A true bike messenger would rather get hit by a car before he or she sit in a cubicle to earn their living. Their soul lies within a frame of a bike and the energy they churn through it. Bike messenger or not, you’re still going to have stuff to lug around, and you’ll want a bag that can stand a few brushes with pavement.
R.E.Load Baggage in Northern Liberties makes high quality messenger bags in-house, and can look as outlandish as you want them to be. Made by hand from top to bottom, you can get everything from a simple sleek everyday bag, to an absurdly detailed depiction of James Brown’s face – in fabric – on a messenger bag. It’s a matter of what kind of personality you want saddled over your shoulder.
“Someone can come in and we’ll make something for them, and they’ll know they’re the only person in the world with that bag,” said Fishtown resident Sue Eggen, 30, who has sewn at R.E. Load for a little more than a year.
Eggen is one of a handful of employees who works at the small-staffed R.E. Load. Most employees are connected to owner and co-founder Roland Burns, who started the company with friend Ellie Lum in 1998. Burns grew up in Manhattan, N.Y., and attended Drexel University in 1992 where he majored in engineering. His journey from numbers and graph paper to sewing machines and bikes just sort of fell into place, he explained.
“I did a couple of internships with a couple of pretty good companies, and when I got out, there was just nothing available,” Burns said. “I knew what I didn’t want to do from doing a couple of jobs through Drexel’s co-op program when I was an undergrad. So instead of taking a job I knew I would hate, I decided to take a year off, and started messengering; it kind of turned into this.”
Burns met Lum when he was a mechanic at the now defunct Gear Junkies on 431 S. 2nd St., now home to a Cosi restaurant. Lum was in Philadelphia during a cross-country trip with her boyfriend. A trash-picked bike she found while traveling needed some repairs, and she brought it to Burns at Gear Junkies. The trip became an extended stay in Philly, and the two became friends when they began to work as bike messengers for the same company.
“I had a bag that was horrible, and her mom had been a seamstress,” Burns said. “So I asked her if she could help me out with making some alterations to that bag, and once we started shopping for different things here and there, we decided to start making bags for ourselves.”
“She got what she knew from her mom and we just sat down and we did everything,” Burns said. “We really thought about what we wanted in a bag and tried to make it. The first bunch of bags were pretty horrible, but they worked.”
Since then, the operation has stayed in Philly, but their national reach has grown much farther. While the city might not be the biggest on the East Coast, setting up base operations in Philadelphia made the most fiscal sense, and Burns liked the community. Eventually, Lum moved back to the West Coast and set up shop in Seattle, providing R.E. Load (the R is for Roland, the E for Ellie) with a much wider reach.
As much as Philly is a good place to start a business, the store’s no-advertising tactic would hurt the average start-up business. Not R.E. Load, which has found success through unique branding and a cult biker following, which continues to grow in Philly and beyond.
“We’re pretty lucky because we’re in a category of products that almost promote themselves for a lot of the part,” Burns said. “We sponsor a lot of races all over the place. We just sent some stuff to Japan for a race that’s going on there. In general, we try to sponsor a couple events a month. Everything that’s in Philly, by default we wind up with. Last weekend there was a race in New York – it’s like the biggest fixed gear events of the year, pretty much – we made the prize bag for that.
“Our advertising budget aside from making bags for races is about zero,” Burns added. “For the size of the company we are and advertising rates and everything, it’s kind of tough. We do a lot of [advertising in] zines, but mostly it’s race sponsorship. And thank God for Google. Everybody finds us that way.”
And everybody wants their 100 percent American-made bags. From the stitching and straps, to the Velcro, it’s all U.S. of A. homegrown.
R.E. Load has taken orders from places
as far as Berlin, Japan and Australia. While there are a few standard styles to choose from, people have creative room to personalize their bags as much as they want. Orders for standard bags typically take five weeks to complete and range in price from $80 to $150. Already-made R.E. Load bags can also be purchased at Bike Line on Arch Street. But don’t think the success has made them coldhearted business people.
“It’s more than just seeing, ‘Hey, there’s this navy blue bag that has an R.E. Load tag on it,'” Burns said. “I used to even run up to the person and be like ‘Hey I made that.’ I think we have a really good connection with all the customers and I think that’s one of the coolest
things about doing this.”
Chris Zakorchemny can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.