Vermont native Curtis Williams’ first ideas about bike bags came as he pedaled along Route 7, returning from New York City, where he was studying theater design. He had some panniers, he says, “but I wasn’t that jazzed about them. I liked their system, but they looked like gear. I wanted to create something that had a little bit softer, more stylish edge to it.”
The opportunity came a few years later, in 2007, at a Berkeley, California nonprofit called Waterside Workshops. Besides the bike shop where Curtis helped people fix their rides, Waterside had a woodworking shop and a sewing studio. He developed his first design, a bag that converts from pannier to backpack. When he moved up to Portland in 2009, bought a Juki industrial sewing machine on Craigslist and started working in the basement of his Woodward Avenue home, that design became the Woodward Convertible.
Williams launched North St. Bags, named for the Montpelier street his grew up on. Working alone, he made bags for two of his best friends. “The look of joy on their faces,” he says, “motivated me to keep going with it.” He credits the BikeCraft show, which he first attended just a few weeks after opening his Portland shop, with connecting him to the local market. “I literally only had like two bags on the table, because that was all I had made,” he says.
Today, Williams employs three other people, working on ten sewing machines, in his workshop and showroom off Southeast Clinton Street. The help has allowed him to step back from production and focus on new products. “I’m pretty hands-on when it comes to design,” he says, “I like to get in there and get my hands dirty on something.”
To manage the shop, he uses some lessons he learned studying set construction, lighting design, and rigging in New York. “Getting a set amount of work done on time and on budget was a very big part of putting a theater production up, because you had this schedule you had to meet. It’s all just happening.”
From the union of cycling and working with his hands, Williams has created a thriving business. “I really believe in cycling,” he says. “Bicycle transportation is the key to making our cities more sustainable, and I just want to make products that make it easier to do more trips on a bicycle.”