Chain reaction

In between classes and friends, Shawna Williams ’13 spent much of her time as an SPU student on the floor of her dorm room in Hill Hall, surrounded by bicycle parts — dissembling, reassembling, and fixing her two bikes and those of her friends.

“It became a really good way to de-stress in college,” she laughed. She didn’t have much experience in bike maintenance, but between instruction from her brother, Zach Williams ’08, and YouTube tutorials, Williams began building her understanding of bikes and how they work.

Today, she works just across the Fremont Canal from her alma mater as the managing owner of Free Range Cycles bike shop.

Walk into Free Range on a rainy Seattle day, and you’ll find a warm haven jam-packed with brightly colored bicycles, frames, seats, and wheels lining the walls and hanging from the ceiling, as well as a multitude of tools, gadgets, and commuting gear. The shop is small (only 700 square feet), but friendly and cozy. Behind the desk, a mechanic works away on a client’s bike.

Free Range Cycles sign | photo by Kendall Rock Photography
Free Range is a mainstay of the biking community in Seattle, where more than 220,000 residents cycle regularly.

Founded in 1997 by Kathleen Emry, Free Range is a mainstay of the biking community in Seattle where, according to Bicycling magazine, more than 220,000 residents cycle regularly. Most of Free Range’s clientele depend on the shop to keep their bicycles safe and tuned for their daily commutes. Quality is of highest importance here: the shop only carries steel bikes, known for their durability, longevity, sustainability, and ease of ride. “We have customers who are still bringing in their bikes they purchased from us 20 years ago,” said Williams.

Seattle is consistently listed as a top city for bicycling in the nation, and with a rapidly growing population — and 313,589 employees who work downtown, according to the Downtown Seattle Association — new routes and bicycling incentives appear regularly. Seattle offers miles of bike lanes, barriers, and rails to protect cyclists from traffic, and cyclist-specific traffic lights. Bike-friendly pedestrian trails such as the Burke-Gilman Trail or Seattle Waterfront Trails offer convenient, scenic, and direct routes connecting major Seattle neighborhoods for commuters.

In a city like this, bike shops like Free Range, which provide consistent tune-ups, quality gear, and expert advice, are a necessity. 

When Williams heard Emry was retiring and searching for the right person to take over Free Range, she reached out. (Williams worked at Free Range for a short time after graduation from SPU.) The two met at a nearby coffee shop and talked about what the transition might look like.

“It was an exciting but scary conversation,” said Williams. “I had never thought about owning any kind of business before.” But a seed was planted. To Williams, this was an opportunity to take ownership of something, create a community, and continue the legacy of a woman-owned bike shop (still a rarity, according to Williams). Two months later, Williams began training with Emry to expand her bicycle maintenance knowledge, as well as learn an entirely new subject: the ins and outs of running a business.

“If I had realized how much I didn’t know, and how vertical that learning curve was going to be for me, I probably wouldn’t have done it,” said Williams, who officially took ownership of the shop on Aug. 1, 2018. “But I didn’t know, so now I’m in it, and I love it.”

“I couldn’t be happier to see how Shawna stepped in, gathered her wits, and took charge of Free Range,” said Emry. “My energy was waning; her enthusiasm, smarts, and intuition brought a new infusion of energy to an established bike shop. I am proud to have Shawna continue the legacy of Free Range, not only as a bike shop, but as a place of community and friendship for all those who pass through its doors.”

Shawna Williams sits on a bicyle in the middle of the sales floor of Free Range Cycles | photo by Kendall Rock Photography
Free Range will continue expanding and improving their product offerings and getting people on the best bikes for their needs, weather, distance, and terrain.

Williams majored in political science at SPU, where she says she learned important values, principles, and leadership skills from professors. But upon graduation, she knew a desk job wasn’t for her. She wanted to work with her hands, fixing tangible problems and creating things that worked well.

She worked at Free Range for a year and a half honing her skills as a bicycle mechanic. Then the same passion that drove her to study political science — to enact positive change in her community — led her to Bike Works Seattle in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood, first as a mechanic, then as program coordinator and teacher.

“I used to feel guilty about not using my degree,” she said. “But at Bike Works, I realized bikes are political. Bikes are a form of activism. I saw what they could do as a tool to mobilize and empower people.”

Bike Works, a nonprofit bike shop and community outreach program, supports health, education, and career preparation among community members — especially youth — by teaching cycling and bicycle maintenance and partnering with school teachers to incorporate bicycle education into science curriculum, also leading biking excursions and camping trips in the Seattle area.

Shawna Williams laughs with a customer in front of Free Range Cycles | photo by Kendall Rock Photography

“At the end of the day, it wasn’t about the bikes,” she said. “Watching a young person — especially the ones who struggle in a traditional education setting — in front of a bike with a tool in their hand, and seeing something click? That’s incredible. That can bring together communities.”

Williams has many dreams for the future of Free Range. She plans to continue expanding and improving their product offerings, getting people on the best bikes for their needs, weather, distance, and terrain. She hopes to host regular community rides and bicycle education classes. And most importantly, she plans to continue fostering a sense of community where people feel like they belong.

“I see this as not just a bike shop, but also as a community hub, where you are not anonymous,” she said. “Many people have had the experience of walking into a bike shop and feeling stupid, or like they don’t belong. My goal is to make everyone — regardless of experience — feel welcome, heard, and empowered to cycle.”


Photos by Kendall Rock Photography

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