Q&A: Bullseye Bicycle owner brings decades of experience to Durham commuters

Tyler Kober, owner of Bullseye Bicycle, stands behind the shop's counter on a recent Saturday.

Monday, March 18, 2024

By Emma Geis

Tyler Kober has owned and operated Bullseye Bicycle downtown on Morris Street since August 2012. The shop sells new and used bikes; repairs, maintains and fits bikes for customers; and offers a selection of beers. In addition, it is the gathering point for a monthly community “urban, off-road” ride in town.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Durham Voice: Have you always worked in bike shops?

Tyler Kober: So, in my hometown of Oxford, Ohio, I started working at our little hometown shop when I was 15, which I think was 1991. The Bullseye Bicycle is the ninth shop I’ve worked at. So, I worked at the hometown shop, three different stores in Portland, Oregon, a summer in London, England, Atlanta, Georgia, and then the stores in and around Chapel Hill-Carrboro when we first landed in Pittsboro.

How did Bullseye Bicycle come to be?

We bought the location that we’re in in 2010, and downtown Durham in 2010 was pretty sleepy. We opened in 2012. It took about a year and change to get the store done. The location that we’re in was condemned by the city, so it was uninhabitable. The roof was leaking, the sewer was not working properly, it was a real mess.

The city put out a call for architects to propose projects for the space. And so Pizzeria Toro, there used to be a cupcake place, but now it’s M Pocha, and then an art gallery next to that, that whole space was improved. The architect that won the bid basically said that everybody in here is going to be owner occupied. So, to be in the project, you had to open your own business and you had to be owner occupied, you had to be in your space.

And so yeah, we got that together. I opened it with another guy, Rob, who’s no longer there, but was with me for almost eight years and we’re still friends. He actually works at the pizza place next door. He did a cross country trip from North Carolina to Portland. I did not know him and I met him at that store [the one in Portland]. We talked about, “Hey, we’re kind of thinking about moving to the Triangle.” And, a year later, we were working together at the Franklin Street location of the Bike Chain. I was like, “I know who you are… and I don’t know why.” So, we worked together for about a year and a half, and then I was like, “Hey, I got this crazy idea to open a store. Do you want to help me do it?” And he was all in so he started with me.

What was your goal when you opened the shop?

The bike industry, there’s no money in it. It’s really for the love of bikes. The big goal for the store for me,—because I had always been a mechanic,—was to pay a decent wage, give people health insurance and try to pay bonuses to folks based on profit, which we have managed to pull off.

How long did it take to turn a profit?

About three years? Yeah, about 2015 I started actually being able to not work seven days a week.

Do you have a certain customer that you look for?

In the industry, mom and pop bike shops are a thing, so we cater to the average cyclists. Being that we’re downtown, most of the people that we’re dealing with are people who are commuting to work. So, the person that’s coming in to work from somewhere outside. We try to make repairs for people who are commuters a little easier for them by either trying to do a repair for them while they’re at work or by making an appointment. So, we’re more concentrated on the people who are working and living in downtown.

You serve beers at your shop. How did that come about?

We were selling stuff in this front corner of the store. We had 12-inch kids’ bikes, which don’t really sell very well, and a smattering of product on the wall, which got moved to other places. Most nights at the end of the night, somebody would come by with some beers, we’d go get beers or we’d get tipped beers.

People tip in beers?

The bike shop thing has always had a culture of coffee and beers around the shops. It’s a thing. Some people will be like, “Oh, thanks for working on my bike. I picked up a six pack of beers for you guys.”

So, we were like, “What are we going to put in this 6-foot by 3-foot space that’s going to make more money than what’s already here?” And it was that. We made it so when people got here, they could buy a beer and browse, grab a beer while they’re waiting for the repair. With the pizza place next door, pizza and beer are just married. People leaving the pizza shop will see that we have a cooler and come in and get beer. My wife is actually the buyer of the beer, it’s kind of her baby. So, it doesn’t make a ton of money but it probably makes more money than what we had there.

What are some challenges you’ve faced as a small business owner?

It’s hard. When you’re a tiny operation, it’s a huge leap of faith. It was the riskiest thing I’ve ever done.

Has it paid off?

When we started, we opened the store and the kids were little. We were not rich by any stretch, and it was really scary. What made it work was I just worked 70-hour work weeks for three years. But you get on the other side of that and it starts getting a little bit easier.

You’ve talked about how online shopping has discouraged business. What do you offer that someone won’t be able to find online?

A lot of times, honestly, it’s not any less expensive. You get to talk to me, and I have a lot of experience in sizing people for bikes. So, you get the right sized bike. Also, the bike is on the sales floor ready to go. It’s been put together by an actual bicycle mechanic. It’s not coming out of a box and you’re having to deal with that. Our bikes also come with a free tune up. So, after you go ride it for a while, you come back in and we fix it for free. That’s like a $90 value.

If you’re my customer and you’ve bought a bike from me, I’m way more likely to do a quick little fix and send them out. The people that come in and don’t have bikes from our shop, I will still help them 100%, they’re still going to get the same service everyone else does but we do give our customers some amount of preference. In buying from a shop, you get the benefit of making sure you like the bike that you’re buying.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I guess the one thing I would try to impress upon people is support your local bike shops, wherever that may be. Because it’s getting harder and harder and harder to make money doing this. I think people have really forgotten that supporting local business is critical. If you want a really cool city that is cute and has shopping and is fun, if you don’t go spend money at those places, they go away.

Tyler Kober, owner of Bullseye Bicycle, works on a customer’s bicycle.