By BARRY NEWMAN
Source: Wall Street Journal
The Latest Thing With the Hyper Hip, But Worksman Isn’t ‘Very Trendoid’
In the cycling business, faster is usually better. But New York City’s Worksman Trading Corp., which has been making cargo bikes pretty much the same way for more than a century, isn’t a fast peddler.
NEW YORK—The cargo bike—a bicycle built to move stuff—is a “life-changing wonder,” according to Liz Canning’s website. Ms. Canning, a digital animator in California, is making a crowdsourced video about the coming cargo-bike “cultural revolution.”
Cargo bikes can cost $3,000 apiece—$5,000 with electric assist. They have boxes or trailers for carbon-free carting—a hyper-hip answer to the pickup truck. Small workshops build cargo bikes in the U.S., or have them built in Taiwan. Many are Dutch or Danish imports.
Oh, and there’s a New York company that makes them, in the Ozone Park section of Queens. Except it doesn’t call them cargo bikes. They are called freight bikes. They come with “massive, machined steering spindles,” “Kevlar-belted tires” and such. One model, the Super Heavy-Duty Mover, handles a 500-pound load and sells for $869.
The company is Worksman Trading Corp., named not for what it does but for Morris Worksman. He founded it, in 1898, in the belief that bicycle carts could outsell horse carts.
Horseless carriages outsold both, diverting Worksman to Good Humor carts (with jingle bells) and pizza-delivery bikes, but mainly to bikes for navigating the floors of gigantic factories.
As the oldest bicycle and tricycle maker in America, the company is poised to dominate the prophesied cargo-bike boom. Or not. Worksman isn’t a fast peddler.
Its factory, in a district of body shops and frame houses, has a bad case of scaling stucco. It made birthday candles before Worksman bought it in 1978. An enterprise across the street sells live goats.
Inside, on a cold morning, Wayne Sosin sat behind a pile of pink invoices. A Worksman family friend, he got his job 35 years ago and became part owner. Mr. Sosin, 58 years old, does allow that today’s bicycle revolutionaries aren’t all “losers” or “wackos.”
“A bicycle has two wheels and a chain,” he said. “That’s a bicycle. Now it went from being this piece of equipment to being this lifestyle thing. Very trendoid. You know what I’m saying?”
What of the cargo bike’s life-changing wonder?
“Yes and no,” said Mr. Sosin, “It won’t work for a lot of the country, the way we set up our communities. It’s not crazy, but I don’t know. It’s a little outside of my realm. We’re a sort of a throwback here.”
A walk around the factory confirmed that. Nobody could take it for one belonging to, say, Boeing, which is a Worksman industrial customer. Past crooked stacks of boxes and racks of steel tubes, Ousmane Yadte was crimping wheel-stays on a grease-gunked 70-year-old power press. Up a dusty staircase, Errol Barrett was bending a batch of the same stays, eyeballing them on a Pines Bending Machine.
“This machine was here when I started,” said Mr. Barrett, 66. That was 34 years ago. “It needs to be changed, if you ask me.”
Standing beside him, Mr. Sosin said, “They might be computerized now, but they do the same thing.”
In a green glow from the windows, welders “brazed” bike frames for strength. Women hand-threaded spokes. Men “trued” wheels on mechanical gauges. A man in a paint booth waved a spray gun. Another fitted tires. Another assembled front-loaded trikes, one by one.
“Anybody can make a bike look old fashioned,” Mr. Sosin said, passing a two-wheeled model, in production since the 1950s. “This is old fashioned.”
Worksman’s 60 workers build upward of 10,000 bikes a year, says Mr. Sosin, who will say no more about finances.
That would make it a top domestic producer in a $6 billion industry that imports 99% of its stock, by a National Bicycle Dealers Association count. Yet within the cargo-bike cult, Worksman is regarded as “very weird.”
“Very weird and very grumpy,” says Ross Evans of Xtracycle, a cargo line designed in Oakland, Calif., and made in Taiwan. Says George Bliss, a cargo-bike booster in New York: “They’re so set in their ways, they can’t even move to China.”
Worksman, for that matter, is so far out on the fringe of the cargo-bike fringe that it is spawning a sub-subculture of its own.
Pete Seltzer of Pete’s Pops in New Orleans has a Worksman ice-cream cart and an idea for a “salad cart.” Jacques Gauthier, of Fort Reno, a barbecue place in Brooklyn, fitted his front-loader with a mobile brisket smoker. Howard Lefkowitz, of Ding Bikes in Winter Park, Fla., is getting retirees to swap golf carts for Worksman PAVs (Personal Activity Vehicles) with extra-wide-bottomed seats.
Apart from bike-crazy Portland, Ore., Florida ranks high as a cargo-bike nursery. In Key West, bikes bunch up around the bars like kelp at low tide. Tourists go home to spread the word.
In November, Billy Kearins, 34, arrived in Key West as U.S. representative for Christiania, of Denmark. His “boxcycle” has seven speeds, front-disc brakes, a canopy. It sells for $2,800. “It’s a refined version of the Worksman,” he said in his new shop on a warm afternoon.
Worksman doesn’t have a retail rep in Key West, or anyplace else, but it does have Tom Theisen, whose local tag is “Bike Man.” Mr. Theisen, 52, rents Chinese bikes to tourists. He used a pickup to service them until 2010, then ditched it for a Worksman with leaf-spring suspension. That’s refined enough for him.
“I’m a Worksman marketer, in my own way,” he said before starting out on the job one morning. “People see me, the Bike Man, hauling all sorts of stuff. They see it’s possible.”
Here (in the middle of the road) is where he pedaled:
To a friend’s house to drop off three coconuts. To a garage to collect two crates of bikes from China. To a workshop to deliver the crates, and to pick up a pile of trash and old tires. To a recycling station to throw that out.
To the Publix supermarket to buy 24 rolls of toilet paper, 12 bottles of beer, a gallon of laundry soap and sundry items totaling $140. (Where a man watching him load the trike outside said, “That’s quite a lot.”) To a heap of tree trimmings to procure three fresh coconuts. And home to unload groceries and make lunch.
Write to Barry Newman at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared February 20, 2013, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: As Bikes of Burden Rise, One Company Peddles Slowly to the Revolution.