Vintage motorcycles, second chances and Shasta Smith
I get off the freeway and head down a surface street on my way to The Vintage Monkey. I soon find myself riding through the old warehouse district of Sacramento. An area of half-used buildings and old brick structures filled with non-profits intent on helping the homeless make it through the day and hopefully tomorrow. Nearby neighborhoods bear names like Dos Rio Triangle and Alkali Flat that reflect the mixed ethnic and industrial history of the area.
The gaunt, haggard, and displaced sit idly along the street watching me ride past; their shopping carts filled with the exfoliation of their lives. Not an area that one would think to find a hip motorcycle service garage and hang out.
This isn’t a judgment call or a warning. It’s a setup, if you will, for Shasta Smith, the woman who started The Vintage Monkey, and who has made a life of taking what some might cast aside and call junk and turning it into so much more.
The people who run the nonprofits nearby are trying to do this with people. Shasta does it with old bikes, and just about any other inanimate object she gets her hands on – including the building the ‘Monkey’ calls home.
“I can’t quite put my finger on it. Even at a young age, I knew I liked high heels and lipstick, but I also liked cars and motorcycles. One of the first bikes I rode was a friend’s CBR600 and my first car was an old Camaro. I’ve been around motorcycles and cars ever since.”
But that doesn’t explain the attraction to used items of indiscriminate value or vintage bikes. She blames/attributes the latter to an early 70s BMW that she saw years before. It’s gloss black paint, checkered seat and number 5 race plate made a lasting impression.
“That bike was just so beautiful. I thought it must be expensive and I wanted it so bad. Once I saw it, I just knew I had to have that bike or one like it.”
So while she didn’t get that particular bike, she did begin what has so far turned into a permanent attraction to classic and vintage bikes. And the number 5 has become a talisman or good luck charm of sorts, and it manages to show up on much of her work. Like the bikes that she’s restored, the monkey logo for the shop, and a half dozen other places if you look hard enough.
But luck is not something the casual observer would say has been on Shasta’s side. She had a bad non-motorcycle accident that kept her from riding for five years and she’s battled and beat cancer. Both might have kicked the ass of a lesser person, but luck is relative and Shasta’s not the kind of person to blame whatever situation she’s in for whatever good fortune that might be present or lacking at the time.
“After I got into the accident, it was hell not being able to ride all that time. I’d built the bike I wanted and loved it, but I couldn’t begin to think about even getting on it. But the time off of it let me focus on what I wanted to do with The Vintage Monkey and what I thought it could become.”
Shasta can ride today, but over small distances and short timeframes. While one might describe her as petite, that would be shortchanging a woman who is focused and clearly confident in both her ability and the future of The Vintage Monkey.
“I hate the word entrepreneur. I think when people go to start a business they are either the freight trainers or the delegators – big idea thinkers who hire other people to get it done. You’re either going to succeed or not by being one of the above. If you don’t breathe, sleep and eat this, it’s not going to happen. Someone asked me what I do when I’m not here (in the shop), I honestly am constantly thinking about it and how we can make it and the experience of being here better.”
The Vintage Monkey, as it currently exists, is definitely a reflection of Shasta’s passion for her business and the idea that another man’s (or woman’s) junk is another’s treasure.
There are old bikes – some that will probably never hit the pavement again – respectfully displayed like museum pieces on heavy duty shelves along the walls. On the floor sit more bikes of varying make, model and year. Shasta’s favorite, a 1972 CB 125 cc, bearing the number 5 of course, sits near the front entrance.
But the kicker is the round ‘bar’ – a 30-foot diameter structure made of metal with a concrete top embedded with spent bullet casings. Directly above the open area above the bar hangs a huge light fixture painted white and bearing an array of spikes at the bottom of the most bulbous part.
The overall look might be hard to describe, but once you’re there it all seems to fit, especially when you understand the people who have influenced Shasta as a designer of interiors and motorcycles.
“My grandmother studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, but that was at a time when women didn’t become architects. My mother is a designer in Southern California, and I’ve got a background in interior architecture. But David Bowie and the fashion designer Alexander McQueen are my biggest influences. Both are dead now, and when David Bowie died, I thought, ‘shit, now what do I do.’ That’s how important he was to how I looked at design.”
But Shasta makes a unique observation about riders and their motorcycles that more definitively sums up how she approaches a custom build.
“Not too many people get on a bike without caring about how it looks or how they look on it. It doesn’t matter as much about how you feel, it matters how you look.”
On the surface, that might sound like a poser attitude from some hipster who’s got more bands holding their man bun in place than hours in the saddle, but that’s really not it at all. Peel away that pretext and what she’s really saying is that a bike defines the rider, and anyone who thinks or says otherwise is bullshitting him or herself.
We take a short walk from the bar over to the service bay, which is full of bikes ready for everything from simple oil changes to full on engine rebuilds and customization. Evidently, five bikes were dropped off in just the last 48 hours. The Vintage Monkey’s service department is in demand, which means Shasta’s got to think about hiring more people.
“Hiring employees is intimidating, but I’m going to have to. We don’t want to deliver what we can’t fulfill. We’re at a point where if someone brought in a bike that needed a major engine rebuild, we’d have to tell them it will be three months before we can even get to it. So far that’s been fine with our customers because we’ve developed a 10-year reputation for doing great work.”
When Shasta was going through cancer, she used that time wisely — just as she did with her necessary time out of the saddle after her accident. She spent two years creating a vision and a substantial business plan for the evolution of The Vintage Monkey. Here’s how she sees the future.
“I want to cultivate the Vintage Monkey culture and presence here (in Sacramento) then in the Bay Area, then SoCal. But I say that with discretion. I’m going to base that on my level of happiness. If I find that I can balance that with opening a second location or a third, then I’ll do that. I’m very happy in life right now, I don’t want to jeopardize that.”
If it’s not evident by now, Shasta’s a pretty open book. But everyone has something they hold back or that people may not realize. It takes her a moment to think if there’s something about her that people wouldn’t know.
“I mop my own floors.” She points to the area around the bar, “I remember this needed to be mopped up after an event, and I was there cleaning it up. A lot of people wouldn’t think that I do that.”
Those would be the people who don’t know she works on customers’ bikes or that she occasionally finds herself with a welding torch in her hand.
Before I get back on my bike, I take one last look around. The Vintage Monkey is a bit of an oasis in an area otherwise trying hard to keep it and the people in it from falling entirely into the abyss. Shasta gave a second chance to the building that The Vintage Monkey calls home. The same with the bikes the ‘Monkey’ brings back to life and the others preserved as they were found.
As I ride back out the way I came in, I wonder how many people are trying to do for the nearby homeless what Shasta’s done to an old brick building, restored bikes, and some items no one else wanted. Everyone and everything deserves that kind of second chance.