In a changed city, Soho bike mecca Bicycle Habitat grows up
On a summer afternoon walking up Lafayette Street toward Houston, just past Spring, you’re likely to approach a cluster of characters on the sidewalk. It’s hard to tell what everyone is doing there, but they all have bikes. They’re looking at bikes, testing bikes, locking up bikes, putting air in bike tires, sitting in storefronts nearby talking about bikes while drinking iced coffee from La Colombe cafe down the street.
It’s because of the independent bike shop, Bicycle Habitat, which has been selling bikes to everyone from hardcore messengers and utilitarian commuters to wispy Soho model types for some 33 years now.
On one such afternoon recently Hal Ruzal, the affable shaman of bike mechanics in New York, with hefty dreads hanging down past his chest, tanned arms bulging from a sleeveless T-shirt, wrestled with a frame of a track bike at the front of the room, where his work is visible from the street. Sales staffers shuffled around him, fetching bike parts or running to another mechanic's station in the back of the room to work on other bikes.
A young blonde woman with her hair pulled back into a loose ponytail greeted the store manager, Eric Schofield, and left a chocolate cake by the register for people to help themselves. Two cyclists squeezed into Spandex suits clicked around the tile floor with their clip-on sneakers, looking for a hand-pump for their tires. A young brunette woman dressed in jeans and a lingerie-style red top browsed around in the back of the store, and set her gaze on a bright green Specialized road bike. But if she doesn’t find what she wants, a door to the basement cages about a thousand bicycles cooped up in cardboard boxes, waiting to be assembled and unleashed.
In the middle of this bustle, sitting in a chair in front of a computer clicking around inventory sites and taking phone calls, was Charlie McCorkell, the co-founder and current owner of Bicycle Habitat. He was remembering what it was like to bike in a less bike-friendly town.
“Back in ’69, I’d get spit on twice a week,” McCorkell said, sitting on a stool with tape stretched over the seat to keep the stuffing from bulging out. He’s a gregarious figure with a trim gray-white beard, deep-set blue eyes and Bicycle Habitat socks, emblazoned with the shop’s sunny rainbow logo, crumpled into his gray New Balance sneakers. “In the old days, it was more like the Wild West. You were out there by yourself. Nobody was looking after you. Everybody used to think bike riders were invisible, just because they didn’t pop up on anybody’s radar.”
WHEN MCCORKELL OPENED BICYCLE HABITAT in 1977 with Ruzal, in the same place where it sits today on Lafayette Street to serve a core of die-hard cyclists, there was no other retail on the street. An architectural store sat in the space where hundreds of bikes are now displayed in Bicycle Habitat's side room (ornate moldings on the ceilings and walls are the only remnants from the old store). There was a meth clinic across the street, and drug-addled characters including Sid Vicious of seminal punk band the Sex Pistols would wander over by the shop “stoned out of his gourd,” McCorkell said. At the time, the city was still ghost-town for cyclists, an underground culture where there were no specified bike lanes in most city parks, and bikes were banned from the subway.
Today, McCorkell and his 38 employees, play host to all kinds of customers, from magazine assistants swanning in to borrow vintage bicycles for the fall fashion photo spreads, to the thick-thighed racers who whip around Central Park, to daily riders, up to 236,000 in 2009, a 26 percent boost from 2008, according to Transportation Alternatives, the nonprofit biking advocacy group. A certain glamorous clientele has also gravitated toward the shop.
“We had Ivanka Trump in here and the whole friggin’ shop stopped,” McCorkell said. “It was almost embarrassing. Everybody was gawking. I couldn’t believe how much the store ground to a halt. I will say, she dresses well and she’s gorgeous. I think she bought a Specialized Tarmac, in what we call Mets colors—in blue in orange. We had Lady Gaga here, she bought a bike a couple of weeks ago. We have a pretty regular run of the celebrity types.” David Byrne, the musician, artist and bike advocate, is a frequent customer, along with comedian Robin Williams. “He’ll come over and be like, ‘You know, I’m a bikesexual.’” McCorkell said. “He can’t help himself, he’s telling jokes all over the store.”
