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Two years in, bike bag business blooms for ‘North St.’

Posted by on March 16th, 2012 at 8:27 am

In the shop with North St. Bags-6
Curtis Williams in the window of his new work and retail space on SE 23rd Ave.

Curtis Williams has settled in nicely to his new studio and work space on SE 23rd Street, just off the busy bike corridor of SE Clinton Street. Over the past six months, the 29-year-old former theater lighting designer has seen his North St. Bags business expand from his basement to a mini-factory with six sewing machine work stations and a retail area.

In the shop with North St. Bags-2
In the shop with North St. Bags-4
In the shop with North St. Bags-5

Just two years ago at the 2009 BikeCraft show, I called Curtis one of the “surprise hits” (back then his company name was 3Bags). He was new to Portland and was just getting his feet wet making bike-oriented bags and backpacks. “Everything stemmed from that show,” Williams said during a recent chat, “It’s been a crazy ride since then…Seems like just yesterday I was working out of my basement.”

Williams’ new shop on 23rd is a big step up from his basement. Not only is it a lot larger, but now Williams has another seamstress working for him and he’s been studying lean manufacturing methods to improve efficiency. A bag that used to take him six hours to make one year ago, for example, now takes just two-and-a-half hours.

In the shop with North St. Bags-1
In the shop with North St. Bags-3

That efficiency has helped him refine his most popular product, the Woodward Convertible — a backpack that doubles as a pannier bag. Last month he launched the Woodward as his first-ever production model, an announcement that came with a reduction in the retail price ($215) and a choice of four color schemes.

The Woodward Convertible
in bike mode.
(Photo: North St. Bags)

I had one of Williams’ first Woodward bags two years ago and I’ve been using the latest one for a few weeks now. I’m impressed at how much it’s evolved. The look is subdued but not boring, the materials (75% of which are sourced in the U.S.) are top notch, and it can do a lot of stuff. It’s got a wide, roll-top opening, it’s waterproof, it has a removable inner-liner and plenty pockets and straps on the outside.

“The Woodward really is my flagship model,” says Williams, “It’s also the reason I went into business… Because I couldn’t find a bag like that for myself.”

Williams’ hard work seems to be paying off: He has sold as many bags just since the holidays as he sold in his first year-and-a-half in business. That steady sales growth, he says, has given him the confidence to “take on this bigger scale.”

Also giving Williams confidence is Portland’s strong and connected community of small manufacturers (just recently, Spooltown, a small-run sewing factory, launched in North Portland). He knows many other sewers and bag makers in town. “Just having that community of makers as a resource has been incredible… There’s a lot of support and it’s exciting to be a part of.”

You can find North St. Bags at A Better Cycle (2324 SE Division), Crank (2725 SE Ash), and the Community Cycling Center (1700 NE Alberta). North St. is also a featured vendor on the new BikeCraft online store. Or, next time you’re in the neighborhood, stop in at 2716 SE 23rd Ave and say hi.

In the shop with North St. Bags-7

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Comments
  • Kiel Johnson March 16, 2012 at 8:34 am

    Go Curtis! It is exciting to see the business thrive. I think it speaks to the amazing and supportive group of small business owners in Portland and the fact that Curtis makes some awesome bags.

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  • Andrew K March 16, 2012 at 9:08 am

    I’m always happy to see a local business venture thrive. Twice as happy when that business venture involves bikes. Three times as happy when it is located in my neighborhood. Triple win!!

    This article reminds me, my wife could use a new bag for her morning bike commute. If I can get it in the right custom color I think the Woodward just may fit the bill.

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  • paul March 16, 2012 at 10:36 am

    Awesome shop!Going to have to check it out.

    North St, blaq, lemolo, black star, queen bee, girl bike dog, truce, whipstitch and cycle dog. Who am I missing? Cut and sew in the bike industry is good in portland.

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  • davemess March 16, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    So if the company is based in SE, why is it called North St.?

