New York City’s neighborhood bike shop. Let the significance of those words sink in for a minute.
Anywhere else, such a distinction might be met with a healthy dose of apathy. Baseless marketing claims have long been a staple of the advertising world, and it’s doubtful anyone would bother to raise an eyebrow over the cycling king of, say, Rochester (no offense, Upstate). But this isn’t Rochester; this is Gotham. The Five Boroughs. The Empire City. If you’re going to talk the talk here, you’d better have your Giro’s laced and the goods to back it up.
And as it happens, Charlie McCorkell and the team at Bicycle Habitat have both.
To give that statement some credibility, you’ll have to travel back to the late 70’s – a decade the Times once described as “some of the darkest, bleakest years in New York’s history.” Here amid a plague of crime, corruption, and racial tension, a partnership was about to form that would forever change the cycling landscape in the Big Apple. And it all started with a trip to the privy.
“Bicycle Habitat grew out of a meeting in my apartment,” says Charlie matter of factly, referencing his former role as director of an advocacy group called Transportation Alternatives. “I got up and went to the bathroom after the meeting was over, and when I came back into the room my wife said ‘you and [co-founder] Hal [Ruzal] are going to open a bike shop together.’”
Half a year later, the original Bicycle Habitat opened its doors on Lafayette Street in Lower Manhattan, focused on two revolutionary concepts: promoting cycling activism and increasing bike accessibility. It was 1978, and New York’s cycling community had found a home.
“Those early days were all about getting more people riding,” says Charlie. “We were talking about the price of oil, convenience, regulating your weight, keeping you healthy, the mental benefits, and on and on.”
As the outreach of the shop increased, so too did its influence. In the 1980’s, when then-mayor Ed Koch sought to ban cyclists from certain city streets, Bicycle Habitat led the charge to fund a legal challenge and city-wide bike messenger strike. Their robust advocacy efforts took root, and slowly cycling lanes began popping up on city streets and in parks, and bikes were allowed on commuter trains and subway cars. New York’s bicycle revolution was underway.
Explore New York with the City’s Most Historic Bike Shop:
A staple of that revolution was, oddly enough, bike rentals. “We’ve always done rentals,” says Charlie. “Ever since we opened.” Whether they’re facilitating test rides or accommodating tourists, Bicycle Habitat has made it a point to give riders full access to both their city and their inventory – even if it’s just for the day. So when it came time to pair up with a platform that would help modernize their rental services, the decision wasn’t particularly difficult to make.
“It became obvious that [Spinlister] was a good match,” says Charlie. “Before people even get here, they know that they have a bike waiting for them; they know where they’re going to be getting it; they know that it’s going to be exactly what they want.”
This focus on meeting expectations is important to the lifelong city resident, who takes his shop’s role as New York’s cycling ambassador to heart. “I want people to feel that New York is the best city in the world,” he says. “Our customers have the sense that they will be taken care of, and that they’ll get a feel of how vibrant this city is. Personally, that’s very important to me, so we always do our best to keep up with, and in some cases get ahead of, what matters most to them.”
Spread out between four locations in Chelsea, Soho, Park Slope and Prospect Heights, Charlie has enlisted the help of his sons to help ensure that Bicycle Habitat’s core values remain undiluted. Whether you’re picking up a rental bike in Manhattan, or buying new gear in Brooklyn, you can be assured of four things: staff kindness, environmental awareness, insightful knowledge and a passion for local riding.
In the end, regardless whether you’re talking about New York or New Hartford, isn’t that what being a neighborhood bike shop is all about?