Little Poland Vintage Bike Shop in a Vintage Brooklyn Neighborhood
story and photography by Paul Garson
Carl Jung, the pioneering psychoanalyst, once wrote a small book titled Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle that describes a mystifying phenomenon in which you encounter a whole bunch of apparently random coincidences clumped together under one particular subject.
For example, you’ve been thinking about taking a trip to Poland to research a book project, and at the same time vintage motorcycles are on your mind, parts of a Norton Commando strewn around your L.A. apartment. Then lo and behold, on a short visit to New York to see your son off to summer school, you find yourself in the middle of Poland and at the same time standing in front of a bike shop catering to vintage Triumphs, Nortons, BSAs, Ducatis and the like. Very acausal synchronicity.
Well, it was actually “Little Poland,” aka Greenpoint in Brooklyn, New York, but the bike shop was the one and only motorcycle establishment in the history-rich neighborhood, that for a century has been home to people of Polish ancestry. I’d never heard of it before stepping foot in it literally by sheer chance. Or was it? Sure, we’ve all heard of Brooklyn. It used to have a baseball team called the Dodgers, but that’s water under the Brooklyn Bridge. As I learned from its residents, Greenpoint—the self-proclaimed “Garden Spot of the World”—is the northernmost neighborhood in Brooklyn.
While people generally know that New York has a famous Chinatown and a Little Italy, Little Poland may not be as well known…but it should be. It’s got serious character, ambiance, great food and well, beautiful people in more ways than one, not to mention a cool vintage bike shop. By 1900, the majority of Greenpoint’s residents were Polish immigrants, and so the area remained for the next century. A second wave of immigration took place post-World War II, and a third wave after the fall of the USSR as Poland became a non-Communist country in the late 1980s.
Ambling along the always-busy main shopping area of Manhattan Avenue (yes, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, go figure), you feel transplanted to Warsaw. All around me, as I strolled about exploring the many shops or enjoying my meals, Polish was being spoken. The ambiance was complete. I had escaped the plastic superficiality of Los Angeles for something, well, real, made more exotic by a soundtrack in Polish.
One of my several newly made Greenpoint friends, Robert—who oddly enough owns the only fishing tackle shop in the landlocked neighborhood—had recommended a bakery up the avenue for its cheesecake. But my legs, obviously calorie conscious, set out in the opposite direction farther down Manhattan where the avenue meets Dwiggs Street, at which point I noticed a neon sign illustrated with Monroe Shock Absorbers and the name “The Matchless.”
Having owned and ridden a couple dozen different 1960s Brit and European bikes, my acausal synchronicity radar must have been up. While Monroe shock absorbers were no doubt good, they weren’t “Matchless.” That was once a famous British motorcycle company, gone now some 50 years.
Drawn by the sign I turned the corner, and there was a fairly ratty early Triumph twin decorated with dice on its sidecover and what looked like scorched paint. It rested in front of the shop, which itself sported a vintage patina decorated with the colorful logos of BSA, Moto Guzzi, Ducati and the like. The shop was called Works Engineering, and there I found two young mechanics, Sayre and Irving, hard at work. Sayre had made his way to Greenpoint via Oregon and Washington states, where he had worked on vintage bikes. As for Irving, an automotive college student, he explained that one day he had come by the shop looking for a battery for his bike, and never left. The shop specializes in the repair and restoration of vintage British and European bikes and also older metric bikes (nothing newer than 1976). The shop is co-owned by Eric Green, a member of the well-known vintage racing group Team Obsolete, which competes in events across the country fielding a spectrum of extremely rare machines, outstanding racer Dave Roper often at the controls.
In the shop’s back service area one could see older Ducatis and a Rickman-Honda undergoing restoration, the rafters overhead hung with all kinds of vintage parts. I learned that Eric Green and his partner had also bought the corner bar, changing its name to The Matchless to echo their passion for vintage British iron. On Monday nights riders on all kinds of machines rally to the place to view the latest race footage and to sample the matchless selection of micro-brewery offerings.
As Sayre and Irving sat on the shop’s steps tending to a bank of old carburetors, customers and the curious dropped by. Amongst the former was Buell rider Max Strum, a school teacher and also a rider for 20 years who happens to get around New York on his 2005 Buell Firebolt. “The traffic’s no problem,” he said. “Especially after I added the Jardine performance package, exhaust, ELM chip and airbox. I got 15 more horsepower.”
Next appearing on the scene was Ben Sargent on his ancient Piaggio 200cc scooter with more than 60,000 miles. “It won Best Rat Bike at the 2005 Scooter Rally,” he said, laughing, then added he used to ride the scooter to his little restaurant located in Queens called The Hurricane Hopeful, where he cooked his specialty, Bahamian fish chowders. “It’s called Hurricane Hopeful because I’m a New York surfer always hoping for waves,” explained Sargent. His chowder fame landed Ben a TV spot when the Food Network’s Bobby Flay challenged him to a chowder cook-off. “I cooked a chowder from eel and monk fish. Very tasty.”
Bidding farewell to Works Engineering and continuing my ramble down Manhattan Avenue, I noticed a Polish bookstore and in the window various DVDs. One that caught my eye was Marz Pingwinow, or in English, March of the Penguins. Penguin in Polish has a nice ring to it. Jung would have liked it.
For more information log onto www.worksengineering.com.
[From the May 2007 issue of Rider]