(Q&A with Brian Schaffran, owner, Skidmark Garage, a community motorcycle garage)
When and why did you move back to Cleveland and buy your first motorcycle?
I moved back to Cleveland from Los Angeles in 2000 after going through a divorce and not being able to rent an apartment due to my abysmal credit. I was essentially homeless and moved from friend’s place to friend’s place for several months before biting the bullet and coming back home to live in my childhood bedroom and finish my teaching degree at CSU. On my way to school one morning in 2001, I spotted an old motorcycle for sale in some guy’s front yard. Like deep shag carpeting, it was 70’s ugly, but it beckoned. I had never owned a motorcycle up to that point, but for some reason I was drawn in immediately. I bought it, and because I knew nothing about it, I soon took it to the nearest Honda motorcycle dealer hoping to get it tuned up. Well, most dealerships won’t work on old bikes – and with good reason. When you fix something on an old bike, something else breaks soon afterward – something unrelated – and the timing of the next broken item points to the last person to work on it. So, a service department at a dealership begins losing its ass on having to fix and fix and fix because it all appears to be the dealership’s fault that things keep breaking.
What motorcycles do you now own?
Since buying that CB750, I have since acquired several more old Hondas – a CB350, a CX500, a Goldwing, a 1965 Dream, and a CB500. But who has time to work on a bike when trying to keep a business alive? Not only do I not work on other people’s motorcycles, but I don’t even work on my own. For starters, I am not allowed to work on anyone else’s motorcycle. Otherwise, Skidmark Garage can be reclassified as a traditional mechanic’s garage and subject to all kinds of city, county, and state regulations. Also, since I spend every waking moment trying to get the word out about this place, I not only have no time to fix my motorcycles, but I also have no time to ride. For the most part, I haven’t ridden in a good two or three years. I used to ride every day, rain or shine, from March until December. Back then, I needed it to remind me to enjoy life while working for The Man. Now, I’m The Man, and I don’t have that overwhelming urge to ride like I used to. I’m just as happy to see the members of Skidmark Garage ride out on something they built or fixed themselves.
What’s it been like to be a business owner?
Being a business owner means fighting to keep my dream a reality every single day. My girlfriend, Molly Vaughan, works very hard to keep me grounded and does her best to remind me that balance in one’s life is important. Skidmark’s published hours, as expansive as they may appear, are actually non-stop. It is a rare occasion these days to find nobody working on a motorcycle at any given hour of the day or night. This place is almost never empty of souls. I’ve poured my entire being into this business – a business that is so foreign to most that advertising is typically not possible. Owning this business has meant educating people about a business concept that simply does not exist in most Americans’ brains. Now that the concept is starting to catch on, traditional marketing might be able to actually do some good. I am here a LOT.
Why did you locate where you are now?
It’s important for Skidmark Garage to be located in the same building as other creatives and makers. Soulcraft Woodshop has virtually the same business model as Skidmark Garage (member-based and DIY), and we were in the same building previous to the current location. A few years ago, when Soulcraft spoke of putting together a collaborative that included Ingenuity Cleveland and ReBuilders Xchange, I insisted Skidmark be a part of it. This new location afforded Skidmark three times the square footage at a lower monthly rent than the previous location. The current owners of this building were sympathetic to all of our start-up statuses and seemed to buy into our effort for collaboration. Being in this building with so many creative people is important for those creative types. They feed off each other and help each other constantly. We’ve got quite the collection of oddballs in this building. I’m proud to be included, although I do not consider myself creative…at all.
Any plans for expansion?
Skidmark now has 10 fully stocked bays, but it will be 12 bays in another month or so. The membership plateaued at about 20 members for a year or two, and then doubled in the last few months since the motorcycle show at the IX Center in January. Climbing to 40 members has been eye opening with regard to space usage. There’s rarely more than 8 people working on their motorcycles at once, but if the trend continues, I may need to up the amount of bays to 14.
Where do you get items for your garage?
Key to the success of this place is access to used machinery, carts and shelving from HGR Industrial Surplus. When I opened Skidmark, I’d never heard of HGR. The guys from Soulcraft made me aware of it, and my outlook immediately changed. The tough thing about HGR is the tendency for me to drift toward hoarding. I want every machine in that place. I can convince myself that the members of Skidmark will benefit from an envelope-stuffing machine if you give me enough time. But with space being the premium here, shelving and carts are way more valuable than I would have ever guessed. I’m hoping to score a Bridgeport and a lathe sooner than later.
How do you deal with the disappearance of tools?
Years ago, when discussing my dream of opening a community motorcycle garage, EVERYONE’S first response was a question about how am I going to guard against theft of tools? So, I made plans to prevent it, plans to monitor everything, plans to replace stolen items…but none of it ever came to be. Nobody has ever stolen so much as a screwdriver from Skidmark Garage. The members feel ownership of everything in here and have no interest in stealing what they already feel is their own.
