. We lived on a cul de sac and played outside, rollerblading or biking in the street. 

You said “we” a few times, did you have siblings?

No, the “we” playing was just me and my friends, and the “we” moving was me and my parents. 

Got it. So what’s your most “only child” trait?

[Laughs] I don’t know how to say this without sounding… braggy? But I take great pride when people tell me they couldn’t tell that I was an only child. 

I know a lot of only kids where it’s very obvious, so feel free to take your bows. What was a favorite game as a kid?

Hmmm, now that I said it, I’m just thinking about rollerblading! Game… game… Well, I had an Atari. I was a big Atari fan, but I also kind of hid it from my friends because Nintendo was the big thing at that time. Super Mario didn’t get cool until later when it became retro. But at the time kids were like, “Oh, you don’t have Nintendo?”

Did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up?

No, I was all over the place. Wait, actually I kind of did but it’s silly. When I was about in the 3rd grade, I was in the car with my dad and he said, “Let’s go to Sizzler Steak House.” I was like, “I don’t like steak” and he asked me if I’d ever had steak. No, I hadn’t. So we go to Sizzler and I tried a steak but I wasn’t really sold on it until he said, “Well, try it with the A1 steak sauce.” That was a game changer. I was like, “This is delicious! It’s incredible. I love this.” So it became our thing to go to Sizzler together. Then one time, we went and they didn’t have A1 on the table. I was like, [stage whisper], “Where’s the A1?” Fortunately, the server returned to the table and brought it and I was like, “Oh thank God!” When we left, my father joked, “Wow, we really dodged a bullet there” and I looked at him and said, “You know a steak is just not a steak without A1 sauce.” Keep in mind, I was about 8 at the time. He just thought it was the funniest thing and said, “You should go into marketing!” I didn’t know what that was, but I decided that’s what I was going to do. To the point that I when I applied to Temple, I applied as a marketing major. Then I sat through orientation and I was like, “Boy, oh boy, I do NOT want to do this”. 

That’s too funny, so what did you do?

I ran to the guidance counselor and was like, “Uh, how do you change majors?” I had no idea what to change it to. [Laughing] They were like, “Did you do anything in high school that you liked?” and I had no idea because at 8, I thought that I had it all planned. I ended up majoring in film, and now I run a bike store!

What was your favorite class?

Well, I also was into music in high school and early college, and I took a class in audio recording and another in something like CD production (I’m dating myself) but they were both about the music industry and just fascinating. Film classes, not so much, it gets tiresome sitting next to people who all thought they were going to be the next big, writer, producer, director. 

Were you athletic in school?

Right before we left Florida a friend of mine told me that she was playing ice hockey and I was like, “Wait. What? Hockey? Where?” I was all excited. Then my dad told me that we were leaving Florida and I was upset, but he assured me that there would be places up North where they played hockey. Of course, looking back it was funny that I thought there’d be hockey in Florida but not in the Northeast. So at 14 I started skating lessons and have been super into hockey ever since. I love it. I play in the United Women’s Hockey League. I play Center for the Philadelphia Freeze and it’s so much fun. 

So you do the click, click thing with the sticks?

Ha! Yes! It’s called the face-off.  

Best and worst sports moments? 

I don’t really think about bad moments… well, that’s not true. [Laughing] If I miss a wide open net, I will have nightmares that night, but it’s the good times that stand out, not even a particular moment, just hanging out with a great community of people. Binding with teammates at practice, having beers in the parking lot, and a game somewhere in between. 

And how did you get into the world of biking?

As a kid, I rode my bike around my neighborhood for fun, but in my 20’s, I started riding a bike for transportation and I was like, “This is cool!” My partner at the time was into fixing bikes and then selling them on Craigslist. They were making rent and beer money in 10 days. We broke up, but I had the idea to start doing it as a business and they were like, “I don’t know, I really don’t like talking to people.” I suggested that I could do the talking and we set up a workshop in a warehouse in Kensington. 

We bought bikes from the suburbs and brought them back to Philly to fix up and sell. The route I took to the warehouse took me through Fairmount, and I’d stop there to get coffee. I noticed that there was no bike shop anywhere around and so I decided to open one. I was working as a server, and I’d majored in film and had no idea how to start a business, but a friend told me about a place called, Entrepreneur Works that had courses on starting businesses. It was really affordable and the teacher was amazing. They showed me step by step how to do it and now 12 years later we’re still going. 

