Alex Kostelnik had two goals in mind when he started his Kalakala line of handmade bikes: design a bike specifically for Seattle and build it in Seattle. Six years later Kalakala remains a fixture in Kostelnik’s two Central District shops, despite never advertising or pushing for more streamlined manufacturing. Here’s how this born-and-bred Seattleite went from constructing recording studios in the ’90s to building custom rides. As told to Darren Davis
I was born on First Hill and grew up in Greenlake. I like to describe it as halfway between Dick’s Drive-In and Spud Fish and Chips. Latona Street used to be separated by I-5, but as kids we’d cross over the freeway for big adventures and to go sledding—back when it snowed in Seattle about a million years ago.
In The Studio
After college I started doing tech work in recording studios, rebuilding mixing consoles and rehabbing old tape machines. But by the mid-’90s Seattle was in its post-grunge phase, and a lot of those band guys who were trying to make it ended up coming back and getting jobs as baristas. Things were changing around the city.
In 2006 I rented an empty storefront on Union Street and started a bike shop. Back then the Central District seemed to be crying out for a community spot like that. We had a fake fireplace, a couch, a tube amp, a bunch of records, a pot of tea, and two bikes. I was only thinking of selling used bikes because I had a knack for fixing old things, like those tape machines.
The Local Ride
Eventually I realized a certain bike didn’t exist, one that’s locally made and designed for Seattle, which is very hilly, rainy, and spread out. You really need a special bike if you give a shit. It should ride lower to the ground, with lots of attachments for bags and a wider wheelbase for a more stable feel. It should also take a motor really well. The motors that work best in Seattle have more torque to climb a hill.
Bikes in the Blood
I’d been working on bikes since I was 16 years old. I worked at Velo Bikeshop, U District Cycle, REI, shops all around town. Not only was I working on them, but I commuted on them, living and breathing them. The wonderful thing about bikes is that they aren’t too complicated. Designing my own was very intuitive.
I started with a collective called Bombus in 2010. They were the first guys to not laugh at me about my idea and help me make the first batch. For me, it’s important to downplay the preciousness of a handmade product. It doesn’t need to be gold plated. It just needs to be made very smart.