The Isla Vista Community Bike Center presents a new approach to business ownership, endearing many through innovative practices and community-oriented programs.
While the street-facing side of the center features neat rows of bicycles, ready for purchase as you would find at any local bike shop, the interior sets this business apart from the rest. A vast pile of bicycles and parts stretches across the rear of the lot, an expanse that seems to contain anything necessary for bicycle repair or replacement.
The IV Community Bike Center has earned its place as a local highlight thanks to the efforts of its owner Philip Thomas. From starting a program geared toward replacing stolen bikes to providing free bikes to children under the age of five, Thomas goes above and beyond in giving back to the community.
The center officially opened in May last year, and Thomas has been developing ways to improve it ever since. Although volunteers assist the center’s operation at times, he performs the majority of the work necessary to keep the center running.
In an interview, Thomas told The Bottom Line about his experience and trials as he has worked to develop the IV Community Bike Center. “Every day is different, but there are never enough hours in the day,” said Thomas.
A Santa Barbara native, Thomas has known the area his whole life, yet had never imagined that he would one day be opening a bike shop in Isla Vista. “I think it was destiny, actually,” said Thomas, adding that there is no better place to be if you want to sell bikes.
On top of a high demand for bikes, Isla Vista provides a unique landscape of vibrant activity and youthful enthusiasm, which Thomas credits as a huge source of motivation. “I always get a kick when people are excited about what we do here,” said Thomas. “Sometimes, even though I’m operating it all the time, I lose sight of the significance of it because I’m so close to it.”
As a sign of its dedication to entertaining customers, the center features a “Fun Zone” located next to its entrance, offering visitors the opportunity to play games such as ping pong and chess while they wait. Thomas explained this addition as a way to keep customers entertained, enhancing their experience and the overall atmosphere of the center.
Thomas’ favorite highlight of his one-year experience of running the shop is something that happens every day. “One of the greatest things ever, to be honest with you, is that everyday somebody bikes by, drives by, or walks by and says ‘Hey Phil! Hey Phil!’ or something like that,” said Thomas.
Sure enough, just within the brief time I spent interviewing him at the center, several people either passed by or stopped to visit — each greeting Thomas with familiarity, smiling as they did so. This cemented my initial impression that Thomas thrives on positive interactions with members of the community, never hesitating to share his time-tested advice, making his bike center that much more of a distinctive spot in Isla Vista.
“I mean I’ve heard stories here, and I’ve talked to a lot of people because I’ve lived a lot of years,” said Thomas. “So I just talk to them and tell them what I think.”
Of course, the highs have come with lows for Thomas in running the bike center. Negative rumors, including allegations that some of the center’s bikes are stolen, threatened Thomas’s reputation. Thomas was quick to implement a system of careful documentation in an attempt to dispel such rumors, creating a registry of all used bikes that come into the center’s possession.
“The bike registry is a really big thing because I just want to put to rest all this stuff about ‘the bike center is all stolen bikes’,” said Thomas. “We have no stolen bikes here.”
Despite knowing the general purpose of a bike center and having walked by this particular establishment many times, I was still taken aback while talking to Thomas and stopped to absorb the significance the Community Bike Center has on I.V. Built on resourcefulness, perseverance, and, more literally, out of a variety of repurposed materials, the center represents a refreshing balance between commercialism and personal connection with customers.
“They keep me charged up and I just know that’s why I’m doing it,” said Thomas. “These are lives that are being touched.”
When faced with a bicycle-related emergency or struck with responsibility and choosing to seek a tune-up, Isla Vista and its surrounding areas offer a variety of bike shops to choose from. However, a Bike Center where one can walk in only intending to get a tire replaced and walk out inspired, having learned something about life, is much more rare.