Sip & Spoke: A New Mission-Driven Retail Space / by Karen Morales

Boston's biking community may get a new hub — pun intended. Sip & Spoke Bike Kitchen is a dual concept intended to serve Dorchester's Uphams Corner neighborhood. Part coffee shop and part full-service bicycle shop, the venture is still in its planning phase, but has already garnered plenty of interest for its creativity and mission-driven spirit. There are plenty of things Boston residents have to be proud of. For one, we were the first state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage. What about our number one rank as the most unequal city in America according to the Brookings Institution’s 2014 report? Yeah, not so much.

Alan Berube, co-author of the Brookings report published in January of this year, spoke to WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station, to offer further context. According to Berube, Boston's large student population can partially explain the disparity. However, the report does reflect an alarming trend: over the last couple of years, Boston's poor got poorer and the rich got richer.

To add insult to injury, the MBTA, the city's most popular mode of transit, had the greatest number of breakdowns out of every transit system in the U.S. in 2014 (National Transit Database).

So for people like Noah Hicks, creator of Sip & Spoke, finding solutions to help solve these issues is paramount. When open, the bike and coffee shop will support the local biking culture by providing affordable new and refurbished bicycles, parts, accessories, maintenance, and repair services to those who rely on biking as an economical way to get around.

Hicks was born and raised in Boston’s Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood and loved to bike as a child. What used to be a hobby turned into his sole means of transportation during difficult economic times as an adult. He became actively involved in the biking community and joined the Executive Board of the Boston Cyclists Union. In 2013, he founded Bowdoin Bike School, a nonprofit repair and teaching center for local youth.

In partnership with Historic Boston Incorporated, the Sip and Spoke Bike Kitchen will preserve and co-opt an abandoned Uphams Corner Comfort Station which was built in 1912, as part of the old trolley car system.

From December 15, 2015 to February 16, 2016, Sip & Spoke’s indiegogo campaign raised $18,732 from 238 donors. Although their original goal was $50,000, the project’s development is well underway and there are no signs of stopping.

We caught up with Hicks to learn more about the bike kitchen, which is expected to open in Spring 2017.

Why did you decide to go with a dual concept of a bike shop/cafe and not just a bike shop?

I wanted Sip and Spoke to engage the community — to be a place where you could hang out without a sense of urgency because there aren’t a lot of those types of places in the area now. I envision the space to be a place where people can gather for an art showing, a musical act. I think the integration of the local art community with the local bike community is a very natural direction. Also, it’s going to be in a relatively small building, not large enough for a restaurant with a full kitchen, so a coffee shop works best. I envision it being a classy retail joint in a space that’s cutting edge.

The project’s website says Bowdoin Bike School will be co-located at the Uphams Corner Comfort Station with Sip & Spoke. Are they going to merge together or still be differentiated from one another?

Bowdon Bike School will maintain its status as a nonprofit but they will work together and support the work and community outreach of this project. And Sip & Spoke will anchor Bowdoin Bike School to a sustainable funding source, as well as reach a wider audience.

When it comes to biking in the city, how do you feel about the rules of the road (ie. red lights) and whether they should apply to bikers?

The system that we have now is not working. If you want people to bike safely you need specific and separate infrastructure for people to do that. In Boston, cars don’t know how to behave with people on bikes, so there should be a system that more fully integrates the needs of cyclists. As a community organizer and someone’s who’s been pushing this for so many years, I think opening a bike shop is a good first step to advocate for this infrastructure. An actual separated bike line with a buffer or a barrier where it would be impossible for cars to go into, for example.

What do you think of Hubway, Boston’s bike sharing program?

Hubway is not 12 months a year which negates the idea of cycling being sustainable for everyday living. It sends the message that it’s an impractical way to get around when it’s cold or snowing.

Why do you think Boston residents are getting around on bikes as opposed to other means of transportation?

Boston is a walkable city and being a walkable city also means you are a bikeable city. Our public transit system hasn’t been invested in as much as it should be, and so a lot of people are taking the next best option in terms of affordability and easy access.

How do you think the surrounding community will benefit from more access to bikes?

In working class communities in Dorchester, people rely on their bikes in a different way than people in Milton do. They are more likely able to afford other transportation options and have more choices. The easiest way for people to cut costs in transportation is to invest in a bike.

Anything else in the way of making this happen besides funding?

There's no way in hell this project is not happening. This is something the community is leaning towards and it’s something the community wants. The more people hear about it, the more they want to help out.

How do you plan to maintain the authenticity and history of the old Comfort Station?

We’re planning on staying very true to the exterior and interior of the building. The station has a red tile roof, which I think is the only structure in Boston with that type of historic style of roofing.

Another interesting aspect of the project is that the Comfort Station is next to a historic burial ground in Dorchester. It’s been around since the 1600s. We’re not in charge of preserving it but I think it brings an extra layer of relevance and people will be able to access it more freely when they come to the bike shop. Our project is all about reactivating the space and making all of that [history] relevant and accessible.

Photo by Benjamin Frohman