Update, March 2017: Looks like the future turned out a little different than expected. As one reader alerted me some time ago, Loose Screws seems to have moved to the state of Washington and changed its focus to gun parts. You can still find some of the old bicycle content if you Google “Loose Screws Bicycle Parts,” but not if you click on the URL. Sorry, Faulkner, sometimes the past is dead. And past.
Back when Schwinn was a Chicago-based company, Schwinn dealers had drawers and drawers of small parts. Limit screws for derailleurs. Springs for sidepull brakes. Nuts, washers, axles and cones for hubs. If you owned a Schwinn, your dealer offered all the parts support you needed.
If you didn’t own a Schwinn, finding small parts was more of a challenge.
One of your options was to order what you needed through the mail, and the best-known parts retailer in the United States was probably Loose Screws, which eventually translated its home-grown paper-based granola appeal to the Internet.
I thought the firm was headed for the compost pile back in 2012, but that was before Steven Arlint stepped in and bought the company.
Everything in your life led up to the moment you bought this business. How did that happen?
I started off in engineering, and I will always be doing engineering work in one form or another. Aircraft, medical, computers–just about anything, really.
Loose Screws is a part-time arrangement for myself and two other guys who help out with sales. We’re all excited about bicycles, new and old, though there is a specific attraction to simple, classic designs.
My first real bicycle was a Diamondback Viper BMX bike I had as a kid. In high school and college I had a 1985 Trek 420, before I really even knew what that was. Great bike, but I outgrew it. It was always a little too small.
Later in life, I tried to go more the way that industry marketers would have wanted me to go: lighter weight, lots of gears and carbon fiber. I bought into the racing hype a little too much.
I kept going that way, until I had an accident that wider tires could have saved me from, and I broke my arm. That alone was enough to turn me toward simpler solutions in bicycling, and I’ve kept it up ever since.
My main bike these days is a 1989 Trek 520. I know that any mountain bike has even wider tires, so the causal link isn’t necessarily there 100 percent.
What exactly did you buy? How much brand equity was left after the going-out-of-business sales?
At its core, a bunch of NOS inventory was bought. Think of it as centered around the 1989 Shimano parts catalog and working out from there.
The Shimano parts make up a good amount of what we have. In addition to that, we have a moderate selection of Campagnolo, SR, Suntour, Dia Compe, and Huret small parts.
Finally, we have some odds and ends from just about every manufacturer–parts from 1978 to 1998, with a couple of newer pieces here and there. A lot of the parts have never made their way to the website.
Brand equity has stayed level. This shows in the web traffic. It’s a bit of a niche market. Everyone else just got larger since the 2000s.
That’s not really a problem, and we’ll roll out some new products over time, like the Panaracer 27 x 1 3/8 touring tires we introduced shortly after re-opening.
What was the move from Ashland, Oregon, to Irvine, California, like? One full van? Did you move it all yourself?
One full-enough 26-foot U-Haul. I would have preferred Penske so I could gas up with diesel at truck stops, but Penske was too far away to pick up.
It was one crazy day on the road and very tiring. I got all of the truck driving I care to for the next year or so. But I did have ample help on both ends with the loading and unloading.
There’s this thing called the Internet that didn’t exist when I was getting paper catalogs from Oregon. I really like the blog entries—how else are you building the business and reaching out to prospects?
The good news is that the Internet is a really huge place. The market is where it’s at for a reason, and Loose Screws is bucking the general direction for bicycles. But we won’t compromise what we do.
If we win more than 0.1 percent of riders to our more classic ways, we’re doing fantastic. I think it’s in line with what other similar classic-themed bicycle businesses are doing.
Advertising is slowly ramping up, but we’re casting a wide net. There will be some Google advertising rolling out as well as, perhaps, some specific website ads. There is also a focus on reaching out to local bike shops and riding groups.
Are there enough old-tech riders out there to support your business?
There are, and new ones are trickling in at a good-enough rate. Right now, we’re serving a mix of frame builders, classic collectors and enthusiasts, and riders who want to simplify life a bit. We also provide great customer support for restoration projects.
For new customers, it’s easier if we can attract riders before the established industry does. Once someone is riding 11-speed rear clusters with robot shifting, we’re a difficult sell.
I have been asked about bicycling by a couple of friends looking to get into riding, and at that early point, it is so easy to say, “Yeah, five to eight gears in the rear will do good. Size the frame a little big but tolerable. Tires as wide as possible. Racks, panniers and wool are a good thing, and down-tube shifting is really the only way.”
I’ll add that bar-cons are also good, as are stem mounts and thumbies.
I’m a bit surprised by the number of loose cogs on the site. Given the variety of cogs and spacers, seems like you’d get a lot of returns. Is this a satisfying or frustrating part of the business?
Not a single return since reopening, mostly thanks to Sutherland manuals, Shimano catalogs and in-shop trial and error.
The other part of success here is that we do the re-cogging as a service. No labor cost; customers just pay for the cogs and spacers. They send in their freewheels, and we recog and add spacers as needed to meet their requirements. Sometimes, only a single cog is required, and that saves money.
Loose Screws came with a ton of loose cogs. Much of the inventory was never listed online, and much of it remains to be listed.