The actor Owen Wilson was also a customer during one of his visits from the West Coast. Sometimes, a customer like that comes in and McCorkell gets the first read on which bikes are about be get very, very hot.
“He’s in here and you go, ok, we’re going to find out what is the coolest bike in the shop right now. This is not a reach, ok. And lo and behold and he went right to one of the coolest ones,” McCorkell said. “You can see what his picture of himself on the bike is. It’s like, you see him on the bike and say this guy is as cool as shit. He didn’t say that, but that’s what he wanted.”
McCorkell said his job, as well as his sales team, is to classify the customer and demystify their choice of bike by figuring out what kind of New York biker they are: will it be a stylish fixed-gear, a fancy vintage number for getting groceries home from Dean & DeLuca, or a fold-up, friendly to office-building elevators?
But it’s not just celebrities that point out the next big thing in bikes, of course. McCorkell said he pays close attention to the streets, and the sales movements, to figure out the latest trends in bikes. Take fixed-gear bikes, for example, a must-have accessory for a certain young population of riders in New York, which have no freewheel and keep their riders in constant motion, stopping and starting the bike with their own leg power—sometimes without handbrakes.
“The fixie thing is big, I had my first fix gear street bike in 1981," McCorkell said. "Then, like now, there was a core group of us who were a little more on the edge. Not that I could ever think of myself as being on the edge, but back then I was. Now I’m so mainstream it’s disgusting. It wasn’t like there was this big cult to carry the industry. Now there are all kinds of cults that move different things. Now we’re seeing a lot of portage bikes where there’s lots of packs and baskets. There are actually meetups for people with folding bikes. The tall bikes. There are so many subcultures. It boggles the mind.”
He makes visits to giant trade shows in Las Vegas and hand-built bike showcases from artists and independent sellers to see what the next big trends are going to be. “In fashion, you go to Milan and reinterpret what’s going on in Milan," he said. "Here, we go to the hand-built show and we look at what they’re doing and what do we need to think about reinterpreting for ourselves?”
The explosion of bike culture in New York has made Bicycle Habitat a mecca where anything from the $5,000-bikes favored by pros and celebrities to the solid Trek bike for commuting across the Manhattan bridge is available; and its staff, die-hard enthusiasts who are as likely to look like Lower East Side punks as intense athletes (they are often both), its encyclopedic collection of bikes (and New York customers), combined with its ground-floor-loft styling and no-frills street-appearance makes it a bit of a trip into the past, when august independent New York stores were international authorities on their trade. Think of The Strand for books, of B & H Photo for cameras, of J & R Music World for sound equipment, or Paragon Sports for playtime gear. It’s a world that’s rapidly fading, crushed under chain stores and high rent prices, but Bicycle Habitat isn’t going anywhere.
SINCE MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG'S APPOINTMENT of Janette Sadik-Khan as the city’s transportation commissioner in 2007, the city has seen hundreds of miles of bike lanes implemented, including a bike lane on Ninth Avenue, First Avenue and Allen Street, as well as several pedestrian plazas, and special programs like Summer Streets, which cater to bikers.
Fashion designers specializing in bike-to-work friendly clothing are getting more attention from mainstream press, accessory stores dedicated to bike culture are opening up (Chrome, the infamous messenger bike bag manufacturer, just opened a flagship shop on Mulberry Street) and there are more cycle stores in the city than ever before.
“I have my personal theory, which is that you need a certain amount of bike stores to breed a culture,” McCorkell said about his competition, which includes Gotham Bikes on West Broadway and BikeWorks NYC on Ridge Street, just to name a couple. “Often, bike stores are the focal point of where this stuff is corresponded, where people put up signs to say they want to meet up or organize something.”
