Downtown Express photo by Jonathan Alpeyrie
George Philbert, the longtime owner of Bikes, By George!, on E. Fourth St.
East Village bicycle legend just keeps on rolling
By Stephen Wolf
On a bad acid trip in 1980 my motorcycle seemed like death, so after straightening out, I sold it and bought a bicycle at a neighborhood shop just east of First Ave. on 12th St. It was a storefront on the street’s uptown side with old bikes chained together beside the open door. Bicycles hung in the picture windows paralleling the entrance, but only old bicycles, all of them used, well used. Inside it was crammed, was overwhelmed, with used bikes lined up together. There was a wooden platform just above them with more bikes. It was a cavern of bikes from floor to ceiling. Even from the ceiling hung shiny rims and new, slender tires and gently curving handlebars, until it seemed as if three bike shops were really pressed into just this one.
Yet despite the seeming disorder and entanglement, the shop was quiet, peaceful, not even a radio. Though incense burned somewhere, its scented smoke stringing through the spokes and slick smell of oil. There was a pathway open in the center where a black air hose snaked its finger-thick way outside, and deep in the shop a man repaired a bike. He was tall, dark, slender, handsome, patient, polite. I liked him instantly, especially his soft smile.
“I need a bike,” I pleaded, “with gears and handlebars that drop down. And a skinny seat. And no basket.”
He calmly considered this for a while as he continued working, but then put down his wrench, wiped his hands on a dark rag and carefully untangled a used white Peugeot 10-speed from the heaps. He oiled it here and there, pumped up the tires, then showed me how to use the gears and levers; he worked steadily, unhurried, then stuck a little yellow sticker on the down tube: “Bikes, By George!”
I liked the sticker, its grammar and emphasis.
I quickly fell in love with the bike, named it Dove and saw the streets and parks in the best of ways. Visits to the shop turned more frequent: Show me again how the gears work? And I need a patch kit. And an air pump, if I ever get a blowout (which I admitted I didn’t even know how to repair). So I bought tire irons, a spare tube and a small pack to keep it all fastened beneath the seat, then, unasked, simply hung out, watched and learned. And the quiet owner let me stay because I didn’t make small talk and he knew I loved my bike.
Sometimes I’d hand him a tool, inflate a customer’s tire, get him coffee. In time, when he closed the shop after his long day we’d sit in his small office, sip rum and gaze without leer or sleaze at the magazine foldouts pinned to the wall.
His name is George Philbert, and like many of us in New York he’s from somewhere else — he from Trinidad — but lured here by the same promise most of us heard: There’s a better life waiting on the slender island of Manhattan if we work hard and believe it.
In his strong, young manhood he was a champion, for years racing in the Caribbean Games when “we stayed on our bikes all day,” he once said with a quiet smile. “We lived on our bikes.” And while he fixes your flat tire or strings new brake cables, imagine his long, lean, powerful legs at one time cycling tropical roads that curve along the sea; winds cool him as he climbs steep hills, legs burning, before soaring down at great speed, past gravity and fear to what gets as close to flight as you can feel still touching the earth by only a tire tread’s width. As he works on your bike, look to the wall near the back, where modestly, through the tangle of shiny rims and silver spokes, glass-covered and framed in black, is a dim, gold-sealed certificate, old newspaper clippings, a faded prize ribbon and a picture of George on a racing bike looking only a bit younger, a little more trim, and life was simpler.
With a grace, accent and appearance similar to that of Sidney Poitier, George arrived in 1970 amid some of the deepest struggles New York had ever encountered, and which would last another 20 years. But after working hard in a few shops, George opened his own on E. 12th, where I first staggered in 30 years ago. I cycled then in all weather, did messenger work when most desperate, and always needed something from George’s; he once loaned me a freewheel while he repaired my old Peugeot. For a while, his sons worked there, and as the years passed swifter than a downhill, he fastened a little seat on my cross tube and placed footrests on the down tube so first my daughter and later my son could ride between my arms.
Two years ago the rent on the 12th St. shop jumped from $1,500 to 9 G’s a month; Bikes, By George! is at 193 E. Fourth St. now just east of Avenue A in a shop half the size of the old one. A couple of new bikes hang in the windows, but George’s doesn’t carry sleek, colorful cycling clothes made of Lycra, he doesn’t carry carbon frames designed in Italy nor any aerodynamic rims, helmets or expensive racing goggles. But if you need a basket, a lock, a new (used) wheel or seat (actually a saddle), if you have a flat or have snapped a brake or gear cable, need brake pads, pedals, handlebars, a nut or bolt, a cluster or crank, George has it. For a while, he might poke his long, bruised finger through oily boxes of parts but he will find it, and when you ask, “How much do I owe?” he turns uneasy, always charges too little, and you’re back on the streets.
On spring and summer and autumn days, one loyal customer after another enters the shop, all of us knowing George for years or at least feeling as if we do. We come with a bike in need of repair or pick up one newly fixed, or sometimes with nothing at all, just a good feeling for this good man. But it’s winter now, when cycling takes a big hit. Business is very slow, and even George’s Jack Russell terrier stays home when it’s cold. Someone calls checking if he’s open. But he notices daylight’s lasting longer, and with hope in his heart that what he stored from the year is enough, George lifts his eyes momentarily from his work, removes his glasses (needed for close work now), and says not to me but to the gray and frozen street, “Spring is coming.”