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Goodbye, Keirin: boss Mortimer talks cycling, gentrification, bikes and Berlin

Gentrification is a word frequently dropped into conversations in Berlin, often by privileged expats bemoaning rising rent prices or how their Kiez’s authentic vibe is gradually being eroded due to trendy businesses opening up.

It’s no secret that Berlin is seen by many as an attractive and affordable place to live and work. While this influx of new people and ideas is beneficial to the city, the accompanying economic growth means that people suffer: squeezed out of their apartments and forced to close their shops by greedy landlords who know they can get double the rent from the next tenant.

Mortimer’s much-loved Kreuzberg bike cafe, Keirin, recently suffered a similar fate. Having finally closed its doors after 14 years at Schlessiches Tor, the shop is another unfortunate victim of Berlin’s fast-rising rent prices.

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mortimer as he reflected on the years at Keirin, cycling, bikes and Berlin.

So, what happened with the shop?

I closed it end of March (’18). The build up was the move (to the smaller unit). We used to be a shop that was 140 square metres – the main shop where the Ramones museum now is, and a little shop next to it that was our storage room. When it was the busy season and we were repairing 20 bikes a week, we stored the repaired bikes there.

We moved into the little shop in 2004, and then in 2006 the big shop next door became available. After 10 years the contract ran out. Half a year before it ran out, (the landlord) said he would have to increase the rent. We thought, yeah ok, after 10 years maybe 10 or 20 percent would be ok. I asked him how much he wanted and the answer was 4000 euros per month. We were paying approximately 2,000 per month and he doubled it. I said I couldn’t really pay this and asked if there was another option, maybe he could sell it to me. He came back and asked for 350,000 (to buy the shop).

I thought, that’s a lot of money. I went to the bank and after a few days they came back to me and said we could do it. I went back to him and then he said: 450,000.

I still had the contract for the smaller shop, so we gave it a try there. We did a ‘save Keirin Berlin’ thing, and we thought about doing Kickstarter, but in the end didn’t do it. We had a party with 3 punk bands and a DJ. We moved into the little shop and gave it a try.

People say the little shop was a prime location, and it is, but it’s 30 square metres. We put in the coffee machine first – that was important to me – we were the first cycle culture cafe that I know of, worldwide. We put in the work space – but my mechanic was complaining that I couldn’t pay him on time. Then he left. We had replacement mechanics, that worked ok, but if we had three cargo bikes come in at once, that was it, the shop was full.

The idea was always not to be just a bike shop, but to be more a place where people meet and talk and maybe to see that the bike as art – to have exhibitions. In the bigger shop there was a coffee area with art on the wall, magazines and books. Next to this was the area with used and new bikes – classic Italian racing bikes and Japanese track bikes. In the back was the workshop and bike parts. There was always some kind of bike related culture – a Keirin (Japanese track cycling racing) exhibition, a 6 day race exhibition or something like that.

Unfortunately when we moved into the smaller shop, it looked a bit like a club, a lot of bike messengers were hanging out and the normal people didn’t dare come inside. The other shop had big windows, a coffee machine. People walked by, saw the bikes, came in for a cappuccino and bought a cycling cap. I would sell 10 cycling caps a day. That went down to maybe 5 a week. We always said cycling caps paid the rent!

How did you get started?

I was a bike messenger for quite some time. I started in Berlin in ’93 – there was the cycle messenger world championships. In ’95, I went to Toronto – to the world championship, and there was this coffee shop, Jet Fuel. The shop was started by this guy, John ‘Jet Fuel’ Englar, who actually invented the alleycat. He decided to open a coffee shop – I wouldn’t call it a cycling cafe, but it was a coffee shop with a bike theme: he had two or three track bikes hanging on the wall. We saw this and thought, wow, this is pretty cool: a coffee shop with bicycles where friends and messengers meet. We can do some food, but we can also repair and sell bikes, and do exhibitions.

So I got the idea in ’95, then in ’98 I went to New York and worked there for five years as a messenger. I met this girl – she said she always wanted to go to Berlin, so we came back to Berlin. She used to say to me, do you want to be a messenger for ever? We were living on Pannierstrasse in Neukolln back then, it was 500 euros warm for an 80m2 apartment. This was in 2003.

I had always wanted to do a coffee shop with a bike theme. The idea was never really purely a bike shop. We never wanted to deal with all kinds of weird cyclists, you know? I never actually considered myself a cyclist: to me a cyclist is someone who makes money cycling, who trains, you know?

