Manager Phil Marmet and owner Brent Norsman with a Long John
By John Greenfield
With its spacious layout and white walls adorned with beautiful bikes, Copenhagen Cyclery feels like an art gallery. The shop opened in May at 1375 N. Milwaukee in Wicker Park, the third of Chicago’s three European bike shops which opened in the past year, joining Dutch Bikes, 651 W. Armitage in Lincoln Park, and De Fietsfabriek, 1311 N. Wells in Old Town.
Vote With Your Feet recently chatted with owner Brent Norsman about how his work as an architect led him to open a bike shop downstairs from his firm; the selling points of his Danish, Dutch and Italian bikes; and intriguing urban planning proposals in Wicker Park-Bucktown.
Tell me about your background with cycling.
I’m pretty avid. I grew up cycling and had a short stint in road racing when I was a teenager, but not too serious. I transferred to mountain bikes in college. After I moved to Chicago my last mountain bike was stolen, probably ten or twelve years ago. At that point I transitioned into riding vintage three-speeds. I’ve got an old Raleigh and an old Brompton in the garage.
I didn’t come to this from the position of an extreme cyclist. Like a lot of people, when I matured into my forties I stepped away from cycling a little bit. This line of stuff that we’re carrying is kind of what got me excited again.
What kind of architecture work do you do?
I’ve had my own practice [Norsman Architects] for about six years. I do mostly urban work, residential and commercial, all of it sustainable to some degree. We like to challenge the boundaries of mainstream architecture a little bit. It’s a nice little collective that’s been operating for about six years.
So is there a connection between your work as an architect and the kind of bikes you sell? It seems like a lot of thought went into the design and appearance of these bikes.
Yeah, it’s definitely a thoughtful collection of well-designed products here. The specific connection is that the European product is a little more sustainable because it’s designed not for a few years but for generations. That in itself is sustainable, in addition to encouraging people to get out on their bike and to enjoy the city.
There seems to be a commonality between architecture and cycling as well. A lot of my employees over the years have been avid cyclists. My employees are responsible for getting me involved in a competition last summer, making the Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn a more bike-friendly environment.
We did a lot of research on existing bike utopias and came across Amsterdam and then found Copenhagen, which we knew had pretty good urbanism but we were pretty amazed at how fresh it was and how integrated into everyday life. So we were somewhat envious and incorporated that into our proposal for our design.
We also came across a lot of different brands of bicycles during that time. The impetus to open the shop came from an inquiry with the Velorbis line. I sent them an e-mail asking if they had a distributor in the Chicago area and they got back to me the same day. It was one of those Internet queries that you didn’t know where it was going to go, and it kind of lead to us opening the bike shop. That was a little over a year ago and it took us a while to get things going. We’ve been open for four or five months now.
Who’s involved with the shop?
The seed of the idea came from me. Phil [Marmet], my manager is considered a partner and he’s kind of the front man of the bike shop. He’s got years of bike shop experience and he’s the perfect fit. My architecture practice is right upstairs so we’re in pretty close proximity – I think that’s the only way I would have done it. And my wife Shawna [Hanson] became integrally involved as well, much to her surprise, and now she’s very excited about the shop. She’s doing marketing and communications for us.
Business is good. I think the word of mouth is pretty incredible. We are selling most of our bicycles to people in other parts of the country and our website [www.copenhagenbike.com, now live] is just getting officially launched this week. We’re getting traffic from our manufacturers’ website and blogs, which are really fun to follow.
You’ll be able make purchases from our website. Not that we expect a lot of sales from on-line shoppers because I think buying one of our bikes is a pretty personal thing. Our customers are searching for the perfect bike. They want to talk to us, they want to figure out what these bikes are all about.
(Image courtesy of the shop)
There are three European-style bike shops that opened up in Chicago in the last year or so. Why are these kind of bikes taking off now?
Interest has been building incrementally, but I think high gas prices have encouraged people to reevaluate how they’re approaching life and transportation in cities. When we were doing the Red Hook competition, definitely one of the motivating factors behind our work was coming up with sustainable alternatives.
