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After three years of dreaming, Spokeshop bike lounge opens its doors

on October 1, 2011

It’s not really about bikes for Brian Drayton.

This week, he’s opening what he calls Richmond’s first full service professional bike shop, the Spokeshop Bike Lounge. But, says Drayton, “I don’t want to be a bike shop owner. Retail’s not my thing.” Really, he’s out to change the world – or at least Richmond. Spend fifteen minutes with him, and you begin to think he might just pull it off.

The Spokeshop opens tomorrow, near the corner of Macdonald Ave. and Harbour Way, in a space with warm wooden floors and bike murals in snappy technicolor along the walls. White paper still covers the storefront windows, waiting to be torn off.

The Richmond Spokeshop, billed as a community bike shop and lounge, is celebrating its grand opening on Sunday, Oct. 2. (Photo by Rachel Waldholz)

Drayton has big plans for the space. A full service bike shop, yes. But also an intensive youth apprenticeship program. A professional screen-printing studio. A family bike collective that would let parents trade in old bikes for new ones as their kids grow. And at night, a business that would build and sell custom bikes online, to fund the other operations.

Three years ago, Drayton was approached by Doria Robinson, Executive Director of the community agriculture organization Urban Tilth. She suggested he bring Cycles of Change, a group that leads bike rides for kids, to Richmond. He offered her one better.

“[I said], you need something that’s got wraparound services, it’s got to be grassroots, brick and mortar, made in Richmond for Richmond,” Drayton said. He sketched out an idea for a youth mentoring and entrepreneurship program – through bikes.

So he founded Richmond SPOKES, and began looking for a space. For two years, he hoped to open up in the Transit Village, just next to the BART station. In the meantime, he and Robinson ran “reality rides” with Richmond officials, surveying bike and pedestrian safety for the city. Richmond SPOKES launched a speaker series – Cycling and Social Justice – in local schools, and Drayton, joined by co-founder David Strain, started a build-a-bike program to teach interns bike mechanics. Drayton launched a bike valet business, parking bikes at festivals and farmers’ markets – and sold his vision to everyone who would listen.

"I just think there's something going on in Richmond that I really don't see" elsewhere, says Spokeshop co-founder David Strain. (Photo by Rachel Waldholz)

A Richmond donor offered him $50,000, but he asked her to hold onto it until he could find a space. “If you spend $50,000 and don’t build an asset, you’re just paying yourself,” he said.

Richmond SPOKES was named Best Hybrid Bike Shop by the East Bay Express, while Drayton was still working out of a little office on 1st Street. They called and said they were sending a photographer.

“I thought, I really need to open this bike shop,” Drayton said.

Two months ago, the space in the Transit Village sold, and Drayton turned his attention to the downtown Macdonald revitalization zone. “I’ve been in every empty building in this neighborhood,” he said.

The space in Market Square Mall, on Harbour Way, caught his eye. “[I asked,] What’s the deal with that building? It’s got commercial cooties or something? There’s nothing going on.”

Six weeks ago he checked out unit #5. The space had wall-to-wall carpeting and a funky smell. It’s not exactly a business hub. The Spokeshop’s neighbors are an empty flower and card shop and an empty salon, the Deliverance Tabernacle Outreach Ministries and the NAACP, Mary’s Little Lambs tchotchke shop and a small clothing boutique. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, only Tarabini’s deli was open, with a steady queue of lunch customers.

But the location was right. It sits near the Richmond Greenway, which, when complete, will connect the Bay Trail on the coast with the Ohlone Greenway in El Cerrito. And for someone who hopes to work with kids, this stretch of the Macdonald corridor is neutral space, he said. At a moment when increased tensions can make it tough for young people to cross the lines dividing north from south from central, kids can reach the Spokeshop without crossing unfriendly turf. If it’s anyone’s turf here, it’s Kaiser’s, Drayton said with a laugh. The Kaiser Permanente Richmond Medical Center dominates the block.

Plus, Drayton is a believer. “The Richmond Renaissance is going to happen here,” he said. “The new generation of Richmond doers” will open up shop on these blocks.

The way he tells it, Drayton is aiming to fill about 50 needs at once, everything from youth employment to environmental health to the communal hankering for a good cup of coffee in downtown Richmond.

“Everyone down here wants coffee,” he said. “They say the best place to get coffee here is Kaiser. My idea is café, bikeshop, wifi, smoothies.”

Drayton is calling it a bike lounge, because he wants people to come in and stick around. There will be a couch. There will be free safety checks and bike safety classes. For those who aren’t into bikes, he plans to set up a silk-screening studio, bring in industrial sewing machines.

But the real goal is to take aim at youth employment and training. Drayton plans an apprenticeship program, to connect young people with mentors and teach them not only to build and repair bikes, but also to run the various businesses, from bike valet to screen-printing. He hopes to send Richmond youth to internships at bike shops across the Bay Area, and send some to the United Bike Institute’s Bike Mechanic School in Ashland Oregon. The goal, he says, is to be an incubator, a place where young people come in, pick up skills, and get inspired to spin off their own ventures.

“I’m saying, you can make your own job,” Drayton said.

It’s an ambitious vision for an organization that, right now, is two guys and a bike store. But two months ago there wasn’t even a bike store.

“Bikes are a pied piper for something I really believe in,” Drayton said – namely, the ability of young people to do for themselves. “If we lived by a bunch of rocks, I’d be doing a rock-climbing organization. If we were in San Rafael I’d be doing a kayaking organization.”

“But I like bikes, too.”

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