I Want Your Job finds Torontonians who make a living doing exactly what they love to do, in any field, and for any salary, and asks them how they did it.
Name: Eric Kamphof
Job: General Manager of Curbside Cycle, Founder and Manager of Fourth Floor Distribution.
If you want to work at Bloor Street bike haven Curbside Cycle, you better be prepared to do any and every kind of task. “You can never say ‘Oh, this isn’t in my job description,’ because it’s like, ‘What is your job description?’” laughs general manager Eric Kamphof. “You have to be a person that loves to always change or expand their job. We look for a lot of self-starters.”
When it comes to initiative, Kamphof puts his money where his mouth is. As both the manager of Curbside and founder of bike wholesale company Fourth Floor Distribution, Kamphof juggles his time between chatting up customers on the store’s street-level sales floor and hunkering down in the second-floor office, where he and partner Donny Fairborn run their rapidly expanding bike business.
While working at Curbside, which Kamphof describes as a particularly urban-friendly bike store, he became motivated by biking habits of urban western Europe. “We wanted to bring in city bikes from Holland that are upright, fashionable, and can function as your car,” he says. “There were no city bikes on the market [in Canada], so we became the first company to bring Dutch bikes to North America.” Fourth Floor was founded four years ago, and Kamphof began selling the bikes at Curbside with owner Don’s blessing. Today, the company is booming, with places across the continent clamoring to sell the bikes; Kamphof just returned from New York City, where he helped set up four stores.
“We’re kind of on a mission here,” Kamphof admits about both the store and his company, which operate in tandem—the store, at 412 Bloor Street West, sells the company’s bikes and products. “The project is bringing city bikes back to the world, dignifying the bicycle beyond just a toy and turning it back into transportation. We want to bring biking back to the people.” He’s specifically talking about city-living people, the folks who use bikes everyday as a fun and convenient way of getting around. Describing the Dutch bike, a sleek and sturdy black machine whose elegance motivated him to start the distribution company, Kamphof points out just how much bang you get for your buck: “If you spend only seven hundred dollars for your primary mode of transportation, well, that’s the cheapest and most amazing thing on earth.”
Torontoist: How did you first become interested in bikes?
Eric Kamphof: I grew up in Vancouver in a slightly fundamentalist, controlling family, and I wanted something that was mine. In Vancouver there were endless recreational opportunities, so I just latched on to bikes. I ended up going to this bicycle store every day after school and begging for a job.
So I got my first job when I was sixteen working in a bike store. I actually dropped out of high school to work in a bike store, realizing very quickly that that was one of the stupidest moves of my life. I ended up doing the adult night school thing and did my BA in Edmonton, and what did I do for a job while I was there? I worked in a bike store. I came to Toronto to do my Master’s degree, which I have, and I worked here [at Curbside]. When I started here, 90% of the customers were city cyclists, and I thought that this was an incredibly rare store. What a magical place! All these people I would just love to talk to all day, and people were so receptive to say, bringing in Dutch bikes….It’s only because we were based in the Annex, and in Toronto, that [Fourth Floor] worked. It couldn’t have happened in New York. It had to happen here first.
How do you combine managing the store with running your own company?
I became the general manager of Curbside first, but I wanted more. We [Fourth Floor] are retailers first—we’re not just a wholesale company. Because we work in retail, there’s not one question we haven’t heard from a customer. Nothing keeps you more honest than meeting and talking to people face to face.
Curbside is cool because it’s like our test [of how the product can sell in a store]. The owner Don [was behind the company]—he’s used to throwing all his money on a stupid risk. He loves that shit! He’s a great risk-taker. He lives in NYC now, so we just started the company from within the store. And now we’re like, selling bikes all over the place!
How does Curbside differ from other bike stores?
The store started as a tent on the side of the curb, out in front of the Brunswick House…The tent was taking old bikes people had and making them city-friendly. I come from Surrey, which is so spread-out, but I always had a real soft spot for city cyclists.