So, we opened in 2004 with the little shop. We had maybe 10,000 euros together between us: me and my friend Gary, who was a long time messenger. He had also been working at (Prenzlauer Berg bike shop) Ostrad for maybe 8 years by then, so he was a pretty good mechanic. He was also in Toronto in ’95.

We were searching for a shop for one year. Originally we were looking around Potse (Potsdamer Strasse) – this was my perfect idea of Berlin – it’s not west, it’s not east – it’s a little bit shady, a bit posh – it’s almost like the Lower East Side of NYC.

We bought a coffee machine for 3500 euros, ordered some bags from our friends Bagjack, bought some old cycling jerseys. We bought a lot of track bikes on French and Belgian eBay – at this time the track bike thing hadn’t really taken off: the shipping was more than the bikes! I once bought 11 track bikes from a velodrome in Paris for 30 euros each. They were all Campy Record (high end Campagnolo components) equipped. People just laughed at us. We put them together and then it seemed like – boom – all of a sudden everyone wanted track bikes. There weren’t really even parts available yet. It went really crazy in around 2007/8. It was already crazy in New York since about 2003/4.

It got so crazy. Then the (bigger) shop next door became empty. We thought, fuck, should we really make this move and pay approximately 2,000 euros a month rent? Can we survive this? At this point the rent was 1400, even 15 years ago.

The UPS guy used to leave packages for people in the building with us and tell them “we left your package in the bike store”. We used to say “We’re not a bike store!”. Then more and more we became a bike store. We got the bigger shop, we were concentrating on wheel building. Then the whole trend for colour with fixed gear bikes started: green saddles, orange rims. We did a little bit of that, but not really, we thought it was really only a trend. I still have white deep V rims. We ordered 50 and sold maybe 20. We became a bike shop.

We went to Japan twice a year, to Keirin races, we bought Keirin bikes – in the beginning for around 50 euros and sold them for 200 or 300. We were stupid, could’ve earned more, but Keirin was never about money. It sounds a little cheesy, but we wanted to bring the bicycle to people in a different way – the bicycle is the future, and that was the idea with exhibitions and art. For example, if a couple came in, and she was into bikes, and he wasn’t, he can drink a cappuccino and read Zitty. Maybe then he would think, ah, this red bike is actually really pretty.

We were never really making loads of money. We made enough to pay rent, to pay us and to pay a mechanic, but we had fun.

When did things start getting difficult?

It got a little bit difficult in 2009, when the police suddenly started focusing on track bikes. They figured out that people were riding without brakes. I personally think that this whole ‘no brakes’ thing – it was a big mistake in the fixed gear scene to call it no brakes, trying to sound all punk rock: ‘no brakes!’ – but there is a brake on the bike. The police thought that no brakes meant ‘keine Bremsen’. I remember my ex-girlfriend, she was working as a bike messenger, riding a Schwimm Paramount with Campy Record and the police stopped her and said she had no brake on her bike. She said, no, there’s a back brake on the bike (the bike’s fixed gear). The policeman said “I didn’t know there were Campy Record back brakes”!

They let her off. I’m not sure that anything ever really happened – like somebody on a track bike hitting somebody – but I think there are a lot of people in the fixed gear scene, just like any scene, who don’t behave, who ride like assholes and act like assholes. I figure that maybe something like that happened with a policeman. They went into all the shops, but didn’t come to our shop. They stopped people, at first they said 90 euro fine, and you have two weeks to go to the police and put bells and lights and brakes and whatever on your bike. Then the second time they busted you, they confiscated the bike. My friend had two of her bikes taken away, and never got them back.

They claimed these bikes were like weapons. I can kind of understand that, because there are a lot of people who can’t ride these bikes and a lot of people who can’t ride bikes in general, but the thing is with track bikes, or fixed gear bikes, or – terrible word – fixies, most people know what they’re doing – but there are still assholes.

Did this affect the popularity of track bikes here?

It made people think: I’m gonna get a classic single speed. It wasn’t really what we wanted to do. Also, many other shops suddenly opened up, like Create bikes and Einzig, and good track bikes – with Campy Record or Dura Ace parts – got really expensive, because there was nothing left on eBay, everything was gone. Other shops opened, but just sold cheaply-made stuff. All of a sudden, track bikes weren’t eight or nine hundred euros anymore, but five hundred. Then Amazon got big, web shops got big. It became all about money, and that doesn’t fit to the bicycle for me. A lot of firms are just about numbers.