Gearing is my favorite part of fitting together parts here. It’s what the blog centers on more than other areas. We support both freewheels and cassettes.
Cassettes have their advantages; that is known. There are also good cases for freewheels as long as axle loading and spacing is kept reasonable. The brand mix and match options for a given freewheel hub are nice.
But changing equipment too drastically is a pain. That’s why we want to keep old stuff running as long as possible.
Personally, I rode 5,000 miles this past year on the same HG91 chain and 13-24 6-speed Shimano 600 Uniglide cassette. That’s a long time for a cassette that still behaves well. Time will tell how much more I get out of it before I flip the cogs over. I lubricate the chain with Finish Line, Turtle Wax and/or olive oil.
Old parts won’t last forever. Where will parts come from in the future?
We have to run out of stuff first! Chains are the first item we’re looking at. When we have a chain supplier figured out, we’ll stick with that one for many years–same thing with loose ball bearings.
For other parts, we may have them made or move to simpler solutions. For example, if we manage to stock out of down-tube shifters, we would really look at getting the best bang-for-the-buck type, something equivalent in spirit to 600 EX, and have just that one model.
The good news is that screws and cones still have good modern exchange. Screws are commodity hardware, so we can make that work easily enough. There will always be something that just happens to fit, and that’s where we’ll come in.
The Loose Screws selection used to seem a little catch-as-catch-can. For instance, lower cradle plates for Ritchey and C Record seat posts, but no upper plates. How do you determine what and how much to stock?
In the past, it may have been that way. I can see that as catch-as-catch can. That won’t be so much the case going forward.
There are too many companies undercutting each other on things like seat posts and stems and having massive stockpiles and carrying costs. Other parts as well. Over time, we’ll trim what doesn’t make sense for us.
Also, we have the Campy upper cradle plate, it just hasn’t been listed yet. I just pieced together a 25.0 mm Record seat post for a Vitus frame.
I remember reading that there is something like 700,000 bicycle parts in existence. We may have 3,000 line items with about a quarter of them on the website. We do the best we can.
Some of the items you have seem like they could stay on the shelves for years. For instance, what are the chances you’d ever sell a Shimano Dyna Drive right crank arm, let alone the three you have in stock?
That is a very good point, and yes, I too had a good laugh over the Dyna Drive crank arms. You’re talking about the three we have in 170 mm. Don’t forget we also have one in 165mm. Something for everybody, right?
There are a couple of ideas in the works for parts like this. The main point is to complete a set or come close. I missed a NOS Dura Ace Dyna Drive left arm on Ebay. That could have helped. Crank arms do get messed up or fused to spindles, so that is another avenue.
Dyna Drive aside, the rest of our crank arms can be answered by 170mm being 170mm for Shimano. I’ve used close cranks for thrashing mountain-bike builds. It’s pretty forgiving across Sport LX, Mountain LX, the flavors of Exage, and regular Deore.
Give it time. I found an unlisted box of right Shimano 105 down-tube shifters to match the left ones we have listed.
You sound pretty confident about the future of older bikes.
I think that older bikes will be supported for a very long time, just in a limited scope. There will always be something modern that can be fitted and be reasonable.
That’s where the semi-retro companies come in. There are companies reproducing old-style high wheel bicycles. There will always be something for all tastes, but the main theme of cycling, high-end carbon road, is not going to change anytime soon.
Unless, that is, a future Tour De France is held on English three-speeds. Then, three-speed shops will pop up all over the country. There will be a high-end three-speed magazine, Hercules hubs will be revived and compete head on with Sturmey Archer for winning placement on the Alpe de Huez. That would really be something!
Tell me a bit more about those semi-retro companies.
Compass hubs are very nice. Jan Heine is doing the right things for cycling and a fantastic job of keeping heritage alive. His blog also teaches me what good writing is supposed to be like.
I did not know about Gevenalle until recently. That brake-mounted shifter solves many of my own concerns about STI, and the price is good, though I’d still take down-tube shifters as my choice, and cyclocross with them, tour, or river cross–whatever happens to be up for the day. The Gevenalle custom derailleurs are very smart products.
I hope these companies and Loose Screws can capture more of the market over time.
If not, I have a hard time imaging what comes in the current direction after 11-speed rear clusters and robot shifting, which I’ve heard can tie to phone apps now.
I guess a 1×12 and 1×13 on 135 mm spacing, robot shifting that ties to the power meter and GPS data, and off-loading on-bike computing resources to the cloud for faster calculations of shift points. We need to start allocating server space now :).
[Ed.: And then there’s SRAM Boost with 110 mm fronts and 148 rears…]
Two last questions. First, how do you define success for the new Loose Screws?
We keep growing slowly over time. In a couple of decades, the next generation takes over, and it propagates itself some more. Also, getting in a leading bicycle magazine without buying ad space would be cool.
…and what’s bicycling like around Loose Screws’ new digs?
Bicycling in Orange County is fantastic: roughly 150 miles of bike lanes and 50 miles of dedicated path. Then there’s the declared Open Space. There are dirt paths that connect all over, down to Dana Point and beyond.
It’s chill, and relaxing. Some days are geared towards fitness, but much is about riding with friends and going for a beer afterwards.