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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: BICYCLE BUSINESSES POP UP IN DOWNTOWN WILMINGTON, PERHAPS SIGNIFYING A GREATER MOVEMENT

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Transportation seems to be on people’s minds these days with summer coming and vacation-planning creeping around the corner. Though many people immediately think “road trip,” a growing segment of our population is turning away from the fossil-fuel dependency and toward other options.

scrap iron

The entrance to downtown Wilmington’s only bicycle repair shop and gallery and bar. Photo, courtesy Scrap Iron.

Dump the Pump Day is approaching on June 18 and Bike to Work Week just wrapped up in May. Dump the Pump Day is actually the brain child of the American Public Transportation Association and for a decade has been raising awareness about public transit as a cost-effective alternative to driving. It is more successful and widely publicized in areas with heavy commuter traffic and better public transit available than here, but perhaps this would be an opportunity to shine a light on the Brunswick Connector as an option for commuters from Brunswick County into Wilmington. Bike to Work Week heavily was promoted by our city as an opportunity for people to utilize the River to the Sea and the Gary Shell Cross City Trail.

In the midst of this, two new bicycle themed businesses have sprouted in Wilmington: Scrap Iron Bicycle Gallery and Bar (118 Princess St.), a bike shop and watering hole downstairs from Bottega Art and Wine Bar, and The Peddler Café, a mobile bicycle coffee shop (think of a food truck but with a bicycle instead of a truck).

“Actually I think our first week [in business] was [during] Bike to Work week,” Niles Merritt, owner of The Peddler Café, notes with a grin.

We are standing in the parking lot of PPD, and I am sipping hot, fresh coffee from the cart, as Niles and his wife Samantha greet everyone who enters the building with a smile and a wave. The husband-and-wife team pedal to PPD every morning and set up shop in the parking lot with their mobile café. Other spots they frequent have included the parking lots of Tar Heel Creamery (15 S Water St.) and Cape Fear Formal Wear (218 N 3rd St.). Like food trucks they must get zoning clearance from the city for every location they visit. More so, they cannot be in a location that a food truck has served that day—even though they are not technically a food truck.

“These exist in Europe and Washington state and [there is] one in Boston,” Samantha points out. But, here, the Merritts are an anomaly. Besides falling in a strange zoning and regulation area, just trying to get the bike café built was an adventure. The Merrits recount going to the local bike shop to describe what they were trying to do, but no one sold anything quite like what they had in mind.

“David Park made it,” Niles explains.

“David Park’s family made it,” Samantha clarifies.

Apparently, Park built the cart on top of a bike trailer, another family member did the canvas work to keep all the shelves, coolers and baked goods from failing out, and another family member made the sign. The result is a beautiful wood-sided aluminum rectangle about the height of a bar and wide enough for both the Merritts to serve customers comfortably from the array of coffee urns, ice chests and a hidden compartment behind it. The thoughtful design is quite stunning and adds another dimension to the curiosity they provoke with their upstart.

Moseying up Princess Street from Front, a small chalkboard will beckon folks off the sidewalk and into the basement of downtown’s only bike-repair shop and gallery and bar all-in-one.

“We first opened January 16th, so we’ve been here about three months,” co-owner Elizabeth Sargent says. “At first we just wanted to have a bike shop downtown.”

When she and her partner, Brandon Lannie, found the spot below Bottega, the possibility of expanding it into a bar and art gallery came into the equation. “I’ve always wanted to have a gallery bar,” Sargent confesses.   

Provocative and colorful works from Anvil & Ink Tattoo and Piercing Shop on Castle Street line the walls. Gypsy clothing and accessories hang on a single rack, and the back wall is lit with a movie projection showing the latest episode of “Adventure Time.”

“We started doing movie nights, too, which have been popular,” Sargent tells.

“Bicycle-themed movies?” I ask.

“Yes, but we’ve expanded, because we’ve already shown the ones on Netflix,” she says. “Plus, we started adding live shows, which have been popular—especially with metal bands, since we’re in a basement and don’t have to worry as much about noise ordinances. And our art shows have really taken off; we hang a new one every six weeks.”

At the heart of it, Sargent and Lannie have been bicycle-focused for years. They met from being active in bike clubs in other areas: For Lannie, it was Richmond; for Sargent, Charlotte. When they moved to Wilmington, both missed the vibe and camaraderie of their previous clubs. So, they started a Monday night social ride. Every week they beckon other riders to get together and cruise the city en masse.

The bike shop seemed a natural progression. Lannie had upstarted a nonprofit a few years ago, Get Wheel. He went into Wilmington and Jacksonville’s inner-city neighborhoods and offered free bike repair for at-risk youth. Sargent, too, had been involved in charities through her own bike club in Charlotte. Each want Scrap Iron to continue their love for fundraising and give-back.

“My grandma died and left me a little bit of money…” Sargent trails off during her explanation of the shop’s inception.

“What a great way to honor her memory,” I observe, thinking about my own business that owes its existence to similar circumstances.

“Yeah, something bigger than me—hopefully, that will last,” Sargent nods.

In that vein, Scrap Iron is planning a block party in the fall to try to raise money to help fund lights on bike paths across town. They also are developing different educational opportunities for cyclists in the area.

“We want to have bike clinics on Saturdays,” Sargent notes. “We want to have a four-week course for people to learn the basics: tune up, safety check, how to tighten your breaks, little things like that—change tires . . . then we’re going to have do-it-yourself Sundays where anyone can work on their bikes.” 

Sargent glows with excitement at the possibilities, as she should. There are few things more exhilarating in the world than to share a passion with the community that will embrace those dreams and allow entrepreneurs to channel it into something bigger.

Scrap Iron is slowly moving in the direction of developing a bike co-op. Yet, in the meantime, they’re a conveneient downtown stop to get brakes fixed and enjoy a cool, frothy beverage with some fellow cyclists. “Bikes and beers just go together,” Sargent says with a grin and shrug.

The Peddler Café hopes to expand by adding a catering component, maybe a solar panel and a blender set-up. Many things are possible, but right now they are enjoying serving fair-trade organic coffee roasted by Jaun Puccini at Folks Café on N. 4th Street and meeting as many new people as they can. For the Merritts, the cart is a way to build community. Niles speaks Spanish and Samantha is continuing to learn American sign language, which lets them reach a larger group than they expected.

It seems a sign of the times that the movement has arrived. Entrepreneurship is the American way of embracing social movements. If we have not one, but two bicycle businesses opening shop just over the last few months, it’s an indicator that something is on the move.

Given the population influx we have experienced—and are projected to continue growing faster than other areas in the state—our issues around traffic, commuting and fossil fuels are only going to become more acute. How awesome that we now have more options for promoting and embracing the clean and healthy alternative of cycling for transport?

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