CURTIS WILLIAMS' business idea was personal.
An avid cyclist who'd done time volunteering at a bike co-op, he'd been having a hard time finding a pannier he was happy with. At best, he'd find one that was high functioning, waterproof, and durable, but it would be teched out and, well, dorky. So he made one himself, and the rest, more or less, is history.
Spinning off of the signature Woodward Convertible bag—a pannier that converts into a backpack—Williams' North St. Bags recently expanded its headquarters off SE Clinton and hired reps on both coasts to boost the reach of its wholesale business. This year alone, its wares have been shouted out in Bicycling and Wired.
In other words, Williams' once-personal quest has officially blown up, becoming another Portland institution sharing its know-how with the wider bike world. The company's bags and other cycling accessories are simply designed and made to order through what North St. terms a "just in time" production practice. Translation: At any given time the shop has very little inventory, allowing it to stay nimble.
Williams' interest in lean manufacturing is rooted in his background in theater as a set and lighting designer, which he says taught him "how to get things done on time and within budget." But he's also scratching the itch of liberal politics: Nearly all the materials North St. Bags uses are manufactured in the US—a feat made possible, in part, by Williams' use of sturdy fabrics originally developed for military use. (Uncle Sam still insists that his armies, at least, be all-American clad.)
Originally from Vermont, Williams had stints in New York and the Bay Area before moving to Portland and starting North St. in 2009. At the time, he didn't realize that what he was doing aligned him with a growing movement of makers and consumers who value attempts to recapture domestic manufacturing—he's a proud member of the Portland Made collective, which promotes goods made here and brands the city as a region known for its quality products. It's a culture that's certainly part of Portland's lore, and like a lot of local companies, North St. is enjoying a large customer base in Japan.
Whether here or abroad, the appeal is a simple one. North St. is a blend of function and clean, unfussy design. It's not made for weekend warriors or the lycra crowd—the bags are meant to be part of the daily life of an urban cyclist, free of overbearing "sporty" touches. Williams thinks that a progressive society is one that increasingly chooses bicycles for transportation, and his work is focused on making that transition as convenient and user-friendly as possible. North St. Bags, 2716 SE 23rd, northstbags.com
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