Brixton Cycles: a crowdfunded future

Can local bike shops survive the squeeze of ever-rising property prices? Georgina-Kate Adams looks at how crowdfunding saved Brixton Cycles

Brixton Cycles has been serving the South London community for 33 years but since discovering the shop’s premises were to be demolished, to make way for luxury flats, Saturday 23 January was the day that many had been dreading; the day they closed their doors on Stockwell Road for the last time. However, thanks to a community-led campaign this was not the end for Brixton Cycles - it was the start of an exciting new chapter.

In November 2015, London’s oldest worker-owned bike co-operative raised more than £62,000 through a carefully-planned crowdfunding campaign. These contributions have gone towards the cost of moving and renovating a new home in the area. And not just any home but a prime spot for commuter traffic on Brixton Road, a third larger than the Stockwell Road premises.

Proud local history

Started with a grant from the Co-operative Development Agency in 1983, Brixton Cycles was established by three cyclists who met on a ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats. It was founded with a core value of Equality at the heart of all it does.

When it first opened on Coldharbour Lane, Brixton was still recovering from the 1981 riots. Yet over the next 18 years, the shop flourished. That is, until 2001, when rising rent prices forced Brixton Cycles to relocate to Stockwell Road. The move almost brought the shop to its knees, costing more than £80,000. So when the team found out that it would have to move again, it was a kick in the teeth.

Lincoln Romain, the co-op’s longest-serving team member (for 26 years) said: ‘Brixton Cycles has played a key role in the development of this community over the last 33 years. Suddenly it felt like we were being excluded from the next chapter of Brixton’s story.’

Community milestone

The team discussed their options - as a cooperative, they didn’t have reserves of cash in the bank, and apart from finding the money to move, there was a lack of available (or affordable) property in the area. Then one of the co-op’s newer members, Beck Lane (at BC for two years), suggested crowdfunding. Initially the team was a little hesitant, because it’s still a new phenomenon. And the all-or-nothing nature of crowdfunding meant that if the full target wasn’t achieved, they might have invested a lot of time and effort only to end up without a penny. Georgina explained:

We didn’t know if our community would support us. Then we made a fundraising t-shirt with the slogan “Made in Brixton, Staying in Brixton” that sold really well. People were so enthusiastic and engaged with our survival, that we realised that maybe crowdfunding could work.

The more BC shared its situation with its community, the more customers were determined not to let the shop go down without a fight. The team was overwhelmed with offers of help from their diversely talented customers - from legal advice, to media skills, to offers of fundraising gigs and cake sales.

They brought in a campaign coordinator and put together a plan of action. They started with a sign-up form for people interested in supporting the campaign. It attracted more than 300 signatures overnight, growing to 1,000 people over the following months. The team used social media to further garner support, introducing a fast-spreading hashtag #savebrixtoncycles. They also hosted a community consultation for members of the community to brainstorm together and ask questions face-to-face. The shop’s campaign echoed a wider movement to #reclaimbrixton, as increasing numbers of independent businesses find they are being forced out by big chains.

Crowdfunding campaign

After five months of preparation, Brixton Cycles had created enough momentum to launch its crowdfunding campaign. The team filmed a crowdfunding video, aided by a friend of the shop, James Wills, and finalised the rewards (ranging from limited-edition t-shirts to courses, discounts and services) that they would offer in exchange for people’s pledges. The campaign launched on 21 October and in the first 24 hours raised £10,000. Amazingly, the shop had only done a ‘secret launch’ to newsletter subscribers.

The following night they held an official launch party at Brixton East to present the campaign to the world. More than 200 people attended and a queue of further supporters stretched down the street. The night itself was made possible through the generosity of passionate friends. Celebrations included complementary performances from The No Frills Band and The Balham Ukulele Society, and a lively raffle with two bikes (donated by Specialized UK and Ison Distribution) among the prizes. Brixton Brewery provided drinks, donating all profits to the campaign, and local business Cupped sold custom-made #savebrixtoncycles cupcakes to further boost the fundraising.

Just five days after the crowdfunding campaign’s official launch, Brixton Cycles hit its £40,000 target. However, this sum would cover only a fraction of the escalating moving costs. So with four weeks of the campaign left to run, the team continued to push forward. Friends of the shop hosted pop-up fundraising parties at Canopy Brewery and Brixton Box. The campaign received significant press attention, including more than 50 news articles and live interviews on BBC Radio London’s Robert Elms Show and the London Live TV channel. The co-operative was even visited by Green Party leader, Natalie Bennett, who also pledged her support.

In the final days of the campaign, co-op member Jim Sullivan (at BC for six years) raised the stakes by vowing that if the £60,000 stretch target was reached, he’d shave off the ginger beard he had been growing for ten years and for which he was renowned. Customers loved this and pledges accelerated towards a dramatic finish. A few weeks later, Jim kept his promise with a cut-throat shave.

Community support

During its five-week crowdfunding campaign, Brixton Cycles raised more than £62,000 from nearly 1,500 supporters scattered all around the globe. Some were existing BC customers and others were previous customers who had moved out of the area. However, many had no existing relationship with the shop, but were part of the extended cycling family or simply believed in the shop’s vision. In a strong show of solidarity Edinburgh Bicycle Co-op sent out a newsletter to its members, which generated significant support. Pledges ranged from £5 to £1,000 and incredibly, seven people pledged the maximum amount!

Why was the Brixton Cycles campaign so successful? Lincoln put it down to the high level of service the co-operative has provided to customers over the last 33 years:

We do a good job. We treat everybody the same. We don’t judge you by what you cycle in on. The shop has a community feel to it. ‘The amount of people who pledged was amazing. Even some of our suppliers and other cycling shops supported us. In a way our supporters are the bricks and mortar of the new place. We’ll be there six days a week, but they’ll be there all the time, because without them, we wouldn’t be doing what we do. I’ve learnt that, with enough support, anything is possible - if you believe in what you do.

The new Brixton Cycles

In the final weeks at Stockwell Road, the co-operative managed to sign a deal on a new space at 296-298 Brixton Road. The rent is quadruple what the team was paying previously, so the shop needs locals’ support more than ever. But the new shop has been designed to be even more of a local hub for cyclists and the wider community, including a bigger retail area, a café and event space, and extra bike stands in the workshop so the team can take on more jobs. Every supporter who pledged £10 or more will have their name on a wall. Georgina said:

We hope to be able to open a shop which we’re proud of and that the people who helped us can be proud of. We’re going to have to work even harder. But the important aspects of BC - the free advice, the pump outside, the helping people when we can and treating people with care and respect no matter what - none of those things will change. We hope to provide the kind of service and friendship that we always have.

Challenging future for independents

Brixton Cycles is on the road to recovery, but its future isn’t certain yet. Across London, independent shops are seriously under threat due to rising rent prices and competition from big brands and online retailers. The face of our high streets is changing irrevocably. So for cyclists to have a say in what their communities look like, they must vote with their wallet, both by shopping local and by supporting crowdfunding campaigns.

Lincoln believes their experience holds lessons for other local bike shops too:

You’ve got to stay wide-eyed and be prepared to try different things. Innovate or die. If you’re renting property, have things in writing and sort out renewing your lease early. Be a bit pushy with landlords and don’t be fobbed off. At the end of the day, it’s your survival at stake.’ To survive now, Brixton Cycles needs the cycling community to support them in their new home.

At the heart of Brixton Cycles is a very simple aim, best summed up by Jim: ‘It’s been fun and interesting with the shop move, doing all these new things, but I can’t wait to be able to come in and just do the thing I love most in the world - fix bikes.’