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Josh Steele, left, and Chris John stand inside the main garage at Vintage Steele, a motorcycle repair shop on Canal Street in Brattleboro.

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Last ride

A local niche motorcycle repair shop’s owners find themselves stuck between the need to expand for profitability, yet not having any realistic way to do so

BRATTLEBORO—After eight years of custom-building, repairing, buying, selling, and inspecting motorcycles, Vintage Steele owners Josh Steele and Chris John are closing their business.

The Canal Street shop will cease operations “at the end of the riding season,” Steele told The Commons.

For Steele and John, their business undertaking didn’t fail for lack of business — quite the opposite.

“We have no downtime. We’ve been incredibly busy since day one, and we’re still busy,” said Steele, who noted, “we have a mind-blowing number of customers.”

Rather, the duo said, a rain-induced shortened motorcycle season — during which they make most of the year’s profits — deeply hurt their bottom line.

And beyond that financial curve ball, Steele and John say they have reached the breaking point with a combination of factors: stress, the need to expand the operation to accommodate a volume of business that can make the numbers work, and no suitable or affordable sites where the business can expand in Brattleboro.

A business is born

Steele started the company in 2010. He and his girlfriend, Sarah Rice, had just bought a house with a detached garage.

“It was the perfect place for a small shop,” said Steele.

Shortly after, John came on, in an almost Tom Sawyer–like way.

John, who met Steele through Rice, his co-worker, began hanging out with him in the garage while Steele worked on the bikes.

This shadowing turned into an apprenticeship.

“I was wicked into it,” said John, who saw a motorcycle in Steele’s workshop he really liked. “I had no money, though,” he said.

Steele was in the process of scraping and painting the garage’s exterior, but he was only halfway done.

“Josh told me I could scrape and paint the other two sides of the garage in exchange for the bike,” said John. “Since then, for the last eight years, we’ve spent nearly every day together.”

Soon, the duo decided to team up and open a repair shop. John came up with the name, which Steele described as “perfect.”

“Once we got the name, then it got the ball rolling,” said John. The pair were buying, fixing, and selling bikes, and soon their client base expanded through word-of-mouth referrals from friends.

They started doing custom builds to give themselves projects in the winter months, when most riders store their bikes until the weather warms up.

“It was so relaxed and laid back in those good ol’ days,” said Steele. “Chris and I just drove around to buy shitty old motorcycles from people we’d never otherwise get to meet,” he said.

After working for two years in his and Rice’s one-car garage, Steele began the hunt for storage space for the bikes and parts that he and John had collected.

He found a larger, three-bay garage with extra workspace behind Lotus Graphics’s Canal Street shop, where Vintage Steele moved in October 2012.

The owners, Ed and Allie DeRusha, “were super awesome and negotiable on the rent,” said Steele, and their cooperation meant “we could start a legit motorcycle shop in a space we could afford.”

Finding a niche

John and Steele worked together for six years, and until this past summer, had no employees. “We started off with no capital,” Steele acknowledged.

Despite ostensible competition from the late Stanley Lynde’s well-loved Flat Street shop, Lynde Motorsports, Steele said the two businesses were different enough to co-exist.

They were also more than friendly enough: Steele trained with Lynde, and the two were close friends. When he and John were about to move to the Canal Street garage, Steele let him know.

“Our goal was to never step on his toes,” he said.

“There are tons of similarities between Vintage Steele and Lynde Motorsports, but his client base was mainly Harley-focused, and Stanley was a master mechanic,” said Steele. “We discovered we were good at custom-builds, which helped differentiate between our two shops.”

Building custom motorcycles, Steele said, provided “a really fun, artistic element.” But, he admitted, “our first custom bikes were the biggest, goofiest jokes ever.”

With each project, their skills quickly grew and the duo started getting invited to high-end, custom-build motorcycle shows around the country. Around town, Steele said, they’re primarily known as a repair shop.

‘It’s never been easy’

Although Steele assured The Commons that the shop’s customers are overwhelmingly fair and prompt with payments, “we’re not being compensated appropriately,” he said.

And in 2017, after Lynde died from injuries he suffered in a motorcycle crash, Steele began questioning his future.

“I can deal with the pressure [of owning a business] if I’m compensated appropriately. It’s not a fair exchange,” he said.

