Poke's Cycle At The End Of Its Road

THE SHOP that opened in 1949, 13 years before the Space Needle and 27 years before the Kingdome, will be closing due to rising property values and after a $300,000-plus offer came in.

It may be a slight overstatement to say Seattle will lose a landmark when Ross Poitras closes his motorcycle shop.

After all, the pumpkin-colored building near Seattle University isn't on any postcards or chamber-of-commerce brochures.

On the other hand, Poke's Cycle is 13 years older than the Space Needle and 27 years older than the Kingdome. And it sits in a brick building, which has a colorful history of its own, where a Prohibition-era speak-easy once operated below a main-floor tire store.

"It's been a great place to hang out, to meet people and to learn about motorcycles," said Seattle psychiatrist Charlie Hale. "It's sad to see it go."

Hale, a motorcycle buff and Poke's customer for 20 years, says the stress of the working world melts away as vintage-motorcycle owners swap stories and tips and check out one another's bikes.

The shop was opened in 1949 by Poitras' father, Larry, a crusty veteran motorcycle racer, mechanic and dealer who has been called "Poke" since grade school.

He got an early start both as a biker and businessman; by high school, he was repairing friends' motorcycles in his basement.

"I used to get kicked out of class for drawing (motorcycle) designs when I should have been studying," said Larry Poitras, 75. "But if I got thrown out of French class, what difference did that make? I was making more money than my dentist in the 1950s."

Poke's, now owned by Ross Poitras, will close in about a month because the elder Poitras has sold the building, long in need of renovation.

But before we can mourn its passing, we must first determine just what Poke's is. A first-time visitor has trouble telling if this is a repair shop or a museum.

Sure, there are the requisite parts - books and dusty shelves with everything from spark plugs to spare gas tanks and brake cables.

But the eye is drawn to the classic specimens around the floor that offer visual testimony to the evolution of the modern motorcycle.

Start with that dark-red, 1909 V-twin Indian, oldest bike in the shop. It looks less like a motorcycle and more like a heavy bicycle with a motor bolted on as an afterthought.

It even has bicycle-style pedals, common in early models. A rider pedaled forward to start the engine and to give added "oomph" up the hills. Pedaling backward applied the brakes.

Another classic is from 1929 - also an Indian, made by a Massachusetts company. This one is distinguished by its heavy-duty frame and the segments of chain wrapped around the back tire. It's the bike Larry Poitras used in hill-climb competition in the 1940s.

Nearby sits one of Ross' favorites, a 1939 Norton Manx, characterized by a long, wide, silver-painted gas tank, which the rider leans over for optimum aerodynamic effect.

Ross spent nearly three years restoring the Manx for its owner, an Eastside businessman, and won a vintage-motorcycle race on it at Seattle International Raceways earlier this year.

Around the showroom floor are nearly two dozen other vintage motorcycles, some there for repair, some stored by owners and some for sale on consignment.

Larry Poitras started his first business, Poke's Norton Service, in 1946, then left town to work in California for a couple of years. He opened Poke's Cycle on Madison Street in 1949 and moved it to its present location in 1960. Foreign motorcycles, particularly British, have always been a specialty.

Ross took over the business in the early 1980s, first running it with his brother, Mark, then on his own.

Although his father sold new motorcycles here, Ross Poitras' interest has been bikes from the early 1980s and before. So over the years, the place has taken on more of a museum atmosphere.

Although it still makes a decent income, Ross says, property values have risen sharply, and he couldn't compete with the unsolicited $300,000-plus offer his dad received from a group of local artists interested in using it for a glass-blowing shop.

Disappointed that the building was sold, Ross admits it has caused some father-son friction. "It's been tough," he said. "But we'll get through it."

Meanwhile, longtime customers such as free-lance writer Lisa Smith say a slice of Americana will disappear when the place closes.

"It's our `Cheers,' " she said. "A place where people come together in a relaxed, easy way."

It's not unusual, she said, to see a regular customer or two working on their bikes outside the shop, tapping Ross' expertise, borrowing his tools "and never paying a dime."

That, says Hale, may hint at why the shop is disappearing. "Ross has been a great teacher," he said. "But maybe he didn't charge enough for tuition."

Jack Broom's phone message number is 206-464-2222. The e-mail address is: jbro-new@seatimes.com