Brenda Ferrarin was a stay-at-home mother when she heard about eBay Inc. Surfing the pages of the popular online store, where anyone can buy or sell anything, she made a very simple observation: people want bicycles. Six years and over 5,000 bicycles later, she and her husband, Robert Ferrarin, run a sophisticated shop out of their Brooklyn home, drawing customers from the five boroughs and beyond in pursuit of an affordable bicycle.
“I wanted to bring income in as a wife,” Brenda Ferrarin, 38, said as she sat behind the counter at Sheepshead Bay Bicycles, the shop she and her husband now operate every weekend and several nights during the week. “I’ll never forget it. We bought six bikes and lined them all up over there.” She pointed at the basement wall, where bikes have been lined up ever since. “We were like, wow. Six bikes. And now we can’t even stand in our backyard, we have so many bikes.”
The Ferrarins aren’t the only people to discover the demand for a reasonably priced bike in New York City. Brenda Ferrarin calls the vintage-bicycle business “a family affair” for good reason, considering the web of relatives – including her sister’s husband’s brother, Peter Whitley, the owner of another popular shop a few blocks away and Robert Ferrarin’s former partner – who have similarly set about filling a hole in the city’s bicycle market by refurbishing used rides and selling them at a profit.
This entrepreneurial family started selling bikes in the midst of an economic crisis, but also at a time when bicycles became the new must-have accessory for the city’s trendy residents, largely due to the Department of Transportation’s initiatives. The Bloomberg Administration’s efforts have increased the estimated number of cyclists commuting into Manhattan each day from 27,000 in 2007 to 48,300 in 2011, a figure well above the goal for the four-year period. More than 200 miles of bike lanes were paved in this time frame as well. These numbers are expected to significantly grow by 2014, after the implementation of a bicycle-sharing program, which was scheduled to add 10,000 bikes to city streets this summer, but has been delayed until March 2013.
The city’s bike riders are increasingly making the trek to the unlikely bike haven of Gerritsen Beach, a residential South Brooklyn neighborhood lined with small cottage-like houses along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean, where the Ferrarins’ Sheepshead Bay Bicycles, and Whitley’s Brooklyn Vintage Bicycles are located. The former is tucked in Gerritsen Beach’s old section, defined by beach cottages that sit below street level, built long ago before sewers were put under the narrow streets. The latter can be found on a dead-end street in the new section, near the marina, and always with children playing basketball in front. Just like the strong contrasts that define these sections of the neighborhood, the same can be said for the two shops, which offer distinctly different browsing experiences for customers.
“I have definitely seen a growth over the past eight years and it just keeps on growing,” said Whitley, 39, who works for the Housing Authority by day and operates his bike shop on nights and weekends. He rummaged through his floor-to-ceiling pile of metal parts, searching to find new handlebars for a white road bike he was selling on a recent Tuesday night to a young architect from Soho. His basement shop is chaotic, with bikes carefully balanced like dominos on the floor, and others hanging from the ceiling, just feet below the home which he shares with his wife and three children.
Customers go to these Gerritsen Beach shops because of the prices. A cyclist can buy a used bike starting around $100, but many of them are in the $200 to $400 range. Both shops also offer 30-day warranties and accept credit cards, making these makeshift operations appeal even more to the mainstream bicycle shopper.
New bikes in more established Manhattan-based stores like Bike Works start at $549. Landmark Vintage Bicycles in the East Village sells used bikes, much like the ones found in Gerritsen Beach shops, and the store’s lowest quality ones start at $250.
Both shops get their bikes largely from garage and yard sales in the tri-state area. Robert Ferrarin says it costs him about $100 to obtain the bikes. He has a few retired and bicycle-loving friends in New Jersey and Long Island who search the suburbs for bikes with potential. After getting the bike, it’s just a matter of washing it, tuning it, adding handlebar wraps, and taking pictures to post the new and improved bicycle on Craigslist. He estimates that the final cost to refurbish a bike is about $150 to $175.
Lindsay Mitchell, 32, of downtown Brooklyn, went to Whitley’s store, Brooklyn Vintage Bicycles, with a friend in 2010 for a tune-up and to purchase a new bike. They rented a car to travel there.
“I had such a great experience that I wanted to get the word out about this place and hope to see Peter’s business succeed,” Mitchell said. So she wrote about her experience on the consumer crowd-sourcing site, Yelp.com, which is where Whitley believes most of his customers find him. Mitchell, who works in advertising, said she researched her options and decided on Whitley’s shop since was cheaper and had more selection than other stores closer to her home.
Jenny Lam, 22, of Bensonhurst, said she visited Whitley’s shop first with her boyfriend, but they weren’t able to find anything they were interested in. They headed over to Robert Ferrarin’s Sheepshead Bay Bicycles, where her boyfriend purchased a $220 Gary Fisher. Lam wrote a favorable Yelp review about the couple’s experience, compelled to do so after Robert Ferrarin repaired her bike for free. It was the first Yelp review she had ever written.
Lam’s preference of Robert Ferrarin’s shop over Whitley’s could be because of its very different atmosphere. The shop’s air-conditioned basement only contains the current selection of his best bikes, organized by both gender and price. The rest of his bikes – the ones that he hasn’t gotten a chance to refurbish yet – lay in a pile behind his house that he and his wife refer to as “the bike graveyard.” Biking accessories dangle from a counter, where store transactions are made with a cash register dating back to 1927 that Ferrarin found at a garage sale. Vintage signs adorn the walls.
“I love old stuff,” Robert Ferrarin, 42, said as he tuned up an orange bike that he would deliver personally to a female customer on East 90th Street in Manhattan the following day. Ferrarin, self-employed by his own construction company, spends his weekends in his basement with his wife, Brenda, and employee, Richie Delea, 46, also of Gerritsen Beach.
On a Saturday in July, Robert Ferrarin’s customers included Jay Lu, a 24-year-old Baruch College senior from Queens, as well as Emilio Dennis, a middle-aged subway booth worker, of Flatbush.
“I was surprised when I walked in here,” said Lu. He says he didn’t expect to walk into a bike store when he showed up, interested in a listing that Ferrarin posted on Craigslist. He purchased a road bike for $180. Dennis purchased a mountain bike for $220.
Gerritsen Beach has a long history of being an isolated and insular community, and lifelong residents like Brenda Ferrarin will speak the cliché that everyone knows everyone there. Now, these residents are seeing outsiders in their neighborhood – a trend that is almost guaranteed to increase with the city’s goal to triple bikers by 2014.
That might be why neither of the Gerritsen Beach bike shop owners –Whitley of Brooklyn Vintage Bicycles or Ferrarin of Sheepshead Bay Bicycles –seem too concerned about competing in such a small neighborhood.
“I used to sit on a milk crate in the corner,” laughed Robert Ferrarin, looking toward the wall where shiny bicycles now stand. He adjusted his mechanic’s stool. “I don’t know what I’ll do when this chair breaks.”