Bikes & Architecture: The Copenhagen Cyclery Interview
Posted on 15 August 2009
Editors note: Copenhagen Cyclery was a fantastic store in Chicago's emerging Wicker Park. Owned by an architecture firm it became an early adopter in Chicago's city bike market. While Copenhagen Cyclery eventually closed (the architecture firm was growing too fast), Brent Norsemans observations are still great to read today, especially those that relate quality building to quality bikes. In a city like Toronto, where new condo construction is often questionable in quality, you should at least be able to ride a quality bike (and be able to bring your bike into your condo, for heavens sake!). After all, these are the building blocks of building a city: quality transportation and shelter.
- February 2016
Copenhagen Cyclery started about a year ago in Chicago, seeking to 'copenhagenize' the Chicago streets. Chicago has often played second fiddle to the media obsession with the urban infrastructure of Portland, and more recently, NYC - but the Chicago bike scene is a fine example of a large scale, established bicycle culture in a major American city. We caught up with Brent Norsman, the owner of Copenhagen Cyclery, and also the owner of Norsman Architects.
Bespoke: Where is your shop located? What is the neighborhood like?
Norman: We are located in the heart of Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood on Chicago’s busiest bicycling commuter street. Milwaukee Avenue is one of a handful of diagonal streets that break Chicago’s brutally rigid, yet highly functional, rectilinear grid. The street is literally a pipeline to the Downtown Loop district. Wicker Park itself is an eclectic, young and trendy neighborhood with an artist colony background mixed with aging hipsters who are trying to settle into the city. Our shop sits comfortably into the vibrant commercial district which is a mix of new boutiques, a smattering of trendy national chains mixed with a few old neighborhood dollar stores and wig shops...which my daughter appreciates greatly around Halloween. Currently we stand out as a shop on the street with our exotic collection of European city bicycles and accessories. We are generating interests from all walks of life in the neighbourhood.
Bespoke: We love it that an architecture firm decided to open up a bicycle store. Tell us a little about your architecture firm and what the motivation was to get into bicycles. How's it going so far?
Norman: We are a young urban firm trying to make a difference in the design community by promoting contemporary design and sustainable building with an interest in urban issues. Over the years we’ve had many avid cyclist working in the office. There seems to be some sort of correlation between architects and cyclists. A year ago we were working on an urban plan competition to make a community in Brooklyn the most “bike-friendly” community in the states. Through our studies we became reacquainted with some of the existing European bicycle utopias and discovered some amazing traffic/ planner theorists which re-ignited our interest in advanced ideas on the subject. We also became aware of products that were heretofore unavailable in the states. We were enthused and made a few inquiries and it seemed we could fairly painlessly bring a few of these products to market stateside and sew the seeds of a new cycling culture.
Bespoke: What's the advantage of coming from outside of the bike industry - especially as an architect?
Norman: I don’t know there is an advantage, but it does seem the U.S. bike industry is somewhat myopic towards the potential of reaching new markets. The bike industry has been selling a certain ethos for generations and we firmly believe that they aren’t reaching or speaking to a host of consumers. We think that there are people out there who have given up riding because they don’t have the energy to mountain bike or sport bike...when they could just saddle up anytime to a fashionable upright city bike and take a comfortable ride to the local tap.
Bespoke: How is architecture and bicycles connected in your mind, and how do the bikes you sell and the architecture you design connected? Or perhaps better: how is a bike like a building?
Norman: Architecture is actively engaged in urbanism. Creating a bicycle urbanism goes hand in hand with density and urban issues. If we can attract more of the mainstream to it, we will all reap the benefits of a more livable city. A well built building just like a well built bicycle is built to last. 95% of buildings have a 20 year life span...I think the life span of a typical bicycle is 5 or less. The European bicycle model is built to last and be sustainable. Corners are not cut to when you bring to market bicycles that will last generations...thoughtful, well constructed buildings are the same.
Bespoke: Copenhagen Cyclery started less than six months ago, but I must say, you're doing good business. So, why the name "Copenhagen Cyclery"? And, what sets you apart from the typical Chicago bike store?
Norman: In our research it became pretty clear that Copenhagen had it going on as far as a bicycle utopia...so why not strive for it stateside? We differ from your typical bicycle store since we are not trying to bring to market multiple genres of product. We are focused on lasting, well built and stylish city bikes and accessories. That’s it. We want to be an authority on the subject...much like Fourth Floor (Ed. Curbside's sister import company). We also chose Copenhagen because my wordsmith/ English Masters/ wife Shawna thought the word sounded cool.
Bespoke: Which bikes do you sell? What is the main attraction of the bikes you sell?
Norman: We flagship the hand built Velorbis line out of Denmark, love the solid reputation of Batavus, go crazy for the clever Larry vs. Harry cargo bike and drop dead over the beautifully curated Abici. All of our lines bring a fresh, enticing approach to the US market. They are definitely effortless, stylish, well considered design that have an unique appeal in our market. Designed to be low maintenance, functional, beautiful and intended for everyday use.
