Bikes and Brotherhood at Dah Shop

Dah Shop, 134 Division Street. Photos by Jonathan Zalman.

The one block stretch of Division Street, that tiny nook-like road that bridges Canal and Allen, is an enclave of interesting small businesses, including Dah Shop. Its somewhat hidden location makes this bike shop feel more like a hip neighborhood spot, which it is. But don’t confuse cool with kitsch. The attitude, aptitude and service at Dah Shop is not part of some trend. It’s a way of life as well as a hangout for a diverse group of individuals — from angsty High School freshmen, to niche BMX celebrities, and babyseat-toting parents from across the East River.

Dah Shop, which opened in 2008 at 134 Division St., is owned and operated by Tyrone “Rone” Williams and Qian “Q” Who, who’ve been friends for over a decade. The ties that bind their friendship—values like loyalty, perseverance, autonomy, and community—jelled into a business partnership, yet began within each of them as individual mantras.

Qian is soft-spoken and has expressive, clear eyes; he wears his sideburns long and his hair in a ponytail. He’s constantly moving about the shop. Qian immigrated to California from China in 1986, and taught himself how to ride when he was 9 (there’s a photograph of him on his first bike, Qian tells me, but he’s uncertain of its whereabouts). Qian moved to NYC for college ten years later to study art and eventually grew an affinity for riding and repairing bikes. “I’ve seen bikes close to 80 years old,” Qian says.

Tyrone immigrated to the States from Jamaica when he was 3 and grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn. He began riding bikes at just 5 years old. “The streets taught me how to ride,” says Tyrone. In 1999 Tyrone made a bike film with friends and fellow riders, Edwin Delarosa and Ruel Smith aka “Worms”; Tyrone says it was “the push that got us going.” Tyrone tells me he’s been riding for Animal, a BMX parts company, since the day they started. I’ve yet to see him without an Animal-brand cap out of which his dreads fall to his shoulders past wide-rimmed glasses and a full beard.

He prefers to talk about his “lifestyle” (as opposed to “career”) in terms of ‘marching to the beat of his own drum.’ He’s never had an agent because “a younger guy could come in and it could backfire.” In this sense, Tyrone assures that his life—decisions like sponsorships and media coverage— is conducted on his own terms. Qian believes in this sentiment as well, offering a window into a tacit trust between the two. “We grew up rarely accepting help from others,” Qian says. “We grew up helping ourselves.”

Tyrone "Rone" Williams with his bike outside Dah Shop.

Tyrone and Qian met in 2000—“when it wasn’t cool to ride a bike”—at Canal Street. Bikes, which no longer exists. Dah Shop’s location is a key aspect of its business strategy: LES/Chinatown is a stone’s throw from the Brooklyn Banks, a legendary NYC bike and skate park underneath the Brooklyn Bridge (on the Manhattan side). Although the Banks is closed until 2014 as the bridge undergoes renovations, many of the city’s BMX riders continue to visit Dah Shop for service and community.

Dah Shop’s awning appears to have been painted over in a dulling white with “DAH SHOP” slabbed neatly at the center in thick black; underneath are the faded, bleached outlines of Chinese lettering from a previous business. Tyrone and Qian tell me that the inspiration for the name was born out of the everyday: “Before it (their business) even existed we referred to “dah shop” with our friends as a place where they know where I’m at; like, ‘Ill be at dah shop.’” In this spirit, the name conveys a message of accessibility and gathering to their customers, and also one of a certain type of coolness. It doesn’t hurt either that Tyrone has been riding professionally since his late teens or that many of Dah Shop’s clientele look up to him, like BMS pro Nigel Sylvester, who’s from Jamaica, Queens. During one visit, a Nike camera crew hovered outside Dah Shop to shoot a spot for Nike’s Fuel Band, which features Nigel. Like Tyrone, Nigel is sponsored by Animal. “I look up to him (Tyrone),” Nigel says. “I come here to meet other riders, chill. There are good vibes here, it’s like a second home. This is my shop. You got to keep it in the family.”

The scene at Dah Shop varies, but the vibe rarely does. Some days Tyrone can be seen playing Call of Duty: Black Ops (“the only game I ever play”) in his downtime. During others, the shop is swamped while both Tyrone and Qian juggle tasks for sometimes four customers each at a time. Dah Shop takes in an even mix of BMX riders and neighborhood people on road bikes and when I ask them what their specialties are, they tell me “everything is custom, it’s the rule of MacGyver.” Along with functioning as a repair shop, Dah Shop sells bikes, frames, clothing and numerous other equipment, but the safety of their customers remains Dah Shop’s chief concern. “It’s karma,” Qian says. “We don’t want someone to get hurt cause we were sloppy. If we don’t see you for a few months, we’ve done our job.”

Tyrone and Qian say they spend more time at Dah Shop than they do at home, the facts of life for a small business owner in NYC. Dah Shop recently signed a 10-year lease, yet when I ask Qian what the future holds he says that they’ll take it as it comes. “You can’t put that kind of dream of it,” he says. Their advice often reads as guiding wisdom for the bike-riding youth of NYC and beyond. “If you don’t love what you do you shouldn’t be doing it,” Tyrone says. “Progress forward, not back.”

As spring turns into summer and hundreds of LES bikers dust off their wheels before hitting the pavement, here’s some advice to consider: “Take up the road,” Qian says. “Fuck it. Make yourself seen. They see you, they’re less likely to hit you.” Qian’s candor, much like Tyrone’s directness, comes from the heart of experience, echoes of an alluring approach to existing (on a bike), born from the streets of New York. And much like their friendship, Dah Shop is situated right where it wants to be.