The first thing you might notice when you step inside the Mission District location of Public Bikes is the wall of red bicycle bells. It has a great effect to it that calls to mind Andy Warhol’s pop art with its shiny repetition. More glaringly, however, might me the fact that this particular shop is not entirely its own brick and mortar – it shares a much larger space with Harrington Galleries, a furniture gallery that sells new and used pieces as well as art and home decor. Interesting combination. But there’s a simple reason for this. The Public Bikes in the Mission is actually a pop-up store, opened in March of this year with a closing date of November 2013. Even more interesting. When I first decided to do a post on Public Bikes, the motivation was simple – it’s a cool little shop that makes great looking bicycles and they just opened a couple of new locations in San Francisco. Seemed timely and relevant enough. And while, for a moment, I thought this pop-up angle might be a more compelling way with which to frame the piece, it was a quick five-minute conversation with sales associate and mechanic David Goldiron that revealed what would become the heart of this story. “You know Design Within Reach?” David asked. Which, of course, I did. “Rob Forbes? Well, the founder of Design Within Reach is the founder of Public Bikes.” Really. Now that was something.
Perhaps this shouldn’t have been new information to me. That I wasn’t in the know, however, was precisely the reason that the Rob Forbes element, with his unique vision and approach, was so appealing. I grew up loving bikes. Got my first red and white Huffy dirt bike when I was a little boy, crashed it a few times, as is necessary, and learned to fly on that thing. As a teen, I got a Sunday job to save up enough to money to buy a more “serious” bike – a cobalt blue Schwinn 10-speed decked out with a pump, toe-clips, a pannier and water bottle holster. That was the last bike I ever bought. Living in San Francisco, bike culture can be so cultish and polarizing that when I’ve longed, even nostalgically, to get a new bike, I’ve felt too intimidated to just talk bikes at one of the local stores. Much in the way I avoided purchasing a pair of skinny jeans for years, I’ve done the same with bicycles. In my mind, there was too much of a culture schism attached to it. But Rob Forbes has always had the regular person in mind, and with him at the helm, Public Bikes has a different take. “Bike companies hire designers that are inevitably ‘bike people’, so there’s always this sort of bike geek slant toward whatever new is coming out. It’s really sort of myopic. Rob Forbes brings design. Not from within the bike industry, but from without,” David told me. And this was reflective of Rob Forbes vision as a whole. “Part of his whole focus is conjoined public spaces, and instead of stepping out of your front door into a car, why not have the outside, where you can have parks, social spaces outside that are tasteful and peaceful. City governments can provide that, and companies can provide that. These bikes are like the token city bikes, where you can wear normal clothes on them, they last, they’re comfortable. Anyone can jump on one of these, and still have the quality that appeals to the sophisticated customer.” Lovely. Bicycling as a way to share social and public space, and postured in a way that wasn’t so specialized, was a wonderful idea, and decidedly more accessible for someone like myself, someone not so in the know.
This type of culture is more apparent in European cities, an infrastructure Forbes likes to emulate. You can see that reflected in the design of Public Bikes. Like the Public M, based on the classic Parisian Mixte frame design that was hugely popular in the 1960′s. Or the Public C, commonly referred to as a Dutch bike with its vintage aesthetic beauty. Ultimately, however, the primary goal with Public Bikes is comfort and durability. The all-purpose Public V was a gorgeous expression of this. Beyond the bikes, Public Bikes was smartly stocked with accessories on smooth wooden walls. They also seemed to embody a spirit that was classic and fun. The Nutcase line of bicycle helmets made me want to be a kid again and take some “sweet jumps”, while the Peterboro picnic basket made me want to take a ride to the beach with my girlfriend and some strawberries. The company also makes panniers of their own. I quite liked the handsome leather seats by Brooks. And, once again, there was that very playful line of bike bells by Public Bikes. Everything was quality craftsmanship with an understated elegance, but it was the feeling of just how fun it is to jump on a bike and head out into the city or to your best friend’s house that spoke to me the most. It reminded me that I didn’t need spandex or a fixie, nor did I need to be a member of Critical Mass to experience that. All I really needed was a Public bike.
Visit Public Bikes at 599 Valencia Street and be sure to download StoreSnaps onto your iPhone so you can keep up to date with their info and products.