Bespoke: What are the common objections to people looking at a real European city bike? How do you answer them?
Norman: The biggest objection is price, though we offer a range of price sensitive categories. Many are accustomed to mass produced, price-point driven product that miss the mark on the city bike ideal. They don’t readily grasp that money saved on the front end will be money spent on maintenance or replacement. The European sensibility is to buy to last. There are literally 100 year old bikes on the streets of Amsterdam and Copenhagen. I still own a 35 year old Raleigh that I can put a little air in the tires and ride from year to year. Most over-accessorized bicycles of today need a tune up in 3 months. Who has the time and patience for that?
Bespoke: What are the responses to European city bikes in your shop? What are the challenges? How informed are the customers? Who gets it, who doesn't?
Norman: For the most part, extremely positive...and a sense of shock on the product line...almost like an alien has landed. There is a broad appreciation for our offerings mixed with a lack of understanding of the product. The majority of U.S. customers are elated to see the product but they see the bicycle as a recreational device for weekends and sporting events. There needs to be a paradigm shift and understanding of the potential of the bicycle as an everyday tool for transportation and increased quality of life. Chicago is definitely an auto-centric city but there is a trend towards de-suburbanization...which means we all need to make the city more livable. Ditching the car from time to time is one hell of a start. Once people realize bicycling in the city can be a civilized experience, not hunched over on a mountain bike, they will start to get it.
Bespoke: How do you rate the idea of a 'bike station', like the one in Millenium Park? Do most cyclists need shower facilities? Such facilities are strange in cities where most people ride under 10k to get to work and rarely break a sweat. Is Chicago adequately making a distinction between short and long distance cyclists in its infrastructure development?
Norman: I admit to not fully “getting it”. I think it does a disservice to potential riders. I’ve ridden the commuter routes with “fast-paced” commuters and more often than not...met up with them at the next stop light in addition to car-commuters. Take it easy folks...no need to sweat...you’ll only shave a few minutes and then you’ll have to take a 15 minute shower in a public facility...yikes!
Bespoke: Has the current economic recession hurt sales or are more people making wise and informed choices towards bicycles? Do you feel that bicycles are becoming less of a luxury object in peoples minds and more of a necessity? Is biking culture going to 'stick' or will the car reassert its place, despite the debacle in Detroit?
Norman: Seeing as we started in the downturn with a higher end product, we have nothing to compare to. Oil prices have softened some as we have been in the worst economic decline in our history, but it won’t last. Last summer’s oil prices and the current recession was an awakening. I believe there has been a cultural shift, everyone is saving, reassessing their lives and looking for quality experience. They all need to get back on a bicycle.
Bespoke: As an architect and a lover of European city bikes, what would the perfect Chicago look like?
Norman: We have a great asset in the city, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world, Lake Michigan. Unfortunately, from my neighborhood, there is no safe/ comfortable route via bicycle even though it is less than 1.5 miles away. Dedicated lanes to the Lake would encourage a host of new participants...a small dream.
Bespoke: Has your city seen a growth in cyclists? How about infrastructure like bike lanes? It may be a chicken and egg question, but what creates more cyclists - bike lanes or bikes designed for city riding?
Norman: There is a huge cycling trend in the city; in the last year alone I believe the City has surveyed an incredible increase in riders. The Mayor has long been a strong proponent of bicycling in the city. There is a master plan and there are city departments dedicated to it. That said, we are nowhere near a European bike utopia. No separated lanes, only a handful of thoroughfares have striped bicycle lanes while others remain death traps to even seasoned cyclists. It seems New York City as of late is making real progressive steps and at one point in time we were ahead of their game. We are keeping the faith and believe that attracting new people to cycling with attractive modes of travel will only increase the pressure on our politicians. Every “super-mom” we get on trike loaded with kids is guaranteed to raise the awareness of a more proper balance between bicyclist and auto. I won’t envy the politician faced with such a worthy foe.
Bespoke: How do you evaluate the political response to the increased interest in city biking?
Norman: The political response seems to be ripe. We are talking with our Alderman about many issues including a traffic calming-bicycle parking- node in front of our shop...and he is receptive. Ald. Manny Flores (must give credit where credit is due) is supportive of a host of sustainable practices, so the climate is ripe for our discussion. We don’t expect to change a City, but we are trying to change a fraction of the neighborhood...give people a taste, and we know they will want more.
Bespoke: Have your consumer demographics changed since you started carrying European city bikes. If so, how? What are the challenges in reaching new demographics? How do you reach out?
Norman: Well, we never carried anything else...we are still looking for our demographic. My hunch is it will be far reaching, Chicago has a great young culture of cyclist on fixies and vintage raleighs that are committed to the culture and might graduate to a European city bike built to last but we are also attracting older crowds who have stored their mountain bike for years and are looking for an excuse to ride again. We are reaching out to both groups and honestly just want to be there for the long haul. Both will drive the culture and that’s ultimately what we are in it for. Building on a new bicycle urbanism.