Friday, March 15, 2019
A visit to Sixth Street Specials
Interview and photos by Stacie Joy
I’m crawling through a hole in the ground to meet Hugh Mackie, owner of Sixth Street Specials motorcycle repair shop. It’s the steep ramp underground where people bring their cycles to be diagnosed and repaired here at 703 E. Sixth St. between Avenue C and Avenue D.
Apparently there is an upstairs shop, a place that doesn’t require hunkering my way down through an unlighted tunnel beyond two wooden doors (all while wearing a lot of camera equipment) but I missed the memo.
Downstairs the space is huge — it runs a reported 100 feet back — and it’s filled with cycles, parts, neatly stacked organized tools and many empty or nearly empty cups of tea. Mackie drinks a lot of tea.
Upstairs the shop is filled with more bikes, parts and tools, as well as artwork (including a signed Salvador Dali and pieces from one of Mackie’s kids) and mementos of Mackie’s many years racing and of his friends, especially Indian Larry. The place is filled with memories and stories, and Mackie is an excellent storyteller.
He introduces me to mechanic Fumihisa Matsueda, who is busy at work crouched by an Italian Laverda, lit with a portable task work lamp and a small space heater.
Mackie answers some questions I had about photos of my grandfather’s custom bikes from the 1930s, and casually continues the interview even after being stabbed in the finger by an engine part. He calmly wraps the bleeding digit with some electrical tape and tells me a bit about his history on Sixth Street.
How long have you been here?
The shop opened here in 1986, and I moved into the building [Mackie lives upstairs with his wife] in 1998. This building used to be a nail factory back in the day.
What made you choose the East Village as your shop’s home?
I’ve lived in the neighborhood since 1981. The location was abandoned empty lots back then, and squats, and the rent was good. In SoHo, lofts were filling up and artists were looking to the East Village. Typical East Village history.
We were the first business on the block that wasn’t drugs or prostitution back then. Artist Charles Keller lived on the third floor of this building and my friend Edgar lived in a blue van outside. We used to run an electrical cord to him in the winter so he could keep warm.
Do you still have customers from the early days on Sixth Street? What’s your typical customer like these days?
Very few from the old days are left. Sadly, they don’t live here anymore. The customer base changed. Still there are folks who ride vintage bikes all over the East Coast. They send their bikes here to be repaired. We make rent servicing new Triumphs. The company closed in the 1980s and revamped in the 1990s and is making new Bonneville models.
In Manhattan, if you need to service a bike you can’t do it yourself and can’t do it on the street. There are no more bike shops! Very few automotive places left at all. We’re one of the last shops. We also service older bikes to make our bread and butter. Millennials are the ones buying these new bikes. Those old enough to have graduated college and afford a bike — that helps keep our doors open.
How have you been able to stay in that space for so long with rents being what they are and buildings being sold left and right?
We have a good relationship with the landlord. It used to be back here you don’t ask for anything and the landlord doesn’t provide anything, you fend for yourself. Things are different now. Rent has gone up in quantum leaps. The landlord’s sons have taken over.
This building used to have four tenants, one on each floor. Now one is an Airbnb: things are subdivided and sublet, people taking in more roommates. When a tenant leaves or is forced out, the new tenant has to pay much more and then brings in other people to share the burden of cost. The building is overwhelmed now. Too many people flushing Bounty down the toilet pipes. Landlord profiteers and rent goes up.
As the neighborhood gets more and more gentrified, more agencies issues tickets and fines for repairs that are needed. This building has no super and I am on the ground floor so I end up having to patch things and fix those citations.
Any concerns about the shop’s long-term future?
Yes, absolutely! The last 10 years have been possible only due to the economic downturn/financial crisis in 2008. We’ve received a stay of execution.
What are your thoughts on the East Village of 2019?
It’s unrelated to what it was historically. Actually, that’s not the truth. It was built for immigrants. New people occupying everything. My own kids can’t afford to live here now.
Sixth Street Specials doesn't have a website or social media. If you want to know more about the shop, as Mackie tells me, just pick up the phone and call. “It’s a business, I answer the phone all the time!”