In early June, the garage door out front of Firth & Wilson’s new shop is thrown open. Several rows of cargo and upright city bikes are lined up just inside. The roar of a makeshift machine shop in the back overwhelms the voices of customers walking around the showroom. Bicycle parts and accessories fill a separate room off to the right.
Dave Wilson, a tall, bespectacled man with earrings in both ears, estimates the number of items available for sale storewide to be just under 3,000. (The exact number on that June afternoon, according to a quick search on the store computer: 2,946.)
When Firth & Wilson Transport Cycles opened its doors in 2012, Wilson and co-founder Simon Firth faced a conundrum from the get-go. The store’s first retail shop was located on Spring Garden Street, but the frame shop, where bicycle repairs and custom work happened, was way up on Front Street in Fishtown.
“Having two locations made the frame shop almost useless,” says Wilson, a Fishtown resident. “You couldn’t go over there and do something quick.”
Opportunity presented itself last winter, when the frame shop’s building was sold. Here was a chance to combine two storefronts into one, with the added bonus of potentially bringing in more revenue from repairs — the side of any bike business that, along with parts and accessories, is more profitable than the sales of bikes themselves.
“Spring Garden wasn’t a bad spot, but it was still kind of in between neighborhoods,” Wilson says. “People would find us for big family bikes and cargo bikes, but the repair business, the major portion of every bike shop’s business, was not really happening there.”
A rear-loading cargo bike from Firth & Wilson starts at around $1,000. With a “family package” of accessories — fenders, seat cushions, foot rails, and handrails for people who’d like to ride on the rear dock — a customer is looking at about $2,500. Wilson readily admits that the price is higher than what most people are used to paying for a bike. The hope is that locating the whole operation in Fishtown will shift business a touch more toward bike repairs.
“My experience is, and I’ve been in the bike industry for 25 years, is that most people are going to have their bikes worked on pretty close to home,” Wilson says. “You’re not going to take it somewhere far and have to arrange some transportation. Just by virtue of locating in this neighborhood will bring that portion of business up.”
On April 1, Firth & Wilson completed its move into the new Fishtown storefront, located on Frankford Avenue a few blocks south of Girard Avenue.
The new store, formerly the site of a lighting and antique lamp shop, is actually a cavernous garage. And that poses a different sort of challenge. The new, bigger space was meant to consolidate operations under one roof. But now, there’s just a tad too much space. With 10,000 square feet across three floors, Firth & Wilson on Frankford is about eight times the size of the old shop. While the co-founders have plans to use much of the square footage on the ground floor for custom fabrication, they have also started inviting other bike businesses to share floor space (not to mention the cost of rent). Velo-Ride, a Northern Liberties-based taxi service, rents space in the back of the shop for storing electric pedicabs. On the second-floor mezzanine is where Stephen Horcha, of Haley Tricycles, assembles and paints his well-known cargo bikes.
“When you’ve got 10,000 square feet, it’s expeditious to share that,” Firth says. “To have the other bike businesses in here is great because it not only helps the other businesses out in that they have a good space to be in and access to our skills, but we also have access to theirs.”
Although Firth & Wilson has the makings of a bike-building coworking space, Wilson says the future plan isn’t really to expand the space by adding tenants. Instead, the pair aims to eventually transition full-time into the frame shop. A 20-year resident of Philadelphia, Firth spent about 15 years as a custom frame builder with Stephen Bilenky, of the Olney-based Bilenky Cycle Works. He’s also an official Brooks Saddle repairman, having trained at the eponymous factory in England. The change in focus, Firth says, mirrors cycling trends he’s seen evolve during his two decades in town.
“When I first was in Philly, we would sell used bikes for people who just wanted to commute around town,” he says. “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.”
Firth & Wilson (the shop) now has a location readymade for the type of custom frame and repair work that Firth and Wilson (the men) have envisioned making up more of their business. The building is wired for three-phase electricity, which makes running heavy equipment like the shop’s milling machine, lathe, and welding machine more efficient.
“We want to push the frame shop more and get more people on cargo bikes and better city bikes in Philadelphia,” Firth says. “That’s what we want to do.”
Photos by Dan Lidon