There’s nothing better than when you introduce two people who you know have a lot in common, and just as you expected, they really hit it off. Well, maybe there’s something better –stepping back and listening to them completely geek out on their shared passions.
That’s the spirit behind this, the first in a new series of interviews brought to you by 40 Grit. Every interview will feature one trade or craft, and two people who put their own unique spin on said craft. In most – if not all – cases, they’ve never met before. We’ll ask a few questions to get the conversation started, turn our cameras off in the video chat and let our independent innovators trade stories, tricks, pains and passions while we remain flies on the virtual wall. Meet J Shia (@jshia), custom bike builder and owner of @madhousemotors, and David Plotkin (@itsdaveyp), vintage bike restorer and owner of @burnupcompany.
Part 1 of 3. Photos by Gretchen Devine (J Shia) and Vincent Anthony Conti (David Plotkin).
J: Yeah, so David. I heard that my buddy Lucas came and visited you.
DAVID: Yeah, yes he did! Really nice guy.
J: That’s so funny. That kid – I give a lot of credit to why Madhouse is even still a company. He’s definitely a character and I’m glad he met you. Have you guys been OK during Covid?
DAVID: Yeah, we’ve been really, really busy. You know, I thought when this thing first set on about year ago, I said shit, you know the first thing people are going to stop spending money on our toys.
DAVID: And, uh, was kind of bracing for that. And boy, was I wrong. It felt like everybody kind of went home from work and looked around in the garage and said, well, what can I start playing with now?
J: Definitely, definitely yeah.
DAVID: Has it been the same up there?
J: Yeah. I think up here, because public transportation is such a main way of people getting around Boston itself. More and more people are skittish about hopping on the train and they’d rather have a solitary form of transportation. They don’t want to take an Uber or a train or a bus, so everyone’s been interested in getting motorcycles. We’re not a dealership, but apparently the dealers are going crazy selling everything, and we’ve been OK during Covid. Just scheduling is kind of hard, ’cause we don’t want too many people in the shop at once, but it’s been OK.
DAVID: Yeah, when Covid first hit, we battened down the hatches and locked the doors and went appointment-only. And it’s been a slow transition. I mean Florida, as you may know, is like one of the few states that seems to have stayed open regardless. Which is a double-edged sword for sure. But that being said, we’ve been kind of figuring out ways to safely maneuver around that and still keep our operation going. A big part of what we do is bring the community together. You know, I mean the same thing with Madhouse. So it’s like, how do we still maintain that? How do we still bring people together, but safely? And that’s the moving target right now.
J: Yeah, I know. It’s a huge question. I know you guys do a bunch of custom builds. You guys also are a service shop, right?
DAVID: Yeah, we do anything from a simple oil change up to nut and bolt restoration or a custom build.
J: You’re in Miami, right?
DAVID: In West Palm Beach. But we get a lot of customers from Miami. We pull a lot of people from Miami, Fort Lauderdale. We get customers sending stuff up from the Keys. We got a lot of North Florida guys. We’re getting some stuff sent down from Georgia now…so we’re seeing more and more stuff come further and wider. And I do my best to help logistically and get stuff shipped here.
J: Hell yeah, dude, that’s awesome. I hope to come visit at some point.
DAVID: Yeah, I’d love to have you. Likewise. I plan a trip up north this summer and hoping things kind of simmer down and maybe as the vaccines roll out, numbers will keep depleting and it’ll be kosher to come back up there.
J: Where in the north are you coming to visit?
DAVID: So I was born and raised in Westchester, New York. So my family is still up there and I usually try to kill two birds with one stone. I got friends who live in the city, so I usually try to do one or two nights in Brooklyn or Manhattan and I ride. I send the bike up there and I just travel. I usually put about a thousand miles on in a handful of days and I’ll do New York City. I’ll go see my dad up in the Catskills. I’ll go out to Connecticut where I used to live, visit my friends out there. Bounce back to see my sister in Westchester. Come to Madhouse – that’s on my destination list.
J: Well, you got a place to stay if you come this way.
DAVID: Well, likewise, we’ve got plenty of space.
40G: Can you each share your Inspiration story – where did you get your passion for bike building and restoration?
J: So I grew up with bikes. I grew up with metalworking, mechanics around me since I was a kid. But my inspiration now as a custom bike builder is very unrelated to how I grew up. When I was younger I was much more of a maintenance person. I was doing tire changes, oil changes, you know, brake jobs…strictly maintenance, and didn’t really have any custom builds or restorations under my belt. My inspiration began to brew because my dad, who got more into technology than I did when I was younger, started seeing other custom bike builders online. And I didn’t have a phone until I was a late teenager.
But my dad used the internet and he’d make fun of me like, “Oh yeah, one day you gotta do something like this,” and “This is what a real bike builder looks like.” He was always poking at me, and so over time I got more interested in custom bike builds. But now a lot of my inspiration is less about what else is out there and more about trying to tell stories through the machines that I make. So my inspiration still comes from other custom bike builders. I look up to a lot of people out there in the industry. And in pair with that I’m kind of inspired by trying to build my own art portfolio with motorcycles at this point.