So I think that had a lot to do with it. There’s a couple of blogs out there – copenhagenize.com, copenhagencyclechic.com – that are really getting the word out.
But I think quality of life is the main thing. This past year everyone has reassessed how they approach business, life, lifestyle. I certainly have with both my businesses and my home life. Sort of reevaluating what’s important.
And I think there’s obviously a slow growing, or actually a fast growing, cycling movement around the world. I heard some stat that bike commuters on Milwaukee Avenue have gone up 200 percent or something crazy in the last five years. In the six years my architecture firm has been located here we’ve had this intimate connection with Milwaukee. We’ve watched as the bike density has increased. The morning commute is kind of insane.
You guys are in a great location for a bike shop, on this “bike highway.”
Bikes by Velorbis
We’re definitely excited to be in this location. I actually bought the buildings with a partner of mine and I was excited because I’ve lived in the neighborhood for 14 years and I’ve kind of adopted Milwaukee Avenue. I’m very excited to be on it for both my practice and also the shop.
I’ve recently been appointed to Alderman [Manny] Flores’ planning committee overseeing both increased zoning issues and also improvements to the infrastructure of Milwaukee, which is pretty exciting.
There have been two major master plans for the street and the neighborhood which are proposing a lot of these kind of wacky bike urbanism ideas which we were toying with last summer: dedicated bike lanes, widened medians at crosswalks. There are also proposals for street closings, widening the sidewalks, taking back the street, developing a more balanced realationship between, walking, cycling and the automobile.
One of the things that interested me the most about some of the urban planning theories we read for the Red Hook project is that in the European approach towards urban commuting it’s not an “us against them” attitude. It’s more about developing a more balanced relationship. It’s been very autocentric in the U.S. for many years and as the density of cyclists and pedestrians increases there’s increased consciousness of cyclists and pedestrians.
One theorist who’s pretty well-respected recommended no street signs at all, which is pretty radical. He says the presence of street signs gives people a false sense of security and gives automobiles an authority to drive a certain speed. If everyone on the street was encouraged to be conscious of each other, through a heightened sense of fear essentially, we’d all be more cautious of each other. There’s a lot of examples where that’s actually working successfully in Europe, which is pretty cool.
Alderman Flores is embracing a lot of these ideas. I went to him last January to propose on-street bike parking in front of our store here, and also propose the idea of separated bike lanes or more pronounced bike lanes along Milwaukee Avenue. He’s the one who told me about the Wicker Park – Bucktown Master Plan which is proposing all these things. It’s a very progressive plan and the alderman is very receptive to it.
Going back to the question of why the bike shop, we got excited about design, we got excited about these brands. I’ve enjoyed classic-styled bicycles as a civilized way of getting around town. So I was attracted to some of the brands we carry. Hopefully we’re going to attract some existing cyclists but I think we’re going to attract people aren’t currently cyclists and are excited by the brands we carry.
I think there’s a great community of activists in Chicago. But I think if we get some homeowners who are trying to drive their two kids in front and they realize it’s not safe then we may have another voice to push the city and our planners. So that’s kind of the ulterior motive of everything.
My wife Shawna is not really a cyclist and she’s pregnant right now so she hasn’t been riding lately, but last summer she had a ball the handful of times we were out on these bikes. She felt safer, she was upright, she felt pretty and we enjoyed our rides.
Would you like to show me around the shop and point out some of the features of the different models you sell?
Sure. One of the lines we specialize in is Velorbis, designed in Denmark and manufactured in Germany. The frames are hand-built, hand-lugged and hand-assembled. We have their classic black Churchill Classic [diamond-frame roadster] and Victoria Classic [step-through bike with basket] for $1795. They have the full Brooks leather accessory line [saddle, grips, under-seat bag]. They have internal drum brakes, front and rear, internal three, five or eight-speed gearing system and internal hub dynamos as well. So everything’s very low maintenance.
Velorbis kind of funks it up a little bit with their fat tire cruisers; they’re a little more contemporary with a bouncier ride. The Scrap Deluxe, is one of our top sellers because it’s kind of classic with a bit of a contemporary edge. That’s kind of my daily rider – it’s pretty fun.
