A lot of people in town have terrible things to say about Robby Fenstermaker.
Mostly they say these terrible things online. Or among friends in the bike community. Or on anonymous posters stapled to phone poles from N Mississippi to SE Hawthorne.
For years, the rumor floating around Portland's bike community is that Robby Fenstermaker—owner of bike repair and sales shop the Recyclery—sells stolen bikes. When the Recyclery comes up on BikePortland.org or Zoobomb.net forums, cyclists in the comments repeat the accusation with a special frosting of harsh words about Fenstermaker's abrasive personality. Small posters that appeared around Portland in late February echo the rumor: "Don't Support Bike Theft! Don't Support the Recyclery!"
Interviews with nine former Recyclery mechanics, a former housemate of Fenstermaker's, the police—and even Fenstermaker himself—lend credence to certain aspects of the rumors. When the bike shop first started up, Fenstermaker admittedly did not follow the law, and ex-employees claim the Recyclery bought questionable bikes from questionable people.
In recent years, however, the consensus is that the store has cleaned up its act. Surprise police inspections have not turned up any illegal activity in the last three years.
But here's a dirty truth: It's impossible to stop the buying and selling of stolen bikes in this town.
From May 2008 to February 2010, Portlanders reported 2,300 stolen bikes. Only 657 of those people knew their bicycle's serial number. Without a known serial number, a bike is essentially untraceable. When a bike shop buys a used bike, the store must run the bike's serial number through the police database and hold the bike for either 15 or 30 days in case it has been reported stolen. That number is the only way to track a bike. If your lock is clipped and you never wrote down the serial number carved into the bottom of your frame, your bike is gone. Barring divine intervention, it will be bought and sold and bought and sold and stolen and sold again.
This past week, Portlanders listed roughly 300 bikes for sale per day on Craiglist. There are a million cracks for a bike to slip through.
Bike parts, lacking serial numbers, are also completely untraceable. While selling a used bike requires submitting detailed paperwork to the police, no one keeps track of parts—and nice wheels, cranks, and saddles can be worth as much as frames.
"There is a lot of gray area in the law and Robby definitely took advantage of that," says one former mechanic who did not want to be named for fear of retaliation against his new bike shop. "A lot of the behavior in the shop was not necessarily illegal or unsafe, but very unprofessional."
"People would come in with armloads of parts, some still in the bag," says long-time mechanic Larry Myers, who worked at the Recyclery from 2007 to 2008. "I've seen Robby turn away bikes, but never parts. They're not traceable." Two other mechanics working at the store during that time seconded Myers' experience.
BIKE PUBLIC ENEMY #1?
The downtown Recyclery store squeezes dozens of used bikes and a small repair shop into a basement across the street from the Multnomah County Central Library. On the afternoon of Wednesday, March 10, Fenstermaker, 36, is in back working on the newest frame he's bought for himself. His hands are dark with bike grease and a Colnago bike cap sits atop his round face lined with beard stubble.
He shakes his head at the accusations of providing bike thieves a place to hawk their stolen goods.
"Portland is a really small big city and people are gossipy. I don't really have an explanation for what people say. I just want to sleep at night and keep building bikes."
As Fenstermaker talks, his English bulldog, Weasel, gnaws on a plastic fender on the floor of the store. Fenstermaker now owns four stores across Portland, with locations in St. Johns, Ladd's Addition, SE Madison, and downtown, which together sell more used bikes than any other stores in the city. Weasel is at home in the bike shop. Her favorite chew toys are handlebar grips.
Fenstermaker opened his first bike shop six years ago in Portland, reselling bikes he bought at thrift stores or off the street from a little storefront on SE Foster. He had never been to mechanic school, never worked in another bike shop. "I got into bikes because I was dating a girl who rode a bike," he says.
Fenstermaker says he scored 150 bicycles from a guy on the coast for only $500 and started selling them from his garage off Hawthorne. A former housemate—who refused to be named because of the fear of physical retaliation—says homeless-looking people and tweakers would stop by the house frequently with bikes, asking for Robby.