McCorkell himself has been part of the city’s legend as it turned itself into a more bike-friendly city. He served as executive director of Transportation Alternatives during the mid-70s. He helped establish the New York Department of Transportation Bicycle Advisory Council, and became a staunch advocate for bike lanes over city bridges, once getting arrested for leading an illegal ride over the Brooklyn Bridge during its centennial construction phase. “It was the first time that I know that people got arrested for bike action,” he told me. “So it was really nice. That was one of my fonder memories.”
He rallied for in bike paths on the Manhattan and Queensboro bridges, and called for the destruction of staircases that rankled Brooklyn Bridge commuters. He was also part of the generation of bike advocates who convinced the city to stop implementing “bike-killer” sewer covers, ones with large parallel grates that sent bikers crashing into the cement. He was called in to help consult on the West Side bike path, and watched bright-green bike lanes cross-cross his city streets, including one right outside Bicycle Habitat's door on Lafayette.
It wasn’t always like this. At the end of the 1980s, the Koch Administration banned cyclists from Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, and Park Avenue from 34th Street to 59th Street. Bicycle Habitat held fund raisers for the legal fees and paid bike messengers to strike until the streets were open again.
BICYCLE HABITAT BECAME PART BUSINESS—one of the city’s top sellers of the country’s most successful bike brands including Trek and Specialized—and part bicycling advocacy hub in a city where bike riding grew up from rebellious nuisance to an integral part of the city's culture.
The shop acts as a corporate sponsor for programs like Summer Streets, the city’s department of transportation program that shuts down Park Avenue from the Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park to vehicles. Bicycle Habitat sets up two free repair stations, one at Bicycle Habitat and another uptown by 7 a.m. sharp, where bicyclists line up for hours at a time to get their gears checked by their mechanics. During the last Saturday of Summer Streets, last weekend, Bicycle Habitat played host to a bike sharing program. “My feeling is if it gets people on bikes, let’s do it,” McCorkell said.
“They really see the value of advocacy and that’s so integral to everything that they do,” said Caroline Samponaro, director of bicycle advocacy for Transportation Alternatives. “So not only are they huge supporters of TA, they make the connection for other people who might not make that connection, whether its through their website or Twitter feed or the bike riding guidelines that they hand out in their shops.”
For McCorkell, it all began with his dissatisfaction with the subway.
“There was a moment when I realized I never wanted to ride the subway again,” McCorkell wrote in a pamphlet for Why I Ride: The Art of Bicycling In New York, an independent, multi-venue exhibition staged in 2007. “It was probably right after the train pulled out of the elevated 9th Avenue and 9th Street stop in Brooklyn. I looked up and saw…Manhattan shining brightly, the subway car its dark counterpoint.”
McCorkell skipped his second class at Cooper Union, took out $100 of his scholarship money from a savings bank and marched over to Stuyvesant Bicycles to buy a three-speed black Raleigh, a rack with a spring, and a lock. “I rode back to school and locked up, to the disbelief and awe of my classmates,” McCorkell wrote. “I remember freezing on the way home, and searching for the Brooklyn Bridge stairway. I was hooked—on bicycling, and on Manhattan; Chinatown, Little Italy, the Bowery bums, the Brooklyn Bridge. That night, I saw the Statue of Liberty from the bridge for the first time, I’ll never forget it.”
After graduating, he worked as a civil engineer specializing in tunnel construction and helped build city projects including the West Side sewers and the Lexington Ave-63rd subway station.
After getting his professional engineering license, McCorkell realized he wasn’t so interested in building cities where only car drivers mattered. He read Jane Jacobs, the renowned Mother Theresa of livable cities, and became a convert. “You have your traffic class and all you talk about it how to best to move cars and it’s like well cars aren’t people,” he said. “There’s one person in there, two people in there. What about moving bodies and is that good for the city? You begin to question some of this other stuff during your formative college years. It leaks out as you begin to get older.”
