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.
What an inspiring story. I’ll make sure our next @snGreenways meeting is at the Whistle Stop!
Great idea! And those of you biking in from the north can check out the zig-zag route, which is just begging for a neighborhood greenway makeover.
I finally got around to trying the zig-zag route today. The mix of wayfinding signs and bike dots up by Franklin High and around 35th is really confusing until you realize that you should be ignoring them and just using the bike map. Of course, once you switch to using the bike map, you realize that some streets that they’ve marked as being part of the route (ie, 37th) don’t have names on the map. Not sure what the mapping folks were thinking there, but in the end I had to rely on a mix of the bike map and my smartphone. Sigh.
And speaking of 37th, that’s an impressive hill. The sidewalk has steps. I’m surprised they couldn’t mark a route around it (and note that there are no grade markings on the map, so it’s a surprise hill).
It feels very much like they slapped the zig-zag route onto the map as an afterthought..
I also want to point out that other than the 37th Ave stretch, the route is quite pleasant.
Sounds like an awesome place. I will grab lunch there on my next weekend ride! Sorry that I haven’t heard about you before!
Do they sell any accessories?
The repair part of a bike shop is not the money-maker- it’s really only a service to their customers.
Selling bikes doesn’t have great margins either, and requires a lot of time/effort per bike.
Accessories, however– are the bread and butter of bike shops. I would suggest trying to sell universally needed accessories that have good margins. E.g., locks, lights, etc. Don’t spend too much initially, but try a few small things out to see how it does.
Last I checked, they were stocking the necessities (tubes, helmets, locks, etc). I’m not sure what they’re stocking these days.
Well my only long ago grudge was that Dick Burkhart and the “People for Modern Transit” lobbied hard against the Monorail. But that’s so much water over/under the bridge and I now have Ex-Mayor Greg Nickels to blame for the death blow.
I’ll have to make a trip down to see the place at least. It’s not on my way anywhere I usually go, but I’m always up for a ride.
You can always jump on the Light Rail (or the number 8 bus) for part of the trip. I’ve visited them several times that way.
When that shop opened up it really surprised the hell outta me. I watched the two lots across from each other slowly develop, and I still have my reservations. Seems like a place where it’s just out of the “loop” so to speak. I frequent the area just south of it, but still is inconvenient for me.
I hope they find a way to survive, I never like seeing bike shops closing.
Well if I read that article in the roundup about the bike business, they need to market to women riders. That in general women feel slighted and put off by the industry as a whole. And that the net bike business hasn’t grown in the last 10 years. So unless they find a niche, or change their focus it’s going to be a hard run.
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(1) As to the zig-zag route, I began promoting the idea, even a specific route, over a decade ago. Unfortunately, when they actually decided to do it a couple of years back, I was not consulted (SDOT has a long history of doing things in neighborhoods without consulting the neighbors). The route I had recommended over Hitt’s Hill was not 37th but Renton Ave – still a hill but not as steep. In addition, there are alternate routes that many people will prefer. For example, when heading north I cut over to Rainier Ave at Juneau and head down Rainier itself to 39th before taking a zig-zag alternate that lies east of Rainier, rejoining the route on the map at 34th, just beyond the Safeway. This alternate, mostly on 37th and on Courtland, is very pleasant, except that when heading south I go over to Rainier at Alaska to avoid the steep hill up to Angeline.
(2) We have a limited stock of accessories (tubes, lights, locks, helmuts, etc) but don’t sell a whole lot (much wider choice online) despite reasonable prices. We’re actually more into selling refurbished bikes at reasonble prices when we can get a good quality older bike (donated or cheap) that needs some good TLC. But people have to appreciate that this will be a better value than a Walmart bike.
(3) We do have a number of women bike customers, and the city-type bikes that we specialize are great for women as well as men. But with many of the immigrant groups in the neighborhood, this seem to be a very tough sell, even with the men. Developing bike greenways would help a lot to get more families out on bikes.
(4) The Monorail story is a sad tale. Many of us would have loved to support it but for bright red flags from the very beginning, mostly around money, which ultimately doomed the project. As a professional mathematician / Boeing engineer, I knew right away that the cost per mile figures being thrown out were far below reality (the same applies to promoters of personal rapid transit). Also these figures were being used to attack the light rail project, which was in trouble at the time, when I knew that light rail had a far better track record than monorail (far more versatile, far less proprietary, etc).
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