When you go to a bike shop, it’s good to know that the person you’re dealing with is a true believer in how awesome bikes are. You want to know they’ll treat your bike with care or will actually sell you a bike that’s as good as they say it is. One way to know for sure that you’re at a good bike shop is if it’s run by someone who despite being run over by a garbage truck, still keeps riding and decides she’s going to devote her life to bikes. Nechama Levy, co-owner of new Crown Heights bike shop Bicycle Roots, is just that someone.
The Crown Heights iteration of Bicycle Roots, at 609 Nostrand Avenue, is actually Levy’s second go at running the shop. She started with a shop in Bed-Stuy in April last year, but after having landlord problems, and problems with the space that forced the staff to work on the sidewalk some days, Levy and partner Joe Lawler decided they would try somewhere else. Another problem with their Bed-Stuy location? No roll down grate meant Levy slept in the store to protect their stock sometimes. “I have two big dogs, so it wasn’t a huge problem,” she said with a shrug.
After they settled on their Crown Heights location, Levy and Lawler used Lucky Ant to crowd fund part of their opening. As Levy explains, it wasn’t so much to get people to pay for their new space, but to “keep the customer base involved and keep people invested in the opening of the new space.
After being without a bike shop from December of 2012 through this summer, Levy and Lawler opened Bicycle Roots on June 22 this year. Fully stocked with new bikes and accessories, Levy explains the difference between her shop and others out there is that if you want, you can get involved in your bike repair down to the most minute detail. Instead of a mechanic telling you what they’re going to do with your bike, you’re free to hang out, donate three bucks to the store for a frosty beverage and talk through how you’d like a mechanic to fix your bike.
“It’s your bike, it’s your property, so you know what you want to get out of it,” is Levy’s explanation for the open air repair policy.
Not that Levy doesn’t know what she’s doing with a
hydrospanner chain breaker. The former medical assistant left that life behind in 2007 after enrolling in the United Bicycle Institute in Portland, Oregon to learn the ropes of being a bike mechanic. She came back to New York immediately after that and found a job as a mechanic at TriBeca’s Gotham Bikes, starting her journey through a few New York shops before she decided, at age 26, to just go ahead and open her own shop.
Bicycle Roots is just another interesting notch in Levy’s story. A native New Yorker from Jamaica Estates, Queens, the Cornell grad was raised in a small Orthodox community before leaving the faith and experiencing your typical teenage rebellion with pink and green hair, safety pin piercings and even some time as a drummer in a rock band.
As for why she left the Orthodox lifestyle behind, Levy explains that it’s a faith with rules for just about everything, which she found constricting. “The rules make your life a ritual act, and when your whole life is ritual, you don’t have much time to accomplish anything. When you decide to not let rules run your life, you have time to accomplish things.”
But about that garbage truck. In 2007 Levy was hit by a driver with the Royal Waste sanitation company (who clearly was in need of our guide on not running people over) while on her bike. The driver ran over her feet, and Levy, conscious throughout the painful endeavor, came out of it with flattened and bruised feet. After 6 weeks in a wheelchair, she was still devoted to getting back on her feet and back on a bike.
Staring down the other oncoming truck that is gentrification, Levy isn’t that worried. Crown Heights is where her grandparents originally landed in Brooklyn, and despite the neighborhood’s soaring rents pushing out even recent arrivals, Levy is committed to staying and becoming part of the fabric of the neighborhood. She’s also confident that Brooklyn’s focus on local business will keep her from being pushed out.
“If every store on Nostrand Avenue were a big national chain, we’d have to become a fancy bike shop,” she said laughing. “But there’s a vibrant, local retail mix here that we can be part of.”