“The difference now is the sheer number of people who are riding," McCorkell went on. "If you make the streets safer, there’s more people out there riding bikes. Once they’re all out there, the drivers will start looking after them.”
McCorkell was executive director of Transportation Alternatives when he met Hal, a volunteer. His wife introduced them to each other and suggested they go into business together. McCorkell left behind his engineering job.
“Neither of us had ever worked in a bike store,” McCorkell said. “If you combined both of our knowledge, we probably made about 70 percent of one decent mechanic, with him being about 50 percent of the decent mechanic. But we were both pretty smart.”
“We knew there was a whole bunch of things that we did not like about bike stores,” he said. “We didn’t like that nobody would let you test ride a bike.” And, at the time, “everybody did their bike repair behind a wall. We felt that wasn’t user friendly. What if you want to watch me and ask some questions? We decided that there should be repair classes. You need to have someone show them, lead them through it. That’s why a lot of people don’t like riding bikes sometimes, because of flat tires. We’re trying to show people how to fix their flats so more people will get on their bikes.”
The few bike shops in the city during the late-70s catered to professional cyclists and sold high-end racing bikes. “And then you had Hal and me who said well let’s sell some bikes for people in here,” McCorkell said. Bicycle Habitat received a small business award from the city, after working on a program to modify bikes for people in wheelchairs. “They had no place to go because some people would turn their head if somebody in a wheelchair came in,” McCorkell said. “Now there are more people with chairs who have options. But at the time it wasn’t so we had a big wheelchair bound population.”
“For years, New York, the city, was ready to go in this direction,” McCorkell said. “And then commissioner Khan came in and she enabled all these people who were waiting, who probably didn’t even know they were waiting to do this. I mean, look at that woman over there in that top, she’s looking at a street bike,” he pointed toward a pretty brunette woman in a delicate tank top and jeans. “I mean, that would have been hard to envision six years ago. And there’s another one over there looking at a street bike. You know, it’s just you’re sitting here looking at two women buying bikes and that was a harder move years ago. Women would buy bikes, but it would be like 30 percent of your market. Now it’s like 50 percent."
He attributes the rise in female riders partly to personal safety: Riding a bike can be a better protection against mugging or attack than being on foot.
“Women actually feel safer on a bike than they do just walking and being on the subway," he said. "Helmet hair was a major objection, even four years ago. Now it’s like, does this helmet look good on me? Because now the helmet is like a fashion statement, even though it messes up your hair.”
IN MARCH, MCCORKELL OPENED A 3,000-SQUARE-foot space next door to the flagship shop, in a store that once held a Swedish underwear shop. The dark wood-floored, high-end display room has bikes lined neatly on racks. The new space is meant to be a luxury shopping experience, designed with women in mind, according to McCorkell.
“The vision over there is to make a place where if you wanted to spend you know a $1,000, $2,000 or $3,000 on a bike, there’s a lot more personal one on one attention,” he said.
“I think it would be hard to sell a $4,000 bike over here,” he said, looking around his main space. “It’s easier to sell in a Lexus showroom than it is in a Kia showroom.” The new space also has “the nicest bike bathroom in the country,” according to McCorkell.
And now, McCorkell is guiding his oldest son Matt into the business. A graduate of Cornell, his son was studying for the LSATs when he started working at the shop. “I thought it would last for six months,” McCorkell said. “But he really likes working with customers.”
He bought out Ruzal in the 80s, so he is sole owner of the shop now and Ruzal has become its top mechanic (and bike thievery expert). Although Bicycle Habitat doesn’t always get the best reviews (Yelpers certainly have a few gripes about shop), McCorkell said he does his best to give people what they need. “Nobody leaves a bike store without a smile on their face,” he said. "There’s some people who leave disappointed, but for the most part, it’s a solution feeling. If they have a flat tire, they get it fixed."
Photography by Erin Nicole Brown.