Everything But the Dog

By Kim Zanti
By Kim Zanti

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Everything But the Dog
PHOTOS by Kim Zanti Top: Chris Kelly and Rover look to the light. Kelly is seated in Topanga-based furniture designer Chad Hagerman’s variation on the theme of an Adirondack chair.  Left: Apprentice Christian Harrison draws out his design for a leather jacket he will make for a new line of Surly flasks.  Above: The Outpost’s mantra ‘UnPredict Your Journey’ reinforces the idea of peace and welcome next to Topanga-based wood crafter Reeve Howard’s peace sign.
Chris Kelly sends an annual April Fools Day message to everyone on Topanga Creek Outpost’s email list. In 2022, he sent a different kind of message. This time, it wasn’t a joke. Topanga Creek Outpost is for sale. Kelly posted the news online on a Friday, and with guys from the shop, loaded the big red fire truck. Repurposed to carry bikepacking gear and equipment, they drove the truck to Monterey, camped for two nights, cooked eggs outside, rode mountain bikes, went to a trade show, had fun. This scenario is a regular occurrence for The Outpost, as mountain biking is the nexus of Kelly’s enthusiastic commitment to the community that he’s built steadily over the past 23 years. Indeed, part of The Outpost’s global attraction as an award winning Southern California destination for cyclists, adventurers, and mountain bikers is his focus on selling not just the highest quality bikes, parts, and accoutrement, but also cultivating a healthy solo and communal activity that becomes a way of life. And, yet. “It’s time for a change,” Kelly, 55, said, as we sat comfortably with mugs of coffee in the shop’s leafy courtyard. “Time for a new adventure. I just want to do something different. Evolve. Change it up.” Kelly opened his bicycle shop in 1999 in Hollywood and moved in 2008 into the historic cabin on the boulevard that once served as a rehearsal studio for cultural music icons The Doors and Neil Young. I first walked into the shop with wood stove and wooden floors in May 2012 to interview him for the Topanga Messenger. Ten years later, we talked about what’s stayed the same, what’s changed, and what the future holds.
Bicycles are the raison d’etre of the business, but Kelly still changed the name from Topanga Creek Bicycles to Topanga Creek Outpost to convey the idea of a hub, a gathering spot, rather than a retail space devoted solely to one item. The name change didn’t impact his retail philosophy, which has always held that comfort is key. “I never lost track of that,” he said, bright blue eyes serious with intent.

For instance, the scent of banana bread, hot from the oven, greets the pack of Saturday morning bikers upon return. Groupings of Adirondack chairs in the courtyard echo Kelly’s youth in upstate New York and offer a place to enjoy the bread with coffee and conversation after a strenuous ride. Indoors, there’s a more streamlined variation of the archetypal chair designed by Topanga-based furniture designer Chad Hagerman, with a leather seat crafted by Kelly.

The emphasis on comfort trickles down from the customer to everyone coming into the shop. Kelly, who has a degree in psychology from Boston University, said, “I just really kept it going and doubled down on it.”

Also remaining the same is his focus on building enduring relationships with high quality makers of bikes, locks, lights, gears, chains, racks and bags. He said, “the inventory has never been based on a current trend, but rather a long term intrinsic value. So, things like a Surly bike or a Kryptonite lock – brand names that make good quality stuff that lasts, typically, the lifetime of the user.”

Bike repair and custom build stations, indoors and out, are equipped for precision work. Another station is equipped for leather work as part of the Rogue Journeyman handcrafted leather goods line (bags, bracelets, valet trays, keychains) that Kelly started a few years ago. He found that he liked doing it and has taught others the skills and given them space and materials to find new ways to turn leather into usable goods.

“Chris Kelly is the Jedi of bicycle entrepreneurs,” says Topangan Kris Mathur, a longtime customer and member of the race team, in a text message. “He always moves on at the peak of his endeavors, which is a risk taking entrepreneurial skill.” It’s also a sign of a creative thinker.

Creativity, like comfort, is high on Kelly’s list of The Outpost’s enduring qualities. This hasn’t changed, but what has changed is the amount of original creations that abound indoors and out. Local luthier Danny Henderson’s guitar parts are repurposed into tables, stools, and decorative elements. Bike cranks are fashioned into lamps. Thousands of motorists passing by everyday see Reeve Howard’s hand-carved wooden peace sign at the entry gate. It’s a reminder, Kelly says, that “we need less war, less hatred. We need more kindness.”

A major change brought on by the pandemic was a deluge of customers. The Outpost was considered an essential transportation business and remained open to service them all, old and new. Amidst this growth trend, Kelly’s Jedi sense of timing led him to reduce the number of brands per item from, say, ten different bike pumps to two. Doing so increased space, dollars, and time.

Similarly, he slashed UK manufacturer Brooks Saddles inventory by 95% to carry just the basics. Though common in today’s online marketplace to offer blanket discounts (ever get 15% off for joining a mailing list?), it forced him to absorb losses that were unexpected and wholly out of his control. “That didn’t make sense to me,” he said, and made the change without regret.

At the same time that The Outpost experienced a pandemic surge in sales, local artists couldn’t find work. Kelly recognized the imbalance. So, when artists Serena Rio and Adam Talan asked if he’d like some faces painted on his fence, he said, “ I’d love to write you a check and have you do that.”
What will Kelly do when the shop sells? What does the future hold? As a member of the Board of Directors of the National Bicycle Retailers Association, Kelly sees two directions ahead for his fellow entrepreneurs. “They’re either small, dynamic, creative, adaptable like this,” he said, “Or, they’re literally getting bought out by corporate companies and becoming sterile and more transactional.”

For his own life, he’s considering two possibilities at the moment. “I’m looking at 1,200 acres of maple trees in Maine to go tap and make some syrup,” he said, “Or a fire station in Flint, Michigan in the downtown area that would benefit from a new business.” He’s not sure what that new business might be yet, but he knows he won’t be selling bikes. Everything at Topanga Creek Outpost will belong to someone else, except for Rover, the dog who will join Kelly on this next adventure.

Many people have expressed interest in buying, and Kelly’s had long talks with a few of them. “I want someone who will add their own thing, be creative. Expand on it. Do it better. In fact, evolve it further. I got it to a place that I’m confident with. Maybe the next person could up it a notch. And good for them. I hope they do.”

Kim Zanti is a writer, researcher and editor. 310.367.0423

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April 29, 2022