This is the first article published in “Checkerboard City,” John’s new column about sustainable transportation that will run in print in every issue of Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.
“Bikers of Chicago unite! You have nothing to lube but your chains.”
—Suggested manifesto for Comrade Cycles
First there was Atomix Café, with its giant mural of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, then Revolution Brewing, with a red star logo and tap handles shaped like upraised fists. By opening Chicago’s newest communist-themed enterprise, the three worker-owners behind Comrade Cycles hope to make their Marx on the local bike scene.
Yuri Gagarin mural by Juan Angel Chavez at Atomix Cafe, 1957 W. Chicago
Photo by Betsy Lee
The new shop is located in, appropriately, Ukrainian Village, a stone’s throw from Atomix and other sternly named businesses like Bleeding Heart Bakery and Permanent Records. Its logo features Soviet-style artwork, portraying the three founders as heroic proletarians in overalls. But the comrades behind Comrade aren’t just cashing in on Communist kitsch. They chose a name that reflects their egalitarian business model, a revolutionary one for this city.
Although they’re young, the co-owners have labored at a who’s who of local for-profit and nonprofit bike shops. Jesse Hautau, twenty-six with a Viking’s beard, has worked at Rapid Transit Cycle Shop, managed Working Bikes and taught mechanics to underserved youth through the Recyclery and West Town Bikes. Mustachioed Bailey Newbrey, twenty-five, has wrenched at stores in Kenosha, Wisconsin and Zion, Illinois, as well as Rapid Transit, Johnny Sprockets and Blackstone Bicycle Works. Clean-cut Steve Parkes, thirty-five, has volunteered at Working Bikes and the Recyclery, and also owns Newleaf Natural Grocery in Rogers Park.
As we hang out in the small storefront, sipping coffee while the Yeah Yeah Yeahs blast in the background, Hautau says that while several local bicycle stores treat their employees fairly, traditional bike shops are often exploitative, with absentee owners paying skilled workers near-minimum wage. “A lot of people work as mechanics simply because they love bikes and they love helping people,” explains Newbrey.
“We wanted to create a democratically run business where we are the workers and the owners,” Hautau says, adding that future hires will be able to work their way up to ownership as well. The founders took inspiration from cooperatively owned shops like Citybikes in Portland, Oregon, and the Hub Bike Co-op in Minneapolis, but Comrade is currently registered as a for-profit business, since Illinois does not yet recognize worker-owned co-ops. “As the U.S. economy has gone into dire straits and the gap between the rich and poor gets bigger, a worker-owner cooperative is a more sound business model for workers and communities,” Parkes says.
While the reputation bike-shop employees have for being grouchy snobs is only just below that of record store clerks, the comrades believe their more equitable business structure will also make this a nicer place to get your derailleurs adjusted or shop for a new ride. “Many people have written about the relationship between the mechanic and the customer being a negative one,” Hautau says. “Since we have more invested in the business, I think you’re more likely to have a good experience here. Personally, I really enjoy helping keep people on the road.”
The shop’s focus will be on everyday transportation cycling, but the owners are also bike-touring enthusiasts and cyclocross racers, so they plan to fill those niches as well. While Newbrey is excited about offering nifty commuter gear like generator-powered lights and low-maintenance, weatherproof internally geared hubs, he says, “We’re also going to have to wait and see what the neighborhood needs.” For starters, Comrade is selling hybrids and city bicycles by Electra and Torker, plus Surly touring and cyclocross bikes and fixies by All City. They’re also stocking meat-and-potatoes accessories like Chrome messenger bags, SKS fenders, Planet Bike lights [a Grid Chicago sponsor], Kryptonite locks, Bell helmets and Continental tires.
With their decades of combined wrenching experience, the comrades say repair work and bike builds will be the shop’s bread and butter. And since Hautau is also a frame builder, operating out of Bridgeport’s Bubbly Bicycle Works welding shop, Comrade also may be able to repair your steel Schwinn Traveler that got cracked last time a taxicab doored you. Eventually they hope to offer a line of custom cyclocross frames.
Owen Lloyd, Hautau’s shopmate at Bubbly and co-owner of Blue City Cycles, builds a frame
While the shop’s location, on a retail-rich stretch of Chicago Avenue, seems like an ideal one, Comrade is also located within a mile radius of four other bike stores: Rapid Transit, Copenhagen Cyclery, Upgrade Cycle Works and Ciclo Urbano. Has the area reached bike-shop saturation? “Other cities I’ve been to like Portland, Seattle and Philly have an even higher density of bike shops,” says Hautau. “Biking is growing and growing in Chicago, and having more shops only makes it more visible as a transportation option.” As if to prove his point, a young professional wanders in off the street as he’s talking and asks about getting a tune-up, even though the store isn’t officially open yet.
Last month Comrade hosted a bingo fundraiser for the Cycle Messenger World Championships, which takes place August 3-5 outside Soldier Field. The store’s grand opening was last Thursday, March 1, with a good crowd turning out for pastries from Bleeding Heart, pizza from nearby Roots restaurant, plus a custom blend of coffee created especially for the bike shop by Chicago’s Resistance Coffee, a left-leaning roasting cooperative.
Bingo night at the shop – photo by Steven
So how is launching a new bicycle store like staging a revolution? “I don’t know that it is,” responds Hautau. “At the end of the day we’re just regular old capitalists. On the other hand, any kind of biking that takes place is a good thing, whether it’s people making deliveries by bike, commuting, racing or riding for fitness. All those things make this a healthier city. Opening a bike shop may not be a revolutionary act but it is turning the wheels of change for the better.”