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    • Curtis Williams March 16, 2012 at 2:29 pm

      North St. is where I grew up in Montpelier VT. I try to find names & stories based on the places I’ve lived. The Woodward is named after my first house on SE 71st and Woodward when I was first working on that design.

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  • GlowBoy March 16, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    Wow, I had no idea about these bags. The Woodward pannier/backpack solves a problem I’ve long had with panniers: that they’re surprisingly awkward to carry when you’re off the bike. The make lousy backpacks if you’re walking or hiking any distance at your destination, and they make lousy luggage if you’re traveling with a bike and trying to get on trains, buses etc.

    Also, the company’s Route Seven model is a simpler roll-top waterproof pannier that appears to rival the popular Ortlieb bags (I’ve had a pair of these for 15 years) for less money, despite being made right here in Portland. Awesome!

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  • April March 16, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    I have a pair of the Route Seven bags. I got the optional wide nylon shoulder strap for one of them to make them easier to carry, and that’s the bag I use most often for around-town trips, because it’s easy to carry off the bike, worn messenger-bag style, and big enough to hold my helmet. Not as comfy as a backpack, and no pockets, but it works. If/when I go back to school I’ll buy a Woodward bag!

    I took my pair of Route Seven bags with me as my front bags on a four-month tour last year, and they worked fantastic and have hardly any visible wear on them.

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  • dan March 16, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    Way to go Curtis! Excellent.

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  • Curtis Williams March 16, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    Thanks Jonathan for a great article! I’m thrilled to have the challenge of designing bags for Portland’s cyclists

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  • ADS March 16, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    I checked these out a couple times in person and they look fantastic. NorthSt’s convertible backpack/pannier is far superior to the awkward Arkel convertible I have.

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  • Ed March 16, 2012 at 5:21 pm

    His bags are great. I rode it across iceland in rain storm for 2 weeks straight. I barely survived and the bag had no scratch. Curtis is also really helpful. I bought the pannier + backpack bag, and I had issues with its rack hooks. I went to him and he personally upgraded the hook with new more secured hooks. Charged me very small price for the labor and material. Highly recommend the pannier+backpack bag!

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  • Joe March 17, 2012 at 8:17 pm

    awesome have early piece from NORTH st, super small pouch. lasts!

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  • Joe March 17, 2012 at 8:19 pm

    way cool write up I called Curtis one of the “surprise hits” (back then his company name was 3Bags). He was new to Portland and was just getting his feet wet making bike-oriented bags and backpacks. “Everything stemmed from that show,” Williams said during a recent chat, “It’s been a crazy ride since then…Seems like just yesterday I was working out of my basement.”

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  • Kristen March 18, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    I went and bought a Woodward convertible the day after seeing this story. I love that the bag was made in my neighborhood and is named after one of the streets I live next to. Also I’m loving the bag so far. Thanks to Curtis for his work, and to Jonathan for the story!

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  • sabes March 18, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    I knew Woodward sounded familiar – that’s where I live! Ha!

    2716 SE 23rd Ave? Is that in or near the Beckel Canvas?

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  • Kritika Nair March 21, 2012 at 6:36 am

    This is such an inspirational read. It is tough starting business all on your own but it shows that if you are ready to work hard and are passionate about what you do, you are destined for success.

    I myself am a Potli bag designer and left my IT job to wholeheartedly devote myself to this endeavor. The initial year was a struggle as it was tough to find customers but word of mouth has slowly seen business improve.

    Stories like these spur me on and I would like to thank both Jonathan for the inspirational article and Curtis for being an inspiration.

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  • Christine April 10, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    You can also find North St. Bags in downtown Portland at Trillium Artisans, 318 SW Taylor St. For Trillium, Curtis makes bags and wallets from recycled banners and awning material. They are awesome!

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  • Isaac October 21, 2012 at 6:48 pm

    I picked up a North St. wallet at Trillium designs, as well as a pannier tote made from recycled awning and now I’m using it instead of my Timbuk2 as a daily commuter bag. It’s great quality – I hope to see more of these waterproof “banner” bags from North St. Great local products.

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