Do you ride brakeless?

I mean, I’ve never ridden with brakes and I never will, because I feel like I know what I’m doing and it would be more dangerous if I had a brake and had to rely on one. Same thing with helmets. There are studies that say that car drivers tend to be more aggressive toward cyclists when they wear a helmet, they get closer to you. Of course, a helmet can help you survive, but not always. If you feel safer with one, you should wear one.

What are you plans now the shop is closed?

I’m doing this trip, cycling to (on a track bike) Japan. All my friends were telling me I should hang on and stay at the shop, but I’m not in the mood anymore, to struggle with the shop. To think every day, how am I gonna pay this bill and that bill? I decided, I’m closing the shop and going on a trip.

Do you have a lot of stock left?

Yeah. A lot. I have a storage space and my apartment – I still have track bikes in my apartment right now. They were hanging on the wall in the shop – World Championship bikes and Olympic Games bikes. People would ask me – aren’t you selling these? Don’t you need the money? I’d say, aren’t you into culture? Or are you into hanging it in your apartment as a collectors item?

I decided to make an exhibition in Japan about my trip. End of October I hope to have a little exhibition in Tokyo to show my photos and sell t-shirts. I still sell stuff online but I plan to close that down soon. I got some sponsors for the trip – I contacted a few people and told them I wanted to do this trip – can you give me some cranks? Can you give me some wheels? So a lot of folks helped with putting a bike together. The frame is titanium from Kocmo, in Stahnsdorf – they’ve been making titanium frames since 1994. Continental is supporting me. I’m waiting to put this bike together, then I’ll go.

After that, I’ll come back and see what happens. Right now, I can’t imagine ever doing something like Keirin again, but if I do something like that it will be just a couple of times a week, but wholesale. And maybe have once a month an exhibition – sell t-shirts and drinks, and maybe go more into the cafe direction. But right now, I’m a little bit over Berlin. It still has cool parts, but Kreuzberg- I like it, but it’s become like Brooklyn, it’s like East London. It has something, but in a way it’s losing it. You know, Manhattan also used to be a cool place…

Do you think Berlin is a good city ride in? Is it safe?

Unless you don’t go to Neukölln, or Wedding, it’s safe! That’s the funny thing – they have critical mass here – and when they do it, they kind of miss the point. When they started doing it here, cycling wasn’t so big, but now it’s really big, so in a city like Berlin, we don’t really need a critical mass anymore – because cycling here is so visible. It’s more of a political thing. If you do critical mass, you should have banners saying ‘we need more bike lanes’ or whatever – but don’t meet up and be 5000 people for three hours just to annoy car drivers. In New York, when they do critical mass, they’re nice to car drivers…

Do you think the infrastructure here is good enough, or should it be improved?

It could always be better. I think what they should do is what they have in London, where car drivers have to pay to get into the centre of town. Or in New York, where there has to be two people in each car. There’s definitely too much traffic here, and too many cars. Now they’re building a new autobahn. Bike lanes should also be green or yellow or blue, not red.

Is cycling getting more popular here?

It’s getting more popular. What’s missing are the mountains!

Do you think Berlin has a strong cycling culture?

I don’t know if I would call it a culture, really. A lot about this is because it’s cool. That’s the funny thing, I mean in New York, you have the messengers and ‘alternative transportation’ geeks, but they mix. In Berlin, you have the cool fixed gear riders – which maybe I’m a part of too – and you have the geeks at ADFC, but they don’t talk to each other! And that’s so Berlin. I think people should do more together. I think 8bar, or the She36 girls, those are the people who have really good ideas about making it more fun, and not so serious.

I think the big, big problem with the cycling scene is the lack of women. And I think that’s because of the attitude of the men. For the men it’s a fucking competition: I’ve got the nicest titanium frame with Campy Record, and SIDI shoes, and I’m faster than you, and I did 289km yesterday. And for the women: they meet in the park, they drink coffee, and do tricks on a fixed gear bike and have fun, they connect. We need more women in this scene. If you focus more on women, more women will come, more guys will eventually come and it’ll be more fun for everyone. If you have a race like Fixed42, with 600 men and only 80 spaces for women, naturally not every male cyclist will be serious, but of those 80 women, every woman will be really serious. So the women who just want to have fun don’t even think about registering.

Thanks Mortimer.

Follow Keirin on Instagram

All photos courtesy of Mortimer.

21st May 2018 0 comment
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