Fenstermaker admits he didn't fill out the proper paperwork back in those days and did not get a city permit to operate until June 2005.
THE CASE OF THE STOLEN CO-MOTION
Ex-employee Clint Bunting remembers what he considers to be shady dealings back in the Recyclery's early days. He says when he worked at the fledgling Recyclery in 2005, Fenstermaker frequently bought high-end bikes from street people, paying cash on the spot. "These were top-of-the-line racing and road bikes—not stuff you find at the Bins," says Bunting, who sports tattoos and rides home-welded tall bikes. "I don't mean to stereotype, but when someone is rolling up with a $500 bike on top of a shopping cart and selling it for only a few bucks, that raises some red flags." Bunting claims the store never ran serial numbers on frames during his employment there.
Then, one day in 2005, according to Bunting, a guy rolled up with a bike that immediately raised his eyebrows: a custom Co-Motion cycle, a type of bicycle built in Eugene and worth $3,000. Fenstermaker bought it for $500 cash. Suspicious, Bunting says he used the store's computer to scroll through recent Craigslist reports of stolen bikes and, sure enough, a custom Co-Motion popped up. It allegedly belonged to a female mechanic, Tess Jensen, who had received it as a birthday present from her dad. "I cried for three days after my bike disappeared," says Jensen.
Bunting urged Fenstermaker to call Jensen, who in turn relayed her serial number to Fenstermaker. However, Fenstermaker told the Mercury that the serial number Jensen gave him over the phone didn't match the one carved on the underside of the bike. Jensen says she decided to visit the shop and take a look at the bike herself—with a police officer by her side.
The officer checked the serial number in the store, and the bike was exactly as recorded from the manufacturer—except it was missing the first and last number. The officer concluded that the handmade bike had been slightly misstamped at the building shop in Eugene. Since it was a one-of-a-kind bike custom-made for Jensen, the officer felt confident saying it was hers. But instead of returning the bike, Fenstermaker asked Jensen to buy the bicycle back from him.
"I told her I bought it for $500 and I'd return it for that much," Fenstermaker says.
Jensen says she was insulted by Fenstermaker's proposal, but felt it was only fair to give him the $250 reward she had offered online for the return of her bike. Jensen left with her prized bicycle, while Fenstermaker was out the difference, and had inadvertently created some serious bad blood as Jensen's story traveled throughout the biking community.
After that incident, it became Bunting's job to write down the description and serial number of every bike in the shop. To his alarm, Bunting realized some of the bikes had their serial numbers ground off—a common sign a bike is stolen. "That's when I got slapped in the face: Holy shit, I'm working for a bike thief," says Bunting. He quit soon after.
SLIPPING THOUGH THE CRACKS
Since 2005, says Fenstermaker, he's run his business according to the law. He claims that his staff runs the serial numbers of every single bike that comes in.
Mechanics' stories differ, but more recent employees back Fenstermaker up on that point. "We were very thorough about running each bike through the city," says Michelle Garcia, who worked at the SE Madison location in 2007 and 2008.
However in 2006, a police special properties investigation found problems at the Recyclery, then solely located on SE Madison.
After a rival bike store called Portland Police Detective Troy King to accuse the Recyclery of selling stolen bikes, King looked into the claim and found that the Recyclery's used bicycle sales permit had lapsed. In September 2006, the police visited the store and told Fenstermaker to get a proper permit. A month passed, the paperwork never arrived, and the special properties unit performed a sting operation. An officer sold the store a used bike, but the store didn't ask for his photo ID or mail the required paperwork to police. "He had some excuses—but it wasn't enough," says King. Fenstermaker was slapped with a $900 fine.
Two mechanics who worked at the store during 2006 say there were numerous bikes on the sales floor whose serial numbers had not been run. The mechanics do not want to be named because they, too, fear retaliation against their current bike shops. It's worth noting that almost everyone interviewed for this article left the Recyclery on bad terms. And regardless of whether they were fired or quit, all had personal experiences that have led them to fear Fenstermaker's temper.
