Lil Bill’s Bike Shop is ‘fighting on’ after being removed from USC’s campus

With social media and phone apps, bike shop owner Aaron Flournoy attempts to rebuild the customer base he once had.

By Sylvie Sparks

This story originally appeared on Intersections South LA, Annenberg Media's coverage on the South LA community. 

A little more than a year has passed since the University of Southern California administration told Lil Bill's Bike Shop owner Aaron Flournoy he had to move his business off campus, after having served the biking student body there for two years, and in the area for roughly three decades.

The last several months haven't been an easy transition for the small enterprise, but Flournoy's entrepreneurial spirit endures as he applies new strategies to maintain and build his customer base. They include an app to help patrons locate him, making the bike shop mobile to make house calls and organizing fundraising events.

"I want everyone to know I'm still alive and I'm still fighting on," said Flournoy, who is known in the neighborhood as "Lil Bill."

Money for the bike shop has been tight since the mandated move. A non-compete clause USC signed with a new bike shop that opened in the recently completed University Village led to his business being displaced. The shop, Solé Bicycles, offered him a position, which he turned down. USC also offered Flournoy a new location on campus near Vermont Avenue. At the time, he told Annenberg Media the suggested move from his old spot near Jefferson and McClintock as "a slap in the face" and opted to strike out on his own.

The survival of independent, historied ventures like Flournoy's is a growing issue in gentrifying communities across South LA, including University Park.

"This is not just Lil Bill's story, but I represent the other small businesses in the surrounding area that are holding on by a thread," Flournoy said.

He started out repairing and selling bikes at his father's bike shop on Walton Avenue and Vermont Avenue, just two blocks west of USC. Flournoy moved to a location on campus in 2015. It was announced the bike shop could not remain on university-owned property in March of last year. Lil Bill's Bike Shop was gone by the end of June.

Since August of last year, Flournoy has woken up at 5 o'clock every weekday, loaded his blue pickup truck with bicycle repair equipment, and headed to the corner of Hoover Street and Jefferson Boulevard to secure a street parking spot for the day among several food trucks.

"Everyone heard my story, and the food truck vendors invited me over here with them," he said.

This setup is working, but isn't ideal for Flournoy. His supporters agree.

"I don't like how he's just on the side of the road because he deserves to be in a place where a lot of people will see him, and where he can get the business he deserves," said USC student Michelle Luczo, a frequent Lil Bill's customer.

In an effort to find more potential customers, and make connections with incoming students who may not have heard of Lil Bill's Bike Shop before Flournoy had to leave campus, the small business owner has turned to advertising on social media with a little help from his friends.

Flournoy runs the company Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts himself, but students have been supportive in offering advice on how to use the social media outlets to his advantage.

"I gotta sharpen my skills," he said.

Through all the changes, Flournoy discovered that his bike shop has a lot of fans and supporters in University Park, and attending USC ,who want to help his business survive.

Earlier this year, junior computer science major Ahmed Al Dulaimy designed a phone app called "Lil Bill's" to help clients find where Flournoy's bike repair service is parked that day, and book appointments. If customers are unable to reach the location, Lil Bill's Mobile Bike Service will come to them instead, a new option since he lost his permanent location.

"Lil Bill fixed the chain on my bike, and then I heard what was happening to him and I wanted to help in any way possible," Al Dulaimy said.

Al Dulaimy came to the United States in 2009 as an Iraqi refugee. "I've always been brought up with this mentality of resilience, resistance and survival," he said. He credits this mindset for his interest in helping Flournoy succeed.

The launch of Lil Bill's app was celebrated on March 31 with a concert organized by students. Proceeds from the event went to support Flournoy's business. Three acts from the USC Thornton School of Music performed. Flournoy has long been a fan of the music school, having attended many of their recitals. Turnout was lower than expected, Flournoy said. Demand for the app, however, was much higher than anticipated: It crashed on its first day live from too many downloads, Al Dulaimy said.

The computer science student said he knew from his own experience with Lil Bill's Bike Shop that Flournoy provides excellent service. Al Dulaimy wanted to find a way to advertise that kind of customer satisfaction to digital-native cyclists in the area.

"Lil Bill needed new ways to connect with the millennial generation," he said.

The app has been well received so far.

"I think the app is a great idea," Luczo said. "We could use the help of Lil Bill if something happens to our bikes on campus."

In addition to the app launch concert, Flournoy raised money through fundraisers organized by students at various restaurants in the area, such as Blaze Pizza and Amaze Bowls. Students also donated money to get an A-frame sandwich board sign for the bike business.

"The kids have been trying to help me out, trying to do things for me because the student body loves me and I love them," said Flournoy.

Having grown up just blocks from the university campus, Flournoy has been a USC Trojan fan his entire life. He wears a USC baseball cap everyday and his work uniform alternates between USC-logo emblazoned shirts and Lil Bill's T-shirts in the university's colors: cardinal red and gold. Sure the branding is good for business, but it's about more than that for Flournoy.

"I wear these colors because they represent the Trojan Family that is made up of students," he said. "I'm not going to stop loving the Trojan Family just because the administration took a negative turn and tried to destroy my business."

The university administration did not respond to multiple requests for a comment.

Customers say they'll keep supporting Lil Bill's as much for the quality bike repair service as for Flournoy himself and the lasting relationships he builds with patrons.

"He cares about how we are, how our day is going and isn't just there to fix our bikes," Luczo said. "He's there to help us out in anyway he can."

There is a shared sentiment among Flournoy's supporters that he should be treated as well as he treats others.

"USC means so much to him," said customer and student Katie McCool. "So he deserves to have been treated better by the community he serves."

Flournoy said he is determined to do whatever he can to keep Lil Bill's Bike Shop afloat and continue to serve his "Trojan Family."

"It's a hard little battle out here," Flournoy said."I didn't think it was ever going to be like this, but it is, and I'm making the best of it."

Additional reporting was contributed by Heran Mamo.