For a long time, riding bikes was a way of life for Oakland native Carlos Prieto. He grew up in various parts of East Oakland riding SE bikes, a popular BMX bicycle brand, with his friends. During holiday breaks, they’d ride for about 45 minutes from the 90s neighborhood block in deep East to Lake Merritt and hang out.
“I think It’s always been a big thing out here—kids running around on SE bikes doing wheelies, all that type of stuff,” said Prieto, 17. “I met a lot of people through riding, folks that I’m still friends with today.”
One of these friends used to work at Laurel Cyclery, a bike shop on MacArthur Boulevard, and suggested that he speak with owner Jason Wallach about getting a job there. Since 2014, Laurel Cyclery has been selling and repairing bikes for the residents of Laurel. Wallach is intentional about hiring locally, especially hiring people who grew up in the surrounding communities.
“It’s really great for young people to come into the shop and see one of their peers working on bikes,” Wallach said.
Wallach had heard about Prieto and was interested in working with him. “He was dedicated to riding, was a smart kid that was attentive, and I just had a sense that, if he wants to put his energy into it, he could be a good mechanic,” Wallach said.
Prieto was soon taught the basics like building bikes, adjusting brakes and headsets, and repairing busted gears and tires. He even learned how to make a wheel from scratch. Prieto has been working at Laurel Cyclery for a year now and said “It’s made me realize that this [work] is not as difficult as it looks. My friends that ride bikes would come to me and I would teach them how to do certain things,” Prieto said. “I think that’s pretty cool.”
Wallach’s assessment of Prieto’s growth goes beyond that. “We’re constantly telling him, ‘Carlos, you’re a leader in this field now.’ He’s not just any other mechanic. He knows how to do these things at a pretty high level, and that’s a credit to him, to his family, and to his community who supports him,” Wallach said.
With the pandemic, more riders meant a need to grow
The bike life, as Prieto refers to it, served as a positive outlet for him and his friends when the COVID shutdown order first came down. “ It kept a lot of people I know out of doing bad stuff. It gave them something they could work towards, like doing new tricks,” he said.
Prieto was still in high school when the pandemic started, and biking allowed him to safely socialize in person when he and others couldn’t go to school. Biking also had a positive impact on his mental health. “A lot of people I knew said, ‘Oh, the pandemic is so boring,’ because they couldn’t do anything, but it didn’t affect me and my friends as much because at least we still had one thing we could do.”
Prieto and his friends weren’t the only ones looking to bikes as a pandemic outlet. The shop saw many new customers looking for quality bikes, while regulars requested more of Wallach’s repair services. “People made this mass shift to bicycles, and it caught us and many in the bike industry off-guard,” Wallach said. “That rapid amount of growth in such a short time is really challenging because your job is to give everyone an enjoyable experience, and that was hard to do for every single customer.”
Wallach needed more employees, fast, but was mindful of how he went about it because, he says, Laurel Cyclery is committed to serving the neighborhood’s longtime queer, trans, and BIPOC residents.
“We want to be responsive to the needs of people in this neighborhood and the surrounding neighborhoods of East Oakland,” Wallach said. “That requires a certain sensitivity of who’s riding, where are they going to and from, and what type of equipment is needed to address these needs.”
Another Laurel business to check out
Laurel Cyclery now has five employees, including Prieto, and is more equipped to handle the increased demand for bikes and bike repair. Still, while the shop is still around to service residents, Wallach wants to point out that many shops closed in the past two years.
“We should also talk about all the businesses that didn’t survive the pandemic: Raymond’s Frame Shop, Movement Ink, Anasa Yoga, Miliki Restaurant, numerous nail shops, and more than a couple of hair salons,” Wallach said.
Wallach and Prieto are aware of the privilege that comes with being able to work in a welcoming environment and remain committed to helping anyone that comes through the shop’s doors. Still, Prieto isn’t sure if he wants to make a career out of his current profession. He’s currently enrolled in college, and like most kids his age, he’s taking different classes to see what he likes.
“This bike shop has definitely given me the opportunity to experience different things and it would be cool to learn how to fix dirt bikes as well, but I still don’t know if this is what I want to keep doing,” Prieto said.
What he is certain of right now is how great it feels when he works on a bike. “Being able to take something that’s broken and get it running like new is always satisfying,“ Prieto said.