Brixton People: Barney, Brixton Cycles

Written by on March 22, 2012 in Brixton People, Brixton Stories - 4 Comments

Brixton Cycles on Stockwell Road is a workers’ collective which takes pride in welcoming customers into their family.

Amy Baker from London’s Stories spoke to Barney who has worked at the shop for nearly 30 years about what makes the shop different and how Brixton has changed over the years.

“Folklore has it that three guys were doing a bike ride from John O’Groats to Land’s End in the 1980s and they realised that there was no bike shop in Brixton.  They had the remarkable idea of starting one and making it a workers’ co-operative…

This was around the time of Red Ken, nothing was really happening at that time, it was just past the riots, rents were very cheap, we got a £50 grant and a £500 loan from a ‘right-on movement’ called the Industrial Common Ownership Fund and we opened the tiny, tiny shop on Coldharbour Lane.

We were there until about eleven or twelve years ago until Coldharbour Lane became a ‘golden mile’ for people who flogged booze and rents tripled over night so that’s when we moved to our current premises.

I’m probably the oldest co-op member but I’m also the biggest child. I ask a hundred questions a day to my co-workers. I think wisdom is knowing how little you know.

How we work together is hard to explain – we call it ‘human origami’. We love what we do; we love the chaos and the spaghetti management way that we operate. There are 13 of us, unlucky for people of faith!

If you work here for a year then you become a co-op member – a Director if you will. Equal say, equal pay. It is hard sometimes but we don’t have a big staff turnover because people either get it, or they don’t. I don’t think that anyone here would be working here if there was a boss.

I’m unemployable now, I haven’t had a boss for 25 years but when I have done that – worked for other people – I have found the mistrust that management have for their staff hard to deal with. When people are happy, they are more productive.

We’re like a happy family. I mean, of course we have spits and spats but generally we know how lucky we are. The average bike mechanic in London is paid less than poverty wages in this city and I just don’t know how they live. We’re lucky. We’re the best-paid bike mechanics in London.

We do have a line manager – he’s called Ben Nevis and he’s a dog. He’s our only management structure.

The hub of the business is the workshop. We sell new bikes that come with a year of unlimited labour. If you just push units and say goodbye, you never get the repeat customer. That’s the most important thing.

We only stock what we like because we don’t have a boss telling us to only stock what has the highest profit margin. We only sell what we would ride ourselves and we think that this promotes trust with the customer.

I haven’t owned a car for 25 years. I don’t know if you drive but owning a car is a bloody waste of time. I think most car drivers are there because it’s ‘keeping up with the jones’s’ or because they live with their mum and they need somewhere to listen to loud music.

Obviously I had a car at 17 but that’s because I didn’t have a girlfriend. Sexual politics make men buy cars.

There’s been an absolute revolution, with the Ken Livingstone Bikes they’re not Boris Bikes – they were invented by Ken, not a very nice man but a damn sight less ridiculous than Johnson. He’s a joke; he’s a part of the party that have taken my workers’ tax credit. It’s horrific – I don’t know how the British public put up with it.

With all the parking restrictions, people have caught on to the fact that riding a bike is not only for sandal wearing, incense burning hippies. It’s mainstream.

I do get annoyed with what we call ‘The Tribe of Yellow’ – ruddy-faced bankers in hi-vis jackets jumping red lights and getting in my way.

I applied for this job when I was 22 and I’m 47 now. I come from a family of cyclists so of course I hated it and wanted to spend all of my money on cars. Then, when The Ice Queen was in power I felt very inadequate, I couldn’t afford anything so I went to live in Wales, bought a mountain bike and it was like the clouds parted, Richard Dawkins pointed down at me and told me this was the way to go!

When I got back to London, I knew I wanted to work at a bike shop so I went through the yellow pages, got as far as B and I’ve been here ever since.

I know that old Brixton, you know the squatting, couriering crew are all grumbling about its gentrification but there are good sides to it. It’s good to be able to have a good meal!

I remember when crack landed in Brixton I did see a lot of knives, a lot of violence, a lot of aggression and as a young man it freaked me out.  I lived in central Brixton for a long time and I’ve come out of my house and seen man-shaped chalk marks on the pavement.

I’ve had people come in here who’ve said ‘remember me, I used to nick all your tools! Well, I’m back and I want a bike for both my children’. It’s important to treat people as people to keep them coming back rather than as a wallet or a threat.

If I see any bullying out on the skate park, I’ll storm out there – give them a bit of the baritone and try and cool things down a little bit.

You must never rest on your laurels, having advocates for the shop out on the street is worth millions.

One of our favourite customers, his nickname is Penfold. He is on a sea of prescription drugs. He gets a lot of hassle from the community because he has mental health issues but he’s beautiful. He’s a beautiful man. He comes in every day and brings us gifts. Redundant electronics. He comes and has little mini philosophical discussions with us.

There’s also a guy called Red Rodriguez who quotes us Plato and Marx. He’ll say things like ‘As Plato said, never put a 27 inch tyre on a 700c wheel!’ Pretty sure Plato never said that!

A lot of the kids are great as well you see them grow from rugrats to full grown hoodlums! They learn on us, they learn that they can’t just push in.

I think the thing that gives Brixton such a community feel is that people walk. If you walk, you talk.

We’ve got the Brixton BMX Club in Brockwell Park, they are brilliant male mentors. Then we have our cycle club where we are trying to get people who aren’t total anoraks into road riding – they meet every Sunday. It’s for men and women, not just angular blokes who haven’t seen a pudding their whole life.”

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4 Comments on "Brixton People: Barney, Brixton Cycles"

  1. Mike June 13, 2012 at 5:10 pm ·

    What a cracking interview. I’ve never been there (North Londoner) but that gives such a strong & posititve impression of the place I’m going to have to drop in the next time I’m cycling down that way.

  2. Andy April 10, 2012 at 12:34 pm ·

    Lovely guy, lovely shop. I almost want my bike to have an issue so I can pop in!

  3. joseph March 25, 2012 at 6:06 pm ·

    Ahh – lovely interview and a great shop!

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