“It’s never been easy,” John said, and pointed out, “there’s never been a time when we were, like, ‘We’re so comfortable now.’”

One of the ways a motorcycle repair shop can bring in extra revenue to support the business and pay the owners a fair wage is to hire a shop manager and additional mechanics, they said.

The manager would take care of the administrative, operational, and customer service aspects of running a shop — and this would free up Steele and John to work on bikes, which equals more billable hours.

Likewise, a mechanic means another pair of skilled hands to work on more bikes, thus leading to even more billable hours.

This past summer, Steele and John hired a shop manager, and it helped — but not enough. The manager’s payroll taxes and wages also added to the expenses.

When they tried hiring a mechanic this past year, “we learned quickly that there are no motorcycle mechanics in the area that are an appropriate fit for our shop,” Steele said.

Even if they had found a suitable mechanic, it might not have solved all of the shop’s problems. They were running out of room in their shop’s garage, which limited their ability to add more staff.

“We have this great big, beautiful business plan, but we can’t find an affordable building to buy in Brattleboro. They’re too expensive,” said Steele. “Brattleboro is desirable, and the economy is doing just well enough for some people, but this pushes out the people who are less desirable. Like motorcycle repair shops.”

“That we can’t grow is the largest hindrance” to the shop’s continued operations, said Steele, who noted the DeRushas are very supportive and helped Vintage Steele grow their business, “but that’s not the problem. We just need to grow and we can’t afford Brattleboro [land] prices.”

“Meanwhile, we were busy, busy, busy, slammin’, slammin’, slammin,’” almost all summer, said Steele.

“Then the rain came. That just killed us. People weren’t riding at all,” said Steele.

“So, their bikes weren’t breaking,” John added.

To clarify: “We’re not shutting down because of rain,” Steele said. “There are 100 reasons. But we have a six-month window for making most of the money for the year, and when in one of those months something happens beyond our control, it affects you negatively. It was a real eye-opener,” he said.

Steele noted the irony of waking up the morning he decided to close, hearing a newscaster on Vermont Public Radio announce the state was experiencing a severe drought.

“I started doing this when I was barely out of my teens,” said John, who was 20 years old when Vintage Steele got its business license. Steele was 27.

“I have personal goals that I can’t do while doing this,” John said, noting that the business leaves little time to pursue personal goals — like buying a house with his girlfriend, Jamie Cansler.

Steele mentioned the frequent business-development message about attracting and keeping young people to and in the area. But, he asked, what about those who are already here and struggling?

“This is not how you keep and attract young people here,” said Steele.

John pointed out that Vintage Steele and Basketville closing means a loss of two businesses that are “huge draws from elsewhere.”

“What else will bring Connecticut money here?” he asked.

Still, John is staying put. “I was born and raised in Brattleboro. This area is home to me and it’s where I want to be. Jamie has a 9-year-old son in school. We’re rooted here,” he said.

And Steele noted that he owns a house in Brattleboro and serves on the Planning Commission.

“I’ll always be an advocate for poor people who are struggling, and business owners. I’m invested in this place,” he said.

Wrapping it up

Although Vintage Steele is winding down operations and they plan to close the shop at the end of December, Steele and John still have work orders to complete, and they’re taking on new repairs and customers, “but no big projects, just routine maintenance,” said Steele.

Steele said he wanted to “be very clear how much we appreciate our customers and clients from the last eight years. We couldn’t have made it this far without them. We made awesome friends.”

“Ditto!” said John, who added, “what we’ve accomplished over the last eight years is super-remarkable, and it couldn’t have happened without our new friends and clients.”

Some of them, Steele noted, offered to help them move their tools, bikes, and equipment out of Vintage Steele and into storage.

When asked if there were specific people John and Steele wanted to acknowledge, they answered, in unison: “Our girlfriends!”

Now that they’re wrapping up, in retrospect, would they have done anything differently?

“Starting and growing this business has been the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life. Choosing to shut it down is the second-most difficult thing,” said Steele. “I would not do anything differently because of the amount I’ve accomplished and learned through this entire process.”

“I’m honored to be a part of the motorcycle community,” said Steele, “I’ll always do what I can to maintain a healthy, safe, and beautiful motorcycle community.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #484 (Wednesday, November 7, 2018). This story appeared on page A1.

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