Fenstermaker admits to having trouble keeping his employees. In the past year, Fenstermaker estimates he's hired 20 employees who either quit or were fired. Now a skeleton crew of three full-time employees spread themselves between his four stores.
Despite filing all the proper paperwork, high employee turnover and a high volume of bikes can lead to more cracks through which stolen goods can slip.
Ian Medley, a skilled mechanic who managed the downtown Recyclery for a year before he was fired in August 2008, says he was constantly suspicious of Fenstermaker, but never witnessed any obviously illegal sales. Fenstermaker, says Medley, would buy bikes on the cheap, strip off the parts, and "scab together" bikes that could be sold for more.
"I've seen him get bikes, strip them, and not run their numbers," says Medley. "What raised red flags for me was that he'd get certain bikes for so cheap. But you could never really prove anything."
Tom Daly, who worked at the SE Madison Recyclery for eight months in 2008, agrees that he never saw anything illegal happen at the store—but within the law there was some significant gray area.
"Occasionally a tweaker would bring in a nice bike and be selling it for too little. But you run the numbers, and it's clean, so they'd buy it," says Daly.
With his experience from the Recyclery, Daly recently opened up his own bike repair shop, WTF Bikes. He decided not to buy or sell bikes from his little shop because it's impossible to weed out stolen goods from legitimate sales. Or, as he puts it, "If someone brings me a set of über-sweet 700 racing wheels and says, 'Do you want to sell these?' Hell yeah! But there's no way to verify whether they've been stolen or not." Ironically, three days before Daly's grand opening, someone broke into his shop and stole two bikes awaiting repair.
Multiple ex-employees of the Recyclery also said that mechanics would drink and get high on the job, sometimes resulting in extremely shoddy repairs. These accusations extended to Fenstermaker who, three mechanics claim, would take money from the cash register to buy pot. Short on money, Fenstermaker does his own bookkeeping. But he says he keeps his hands out of the till and does not even know how to respond to allegations that he used store cash for drugs.
Fenstermaker also says that the ex-employees who accuse him of shady dealings have personal vendettas and want to ruin his business. He makes his own counter-accusations, saying Medley assaulted him in 2008 ("Now he's just making up lies," responds Medley) and that Bunting posted a fraudulent ad on Craigslist in 2007 saying the Recyclery was giving away bikes as part of a giant going-out-of-business sale. In the police report of that incident, Fenstermaker also suspected an ex-girlfriend, who had a restraining order against him, might have pulled the stunt. Bunting denies posting the ad and police never pursued charges in the case.
CLEAN AS A WHISTLE?
Since the $900 fine in 2006, police inspections of the Recyclery's multiple locations have always come up clean. According to Detective King's records, they have not had a higher percentage of problems with improper paperwork or hits of stolen bikes than any other store. Recently the Recyclery changed its permit to one that further discourages sales of stolen bikes. Instead of paying cash on the spot for bikes and holding them for 30 days, the Recyclery now holds bicycles for 15 days before sending sellers a check.
The anonymous allegations of bike fencing irritate Detective King.
"If someone would go through the trouble to put up a bunch of posters, why wouldn't they just pick up the phone and call the police?" he asks.
King used to spend hours trolling Craigslist and eBay, encouraging people who posted stolen bike listings there to report the theft to the cops. But the response was so dismal, he eventually gave up.
In the back of the Recyclery's downtown store, seven frames and 14 whole bikes hang from hooks in back. Holding them in limbo for two weeks costs the store money, but that's the law.
It's getting late in the afternoon. Fenstermaker is looking forward to getting back to wrenching his bike. Asked for any last thoughts, he says, "To anybody I've ever offended, I'm deeply apologetic."
Read Robby Fenstermaker's open letter to Portland regarding the accusations of selling stolen bikes HERE.