Mona and Dick took a risk, but they did it for their neighborhood. They started Whistle Stop Co-op near Othello Station because they saw two needs: A coffee shop for the neighborhood to gather and a place to go for affordable bicycle repairs. Bad ass founders Mona Lee and Dick Burkhart—who have been advocating for safe neighborhood cycling since before you were born—don’t expect the co-op to turn much of a profit, but they do need it to break even.
Mona Lee (a longtime global bike touring writer) expressed her fears on her blog Old Lady on a Bike that Whistle Stop might be falling short on daily sales.
I wake up each morning feeling like a cyclist pursued by a pack of barking dogs, namely my own fears, doubts, and self-recriminations,. What a stupid idea to open a coffee and bike shop in a neighborhood where folks are friendly and nice but don’t have many dimes to rub together. What was I thinking to blithely throw away my family’s safety and security in the middle of the worst recession since the one I was born into back into back in1939? Yesterday we took $123.10 into the till (and that was a fairly good day) what with our daily overhead expenses totaling nearly $300. What do I know about business anyway, having spent nearly all my working life within the safe territory of dependable government employment?
When Lee and Burkhart decided to move forward with Whistle Stop, there was no coffee shop on the corner. Now they are one of three, which means less coffee sale income than anticipated. But she’s not letting her fear get the better of her:
The Buddhist philosophy I’ve been studying tells me not to run from the dogs of fear but to get off my bike and look at them. Face my fears. Have compassion for myself and for them
So I’m standing there trying to befriend the dogs of fear with every bone I can think of.
Applying for grants
Sending out the Whistle Stop Weekly to members and friends
Contacting groups that might like to meet here
Inviting people to join the co-op
Organizing neighborhood projects and clean ups
Holding meetings, events and workshops
Trying to improve and re-improve the Whistle Stop menu
We’re using Whistle Stop as a venue to further community building, peace and justice activities, and other good causes especially alternative transportation. In fact, Whistle Stop will soon receive a $7K grant from Climate Action Network to give out free bikes and Orca transit passes as well as help with planning commute trips, weather apparel advise,to reduce car usage.
I met with Lee and Burkhart when the co-op opened in the fall. And one thing is clear: They love their neighborhood. They invested savings to turn a vacant, oddly-sized lot (read: not easily redeveloped) into a vibrant and positive community space.
“If you don’t have a coffee shop, you don’t have a neighborhood,” Lee told me. But vibrant and positive does not necessarily mean the shop makes enough to pay the bills.
At the same time, Lee and Burkhart saw more and more of their low-income neighbors riding bikes to get around. But the closest bike shop is in Columbia City, so they wanted their coffee shop to also have a small bike shop that can repair rides at affordable rates.
For his part, Burkhart was integral in getting the city to sign a key, lower-stress Rainier Valley bike route he calls “The Zig-Zag Route,” among other bike advocacy accomplishments.
Burkhart dreams that the co-op will some day run on a truly co-operative business model. Once they have paid off their investments, he hopes that dividends could be paid out to co-op members in proportion to how much they spend at the shop (sort of like REI). It is free to become a member, and they already have 530.
So how can you help? If you live in the neighborhood, do yourself and the neighborhood a favor by making it a regular part of your day. If you travel on Link, work a quick stop to Whistle Stop into your routine. If you are looking for a place for a bike ride to start/end or a place to hold a meeting, Whistle Stop is a great space for groups.
And, of course, tell your friends.