Frustrated by the bike shortage, a North Philly entrepreneur opened a shop to build and sell them himself

Steven Spielberg

This has been a rough two years.

Pandemic, job losses, partisan divides, racial tension, shuttered businesses, stay-at-home orders, skyrocketing homicide rates, and yes COVID-19. COVID, COVID, COVID. Delta, omicron, ad nauseam.

Yet, photographer Whitney Thomas — whose subjects have included Meek Mill, Patti LaBelle, Robin Thicke and Stephen A. Smith — took a chance when he spotted an unmet need in the market and decided to open a bike store in Northern Liberties.

What I like most about Bikes by Design, Thomas’ fledgling pandemic-era business, is that he’s not in it to profit from others’ misery. He created something that can help people get through one of the most trying times we have ever experienced.

Cycling benefits your mind and body. During times of high virus transmission, Philadelphians need alternatives to packing into gyms or SEPTA buses or trains. Social distancing is easy on bikes! And who could argue that it’s not extremely important these days to boost your immune system by exercising?

Besides, more of us riding two-wheelers also translates to fewer cars on the roads, which is good for the environment, and less congestion on overcrowded city streets.

» READ MORE: Omicron is spreading, and likely is why COVID-19 breakthrough cases are growing in Philly

Opening a bike shop during a global pandemic was a boss move. Thomas got the idea after his wife, Kishawna, who owns her own consulting firm, decided she would rather start biking than continue running. They went out to purchase a bicycle for her in July and discovered that stores were experiencing a boom and couldn’t keep up with demand.

“We went to two shops and it was basically like: ‘We don’t have any. We don’t know when we’re getting any. We don’t know what we’re getting in. You can give us your email address and we’ll let you know if we get anything that meets your needs,’” she told me. “And we never heard from them again.”

The Thomas family got the runaround elsewhere, too. At another shop, an associate told her she could preorder one for $4,000. But Kishawna wanted to try it out before she bought. “It wasn’t really great customer service and it wasn’t like, ‘We’re going to work with you to get you something,” she recalled.

Frustrated, Thomas asked his friend Philip Greene, who is an avid cyclist, whether he could build a bicycle for his wife and “he was like, ‘Sure.’” Later that same evening as he and his wife were relaxing at home, Thomas had an aha moment.

“We should open a store and build one for everybody,” he announced.

They immediately started trying to figure out how to get frames, wheels and other pieces from China and started scouting for locations. Fast forward to last month’s opening of Bikes by Design. Now, they’re assembling and selling bicycles themselves.

» READ MORE: If you’re celebrating the holidays, seek COVID-19 testing, keep the guest list short and other tips to stay as safe as possible

I stopped by earlier this month to check out the shop. It looks like an Apple store with its bright white walls and large windows. At the time, I also had a vague idea about buying one of the incredibly light carbon-fiber models as a Christmas gift for my husband, who wants to upgrade his Cannondale hybrid. But I quickly realized that that was a bad idea; he needs to be the one to do it because Bikes by Design’s specialty is customization.

“You can put any wheels you want on a bike, any handle bars,” Thomas explained. “The major difference is the frame.”

As for Kishawna, she finally got a bicycle — a sleek, carbon fiber road bicycle designed especially for her by Green, a co-owner of the shop.

It’s way better than what she would have bought last summer.

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