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Ride Local: Fishtown's evolving bike shop landscape, and what it says about Philly as a whole

Fishtown's Bicycle Stable is closing

Blazing Saddles

Blazing Saddles

Last month, the staff of Bicycle Stable announced on Facebook that the Fishtown shop would be closing its doors. Aside from informing customers that they couldn't take any new repairs, the announcement was light on details and generally flew under the radar.

But the closure is yet another major shakeup in Fishtown's bike retail and repair world. 

Last summer, Jay's Pedal Power on East Girard Avenue closed after nearly 40 years of business. (Here's a 1987 Inquirer story quoting owner Jeff Rosenblum on the then-burgeoning trend of fat tire bicycles.) Though it had a shorter legacy than Jay's, Bicycle Stable had served the two-wheeled commuters of Fishtown from its Frankford Avenue space -- a former police stable -- since 2005. That was well before its home turf turned into Philly's hippest neighborhood.

On the other side of the coin, there's Firth & Wilson Transport Cycles. Earlier this summer, the three-year-old shop moved from a storefront on Spring Garden Street to a massive warehouse space on Frankford Avenue, consolidating its retail, repair and custom operations under one roof. The 10,000-square-foot space is so large, in fact, that they share it with bike taxi service Velo-Ride and cargo bike manufacturer Haley Tricycles.

"When I first was in Philly, we would sell used bikes for people who just wanted to commute around town," co-owner Simon Firth told SPOKE magazine in August. "It didn't really matter. There were no real custom bikes per se…but there's certainly way more people riding [today] than there was 20 years ago." (The writer is an editor at SPOKE.)

Between 2005 and 2013, the number of local bicyclists increased by 260 percent, according to the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. Today, 2.3 percent of Philly commuters rely on two-wheel transport, which translates to more than 14,000 residents pedaling around on any given day -- and plenty of new bike shops to meet their needs. 

The most recent newcomers vary in size. Brewerytown Bicycles opened in a former sign shop on West Girard Avenue, while Philadelphia Bikesmith is in a far larger space down on Spring Garden Street. Then you have specialty shops such as Drexel Hill's Pedego, which deals in electric bicycles.

Meanwhile, several existing shops have expanded. Firth & Wilson, which needs plenty of room for its inventory of cargo bikes, joins outfits such as Manayunk's Cadence Cycling, South Philly's Bicycle Revolutions and Mount Airy's Philly Electric Wheels, all of which have moved on to more spacious digs in the last five years. 

"Part of Philadelphia becoming a great cycling city is not just about bike lanes," Firth tells Flying Kite. "It's about having things like [Indego] bike share, it's about having quality bicycling shops in town." 

Firth, who started working in Philadelphia in 1995, doesn't fret too much about the additional competition. 

"There's definitely more of a demand for it," he says. "If [the city] can support more bike shops, that would be great."

More than 2,000 bike retailers closed nationwide between 2000 and 2013, according to the League of American Bicyclists. (The League suggests this is due to the failure of many shops to successfully market to women, a growing share of adult bicyclists.)

"Some of that may be what they call a correction," muses Mike McGettigan, a longtime Philly bike retailer and owner of Trophy Bikes in Northern Liberties. "In the '70s and '80s there were two different bike booms…fueled by bike companies giving easy credit and by the low barriers to entry, a whole lot of shops opened that maybe shouldn't have. Some of those shops were not that well run."

About 70 bike shops dot the Philadelphia metro area. More than half of those are in the city itself, and a new one seems to sprout up every year or two. Suburban businesses have different struggles.

"A large suburban bike shop has the same issues as a Walmart or a Kmart," argues McGettigan. "You've got this big piece of property that costs a ton of money, and you've got to spend extra effort convincing people to drive there from long distances. Whereas in the city, the density means there are so many more people within biking and walking distance, so you can attract them in more traditional ways -- word of mouth, flyers, events."

So what gives with two stalwarts of the Fishtown bike community closing within a year and a half of each other? Blame the evolving real estate market. Unlike other bike retailers in the city, the owners of those two shops also owned the buildings that housed their businesses. 

"That was the old-school exit plan for bike shops," argues McGettigan. Bike retail, with its poor markup and high staff turnover rate, has never been an especially lucrative trade. For merchants who own their buildings, the option of selling when property values rise (hey, Fishtown) becomes an attractive one if they're ready to retire. 

"In my case, and in the case of most shops in the city, we're all renting, so we don't have that option," McGettigan adds. "On the other hand, Philly's real estate market is so wide open right now that there's no problem for anybody who needs to find space for bike shops."

As for Bicycle Stable, owner Chaz Vlasits sold 1420 Frankford Avenue to "some developer" -- he swears he doesn't remember the company's name, and the Office of Property Assessment has yet to update its records. The plan, he says, is for restoration and conversion. 

"I was ready and I got an offer I couldn't refuse," explains the 63-year-old. 

Vlasits hoped to close for good at the end of last week, although he and his team still need to finish off the shop's remaining repairs and sell the rest of the merchandise. 

"As long as I have sellable stock, I will be open," he says. 

Until then, he has no qualms with passing customers down the street to Firth & Wilson -- which, after Bicycle Stable finally shutters, will become the only game in the neighborhood. 

"He's already sending us his repair work," confirms Firth, adding that both he and his business partner, David Wilson, have worked with Vlasits in the past.

"We're not by any stretch of the imagination getting rich from this right now," Firth adds, noting that he still has a lot of technical issues to sort out with his new building. "But we certainly hope to be making our living out of it very soon."

MATT BEVILACQUA is a writer and editor in Philadelphia. He's a co-founder ofSPOKE magazine

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