Most bike stores have a real “dude” element, but here there’s nice soft stuff to touch and pretty leather saddles. We put that stuff up front, so by the time customers make it to the bikes they aren’t intimidated any more….[and] if you go downstairs, it’s a spandex-free zone. You don’t adapt your body to get in a car to go to work, why should it be any different on a bike? It should adapt itself to you. Yet you’ve got this whole movement in North American where you have to wear all this micro-sports stuff and you look like a dork, and when you get to work you have to take a shower because your super-fast road bike made you sweat so much. A city cyclist already lives downtown—80% of their life is lived within ten kilometres of home. That’s the interesting thing about the urbanite: the best way to glue their life together is with a bike. And the glory of riding is that you can create your own route, you’ve got more freedom, and you can explore a bit.
Can you explain a bit about your philosophy on urban biking?
We believe that most people in downtown centres should be riding bikes. If you can take away the basic fear, which is like, “Oh am I safe?”—and of course that’s a totally legitimate concern—but if you can take that away to some degree with a better product, then that’s good. Are you going to feel safe on Toronto streets riding a thin-tired racing bike that goes way too fast? No, you are not! You are going to feel amazingly safe, though, riding a big ol’ Dutch bike.
This is the success of the Paris bike share program, which is kind of the predecessor to the Bixi program in Montreal. Imagine Paris—no one was riding a bike because it’s full of mini-scooters that drive like maniacs everywhere…this is the world’s most dangerous city to ride in, yet this is the place where they launched the bike share program, and it caught on. And it caught on with Parisians, who are some of the world’s most fashionable people. Bikes? Fashion? Disconnect, for the most part, but they managed to make this beautiful product that was extremely barrier-free so you could be that cashmere-clad, beautiful Parisian and you could hop on this bike and your couture wouldn’t get damaged. And the thing about it was that the bike felt safe, so you could actually negotiate traffic. That was three or four years ago and at that time there were no bike lanes to be seen in Paris, but people riding bikes tamed traffic, because they become traffic.
So how do you feel about Toronto in terms of being a bike-friendly city?
Toronto’s a wonderful city to bike in—I take backstreets almost everywhere I go. We have tons of cyclists but we don’t know it, because we only measure success by bike lanes—and we have shitty bike lanes. This is a garbage city for bike lanes. And then we just elected Rob Ford. What the fuck? It’s so stupid! To pit the suburbs against the urban centre like that…I’m all for fiscal responsibility, but bicycles are fiscally responsible! If you look at all the cyclists out there right now and turn them into drivers—yeah, have fun driving. Every driver in downtown Toronto right now should be thanking cyclists because they are making the roads actually move that much better.
We rent bikes [at Curbside], and all these tourists are like, “Oh my god, Toronto’s the best city I’ve ridden in.” They think it’s amazing! But we just keep electing these morons! We are trying to help cycling’s image problem—we want to get it back from guys who think of their bike as a weapon and who ride against traffic and it’s all confrontational. Give me a break! ….There should be no such thing as a “hardcore” city cyclist.
[But] it’s not one or the other [cycling or driving; "I love driving a car," Kamphof says. "Cars are fun, but not downtown."]. Everybody here is all or nothing: are you a cyclist or are you a driver? Come on. That’s just crazy.
What’s your favourite part of running a bike store and a bike company?
We’ve got this guy in Halifax who came to Curbside six months ago, and I thought this guy was one interesting cat. There was something about him. We started talking, and he said, “I want to open up a bike store just like yours in Halifax,” and I was like, “I’ll help you with that!” He opened up this amazing bike store called Halifax Cycle Gallery. He’s a documentarian and whenever he hangs around here [Curbside] he’s like, “I got to do a TV show about you guys. You’re like the Jersey Shore of bike stores.” I don’t know if that’s a compliment, but we definitely know how not to take ourselves too seriously, and I think that’s really great.
Working at a bike store is a great job, because you get to sell this wonderful activity. That’s what we like about bikes—at the end of the day, you can make bikes as political as you want, but they’re not. They’re just an easy way to get around the city.
Photos by Lodoe-Laura Haines-Wangda/Torontoist.