A tell-tale sign of spring and summer in Montreal occurs when the bikes emerge from hibernation. Cyclists speed down the sides of roads and bike paths, every vacant space on campus is occupied by a chained-up bike, and BIXI stands return to the city’s streets. Montreal’s friendliness to cycling is unrivaled by most North American cities, and promotes a strong cycling culture. This community has given rise to a number of underground bike shops that allow closer contact between the bike seller and buyer. I talked to Wesley McCoy and Tom Watt, who have both used their passion for and knowledge of bikes to found small, word-of-mouth shops in their neighbourhoods.
McCoy operates Retro Vintage out of his basement in St. Henri , and specializes in vintage bikes. “I try to look for anything that’s kind of out of the usual,” said McCoy. “I won’t go looking for standard mountain bikes. Anything from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, or older when I can find them.” Originally just a hobby, Retro Vintage now offers a wide array of vintage bicycles and other vintage craftworks on its web site.
Vélo Dervish, run by Watt, is situated in the basement of a North African café in Mile End. The alley entrance down a flight of stairs into a claustrophobic workshop full of bicycle frames emphasizes the underground nature of Watt’s shop. Watt began three years ago when a friend gave him an old bike that he fixed and sold for $60. He used the money to buy more old bikes, which he subsequently fixed and sold until it snowballed into his current overflowing operation.
Recent trends have made vintage goods more popular and chic, but the demand for vintage bikes is as much about utility as it is their aesthetic appeal. “I think it’s a question of durability and a question of style,” explains McCoy. “Vintage bikes have been around forever and I find that all bikes now look exactly the same, and the old ones have so much style and so much personality…. There is a lot of demand for the retro kind of stuff and I think it’s going to last a while for the bikes because they’re so indestructible.” Watt agreed. “Parts have gotten better…but old steel frames are so beautiful and so well made and they don’t make them like that anymore,” he said. A typical Vélo Dervish bike may be a hybrid of modern parts on a vintage frame, to make a high quality bike at an affordable price.
While they are able to sell more affordable bikes by purchasing and fixing older ones, both Watt and McCoy hold to a high standard of ethics when it comes to the widespread problem of bike theft in Montreal. “I make sure that I get them from trustworthy sources,” said McCoy, who always checks the serial numbers with the police before accepting a bike. “A couple of times I’ve gone to get bikes and it just didn’t feel right…. It wouldn’t do well for my reputation and for my business and for anything to be in possession of a stolen bike, or worse, selling one.”
“Someone’s bike is very personal for them,” acknowledges Watt, who once witnessed a bike theft in front of his house and chased the thief down the street with a wooden Kendo stick. “I make sure, as much as I can, that they’re not stolen. There’s such a thing called karma, or ‘bike-ma.’ Even if someone gave [stolen bikes] to me for 5 bucks, I wouldn’t take them.”
Both McCoy and Watt have a strong desire to serve the Montreal cycling community. Operating mostly through word of mouth and web sites – with the occasional Craigslist advertisement – Retro Vintage and Vélo Dervish offer a more affordable alternative to new bikes found at a retail store, often at a higher quality, and with the ability to provide more personalized service. “It’s really small. I’m the only person there so basically when I have a customer and they buy something they’ll always be dealing directly with me,” explains McCoy. Echoing McCoy’s sentiment about personal service, Watt values a more ethical business model than larger stores.
“I don’t care so much about money, I care that the person is happy,” claims Watt. “The current business model is the anti-model. If you want to look at [a big corporation], look at what their business plan is and mine is the opposite. It’s really people first and to go person by person and not to treat someone like a client because that is the biggest bullshit.” Neither McCoy’s and Watts’ motivation is monetary. It arose instead out of a passion for cycling and their craft. “For me cycling is and was a major passion, and I started the bike business just to help people to get good bikes, and to be able to do something that I love,” said Watt.
With bikes packed to the low roof in Watt’s dimly lit warehouse, he plans to move to the larger basement space next door, and has just received a license to make his business more legitimate. He recently quit his job to focus primarily on his bike business, though he wants to maintain the underground ethic. “People are sick of being considered consumers, so when they come to something that’s underground, they have so much love for you because it’s laid back,” said Watt. “I will close Vélo Dervish’s door as soon as it becomes not laid back and it becomes something for money.”
The decision for Watt to start the underground bike shop was a natural choice in line with his personal ideology. “It’s free market capitalism, but not capitalism in the predatory sense, which they have now,” said Watt. “It means they don’t want to crush people and they don’t want to get things for greed. They have a product they want to sell and they want to help people.”
For McCoy and Watt, the spirit of their underground bike shops reflects the broader culture of Montreal cycling. “[In Montreal] there’s this spontaneous feeling and I think that’s part of the bike scene,” said Watt. “Cyclists want to be free. If anything, they love the bike because it gives them freedom.”
To get in contact with the shops in this article, visit velodervish.blogspot.com or retrovintage.ca.