Do people help each other out?
The beauty of Skidmark Garage is the willingness of everyone to help each other. All members are expected to help and can expect to receive help. Between the Wi-Fi, the library of manuals that Clymer/Haynes donated, and the knowledge of the people in the garage, just about any problem can be solved. We have a few members here who are extremely knowledgeable about certain aspects of motorcycles, and even though they very well could ask for compensation for their assistance, they never do. It is a community in the truest sense of the word.
Are members allowed to bring guests or helpers with them?
I encourage members to bring their friends to help. Wrenching on a bike with a friend or two is a great way to hang out and be productive. It’s a great way to learn and meet other people. Some members bring their kids, some bring their spouse, some bring parents. The more the merrier.
Is there an insurance liability concern?
The liability on such a business was a huge concern – not only for Skidmark Garage, but for the other 40 community motorcycle garages around the world. Obviously, Soulcraft Woodshop had the same issue — What insurance company will insure all the tools AND the regular Joe off the street using potentially dangerous tools? Thankfully, Soulcraft found the perfect insurance company for them, and they were able to insure Skidmark, as well.
Has someone ever dropped a bike, not paid and not come back?
Since opening Skidmark in spring 2015, there have been a few people who have effectively abandoned their motorcycles. They are not reachable in any fashion; therefore, the bikes take up precious room, and I have no recourse. Maybe I’ll hang them from the ceiling just to get them out of the way. At this point, I don’t even want money from them. I just want the bikes gone.
I see that you offer beginner welding classes. What do students do in the classes?
Every month, Skidmark and Soulcraft jointly host a MIG welding workshop. So far, since the workshop is for beginners, nothing but scrap metal gets welded. Nobody is building any structures of any kind in that workshop, they’re mostly learning how to lay down a few different kind of welds. Recently, we’ve added a TIG welding workshop, which sold out before it was even advertised. MOTUL Oil is coming into Skidmark to offer free oil changes to the members of Skidmark, and during Fuel Cleveland there will be a few demonstrations/workshops in which to take part. I would really like to have a women’s only night that encourages the ladies to fix their own motorcycles and shows them not only the basics, but some of the more advanced functions and how to fix them when those systems fail. Women have not been encouraged to learn how to wrench on machines. This needs to change — not just for the survival of the motorcycle industry, but for the survival of everything. It’s crazy to say, but women are possibly this country’s largest untapped resource.
What inspires you?
I’m continually inspired by the process of learning. That feeling is life-changing. I did everything I could to get my students to experience it when I was a teacher, and I get all excited when I see someone in Skidmark Garage learning. More learning happens in Skidmark Garage than in ANY high school. Real and legitimate learning happens when you “do.” Sitting in a classroom forces a teacher to try and recreate the “doing” in order to wake up that internal motivation to learn. There are few things more difficult than trying to get kids to learn through abstract exercises. There is nothing abstract inside these walls. The learning, the doing, the experiencing, the community — it’s all real; it all matters; and it all makes a difference.
Any words of advice to motorcyclists?
If I could bend the ear of every motorcyclist on the planet, I would explain to them the importance of knowing your machine. When your car breaks down, you’re stranded. When your motorcycle breaks down, you might end up dumping it, and you are exposed to the elements once you have to stop. There are so many other factors that make motorcycling far more risky (and therefore rewarding) than driving a car. A motorcyclist, especially one riding a vintage motorcycle, MUST know how to troubleshoot and at least patch most issues to get him/her to the next safe spot. Every motorcyclist should know where the nearest community motorcycle garage is located, because the owners of these garages and their members are there to help.
My next move is to get a mobile shop class going. Through my non-profit, Skidmark CLE, I will be taking a large trailer to three high schools (or middle schools) per day, getting a dozen kids out to the trailer, and teaching them how to break down an entire motorcycle, take the engine apart, and then reassemble the whole thing. It will culminate in starting the motorcycle at the end of the semester. Shop class does not exist in most high schools, thanks to state-mandated testing. Too many kids are graduating from high school without being even close to well-rounded. The shop class is not intended to push the students toward a life of mechanics, rather it is to give them a real sense of learning — nothing abstract will happen in that trailer. They’ll learn how to use basic tools, how to use the metric system, how an internal combustion engine works, how to read an instruction manual, and how to work together as a team. I don’t think I can provide anything more important to these kids than giving them the confidence to manipulate a machine and to fix something that is broken. Once they experience real learning inside the Skidmark CLE mobile shop class, they’ll be eager to learn in other areas of their lives. I hope to have this program rolling by spring semester 2019. With this mobile shop class, the school does not need to invest in the tools, the classroom, or the teacher. I have a handful of schools willing to sign up; I just need more funders to make it possible. This program will have profound and long-lasting effects on Cleveland. Using the hands and the brains at the same time to accomplish real goals will positively change the life of every student that takes the class.
Photos provided courtesy of Mark Adams Pictures