What was the hardest part of getting the biz off the ground?

I think finding that balance between taking care of the customers and taking care of the staff is the hardest. It’s super important to me that we’re a fun and supportive place to work. Honestly, we pay our employees as much as we can but at the same time charging customers as low as we can for labor. Bike maintenance should not be only available for the wealthy, but if wealthy people can pay to get their bikes fixed, we can then pay our employees well. That’s great, but now bike maintenance is not accessible to everyone. How do we figure that out? 

And then there’s the bigger picture of doing what’s right in the world. Where do we get our stuff from? If I have a bike bell for $6, where did it come from? Was someone exploited in the making of that bell? We do the best we can to vet things, but it’s an ongoing battle. So we try to think out of the box to bring in other revenue streams, we do rentals of all kinds of bikes, mountain bikes, racing bikes, comfort bikes, and we do bike tours which I’m really excited about. 

What other things do you offer at the shop? 

There are of course bikes, both new and used. And all sorts of bike accessories.  We have bike repair classes, we do community rides and something I’m really happy about. In 2020 we started offering a Community Card to give help to people who need it. With an EBT card, people can get a flat fixed for just $2 and other discounted services. 

That’s great! So let’s talk about being queer. What was your first inkling?

Where to start? Okay, one instance that I still think about often was in 7th grade. A friend of mine, totally out of the blue said, “I know I’m not gay because I pictured myself kissing a girl and I didn’t like it.” It was odd but I was like, okay, cool now I know how to tell if I’m gay. And every now and then I’d test myself; “Do I think it’s gross? No? Okay.” Though I don’t think I fully admitted anything to myself until I was about 19. 

My partner at the time confessed to me that they were having thoughts about being attracted to all people. And I responded, “Oh my gosh, me too!” At the time we were very much a hetero normative appearing couple, but it allowed us to talk about things and explore ideas together without telling the world yet. It wasn’t until later, until I started dating my partner, Joanna, that I told my parents, but it was pretty uneventful. I called my mom and said, “Hi mom, I, um, just wanted to let you know I have a girlfriend.” and she said, “Oh? Okay, what’s her name?” and that was it, my father was the same. When I told him I was dating girls, he said, “Cool, that’s one more thing we have in common.” My parents are awesome. 

Nice. What was your first job?

Besides babysitting? I worked in the bakery at the Acme. 

What was the first car you owned?

My Chevy Cavalier. I put 200,000 miles on that thing. Lot’s of trips to Florida and Colorado and I think I went on tour with it. 

On tour with a band?

Yeah, I played bass in a couple of bands. Mostly with friends from high school. One band was called “Mini Band” because we played tiny instruments. It was a post punk, weird time-signature vibe. The other was a little more accessible, indie rock type of band, though the name didn’t reflect that. We were called the Portable Folk Band, even though we were not portable, nor were we folk.  

I like it. What did you do yesterday?

My kid and I went to NY for the day. We rode buses and trains and subways to get there and went to the Color Factory. 

First crush?

Jonathan Taylor Thomas. Which tracks if you think about it, he pretty much looked like a teenage girl. 

How did you meet your partner Joanna?

We both worked at a restaurant, I was a lowly lunch server and she was training me to do dinner service. We were working a double and as everyone did between shifts, we went out and did shots at a place nearby. We got along so well; I’ve wanted to hang around with her every moment since. 

Right on. What’s something of yours she probably wants to throw away and vice versa?

Oh, I have a tendency to collect “projects” so this applies more to me. Example, I found out recently that there’s a place in Philly where you can take bottles and they will take your glass bottles and turn them into new glass objects rather than just putting them in a recycling bin which probably ends in a landfill anyway. So I have boxes of bottles around the house. And cardboard boxes that I think someone else can use… I have a lot of piles accumulated in the basement that I’m sure she’d be happy to get rid of. As for her stuff? She has this really creepy doll that’s sentimental to her, but each time we move I ask, “Are you sure you still want this?”

Something your kid does that tickles you?

We talk a lot about pronouns in the house. We have books that talk about gender identity just as a part of all the other things he learns about. He learns about trains and bears along with pronouns and everything else. And he’s just starting to grasp it and some days he’ll say, “I use she and zee pronouns!” and the next day he’ll say, “I use he pronouns,” and I love the fact that he’s so cool about it. 

Well, it sounds like he has cool parents.