They have a simpler bike, less expensive bike called their Studine, without the internal dynamos, for $1295.
The Velorbis Leikier
We have their classic cargo bike, the Long John, the Short John, which is a 70-year-old Swedish design. We also carry the Leikier, which almost looks like a hotrod of some sort, but it’s a completely upright riding position with this bar that runs through the handlebars. We just got in our three-wheeled Velorbis trikes which have a completely enclosed kid carrier in the front, with two wheels in the front. They’re a little more stable than two-wheeled kid carriers.
We also carry Abici which is this great Italian line of bicycles. The frames are hand-built in Italy and they’re lugged frames. It’s a young company, these three guys out of Italy who have a very good eye for design. They’ve updated classic designs – I think they’re the quintessential bike in a way. The Abici Amante is kind of their deluxe cruiser which has front and rear rod brakes and some other bells and whistles. The Gran Turismo has a single-speed rear coaster brake and a front caliper brake and it’s a great café bike. It’s actually a pretty lightweight bike as well, which is not necessarily something we’re pushing in this shop.
Abici Gran Turismo
Our only Dutch bike is the Batavus line. It’s a great company which has been building bikes for years. We’re carrying their classic line, which is a little bit more mass-produced so we can offer it at a lower price, starting at only $750 for the Old Dutch single-speed with a rear coaster brake. You can get a three-speed with front and rear drum brakes for $850. We also sell a five speed. If you want all the bells and whistles for a lower price it’s a great product.
Our most contemporary line of bikes is called Larry vs. Harry out of Denmark. It’s actually two guys named Lars and Hans with a super-great sense of humor. Their Bullitt is a front-loading two-wheeled cargo bike for $2,795. It’s kind of a new interpretation of the Long John. They’ve updated the bike with an aluminum frame. It weighs only as much as some of our normal commuter bikes. So it’s fast, and it’s high-performance, a great product for getting around.
[They also stock Basil bags and baskets, Bern helmets, Walz caps and accessories made from recycled inner tubes, like belts and business card holders, by Schlauch and Alchemy.]
Tell me about your customers. What are they doing with these bikes?
I think it’s about 50-50 avid cyclists versus new cyclists, or people who are thinking they want to be new cyclists. Some people have multiple bikes and they’ve been saving and waiting to buy a nice new bike. On the other hand we’ve got an older lady whose kids are out of the house and she wants to start riding a bike again. These people are excited to get on something that’s not necessarily about sport and more about getting around town, and a more enjoyable lifestyle. Most of our buyers are coming from across the country.
How are people from other places finding out about you?
Mostly from the bike companies’ websites. For example, I think we’re the only Velorbis dealer in the U.S. right now.
So we have three European-style bike shops in town nowadays. There’s not much problem with brand overlap is there? Nobody else in town is selling Velorbis, nobody else is selling Abici.
Yeah, we all picked our own lines and they obviously compete but they each have their own benefits and strengths and the educated consumer is lucky to have three shops to shop around and choose from, as well other shops like Boulevard and Rapid Transit that stock city bikes. To have such a great variety in one town is pretty fortunate. We’ve actually had people fly here from out of town just because of the density of bike shops. They check out all the different shops, try a bunch of stuff and then pick one and leave.
So you think the three European shops in town compliment each other and it’s not a problem that you all opened up at the same time?
I don’t think it’s a problem. Competition breeds a better marketplace and we feed off of each other’s marketing. If there’s an article written about one of the other shops in a magazine or a blog we benefit from it as well.
Has opening the shop turned out to be a positive experience?
Yeah, it’s been a really good experience actually. My wife and other people were saying, why a bikeshop? I told them it’s better than a skateboard shop. For me, it’s an outgrowth of my interest in urban issues and architecture. But it’s also been a fantastic networking tool. I’ve met more people in the neighborhood the past summer than I have in the past twelve years of living here. So it’s a nice compliment to my architecture practice. The bike shop appealed to me because as a designer I kind of fetishize objects, maybe a little too much sometimes.