DAVID: Yeah, I had kind of a slow start. My father’s a musician by trade. Never was really big into automotive. He wasn’t a motorhead guy, not big into motorcycles, although a fun-loving guy and very hands-on guy, mainly out of necessity. We couldn’t afford somebody to fix or build something around the house, so he would do whatever he could, and my grandfather was a craftsman.
But what really inspired me was, you know, I got into cars in high school like most kids do and started dabbling. Got as hands-on as I could or afford to be. Then got into my early 20s. I was playing with cars and quickly ran out of time, space and money to continue with cars. And I was kind of feeling stuck. You know, I want to roll up my sleeves. I want to do something. I want to create. I’ve always been able to see value in things other people can’t. So I naturally gravitated towards project. You know, fixing up forgotten stuff, and that led to trolling Craigslist and got into old motorcycles. And here’s an opportunity where I can buy something cheap under a thousand bucks, that isn’t completely beyond my scope of ability, and I can still put my own touch on it and still have a lot to learn, and I really don’t have a whole lot to lose if I really screw it up.
So that began in my mid-20s. And I got bit by the bug really bad. My true passion was with the antiques. And when I started watching shows like early “Jay Leno’s Garage” and seeing his collection and seeing not just his appreciation for the history of a machine but also, you know, he wasn’t afraid to go hands-on and modify it to his own liking. Seeing him with a John Player Norton and talking about how he welded and changed the brake pedal so it was more usable and changed the ergonomics of these highly flexible machines, I think that was a huge inspiration for me.
And then kind of fast-forward into recent years. Once I moved down to Florida and really started getting into bikes and getting my business off the ground, I became friends with somebody named Jon Schultz, who’s now my best friend to this day, who’s been doing this sort of stuff in his whole life, and he is just by definition a visionary and creative mastermind. Working on projects with him in his carport or in my shop together is really what fuels my creativity. He has this way about him where it’s like, don’t overthink it. His creativity trumps technology. It’s like, look, all we have to do is this. Just make a bracket for this and hang this there and it’ll be perfect, you know? So I think if I’m going to peg one person on a lot of my inspiration, it’d probably be him.
J: That's awesome. What did you do before starting Burn Up?
DAVID: I’ve always had my own business. I always wanted to do my own thing. But prior to motorcycles I bought and sold college textbooks. And I was doing that just out of high school. I was looking to make some extra money. I overheard some kids behind me at the end of the semester saying, “The bookstore won’t buy this book.” The next day I went up to the front of class and said, “Hey, I’m buying this book for twenty cash. The bookstore’s not buying it at all. I’ll be here the rest of the week.” I kick that off in 2004, and I did that for about 6 years and actually made some decent money.
J: Dude, that's awesome.
DAVID: Yeah. Then the iPad came out and then, you know, I’m not going down with the ship. I’m not passionate about this at all, and in my experience the things that I’ve been most successful at are the things I’ve been most passionate about, and I found myself running through this textbook stuff just so I could sneak back down to the garage and start wrenching on bikes again. I was like, I wish there was a way I could make a living doing this, and I didn’t want to just be a motorcycle salesman. I didn’t want to just be a mechanic. I didn’t want to just sell parts. I wanted to kind of bring it all together, with the most important part being that I’m doing it with people I really like.
So, having my friends in my garage with me, hanging out, smoking cigarettes, drinking beers while I was doing it, that was always the vibe that kept me going. And their appreciation of my work is what kept me doing it. Every step I’ve taken with Burn Up, you know there’s always been a living room in the center of my shop, and that’s because I think that’s really the nucleus of our business is the people. Bringing like-minded people together. And that’s what I love about this. We really do get to bring so many individuals together, and we can all appreciate the same thing at the end of the day.
J: Hell yeah. I can relate. I like that a lot. I can definitely relate.
DAVID: What about you? I know you were into motorcycles since you were young. What did you do before Madhouse?
J: I don’t know if there was really a before Madhouse. I didn’t wanna own a motorcycle shop. I didn’t even really want to be a mechanic. I actually had kind of like a not-fun relationship with motorcycles, where it’s like I was doing tires and oil changes and I kind of hated it and it was cold and I was doing it in the winter in the snow and I did not enjoy it. Like, just to be totally honest, I always rode motorcycles, but my relationship as a mechanic was like, I just need to pay the bills. I’m learning how to do this stuff, but I wasn’t loving it. What I wanted to do as a career was to be a traveling war photographer. But the timing of that didn’t work out for a handful of reasons. I took on a kid and it was at the boom of the iPhone, where you’ll see a photo on the cover of the New York Times taken on an iPhone. So from my years before doing maintenance, it began to, at least in Boston, get known that there was a kid who was doing motorcycle maintenance for older bikes. I worked at a dealership at one point, but it kind of transitioned to me really just working in the yard, and the motorcycle dealers would say, “Oh, there’s a kid who works in her backyard who will do your stuff for cheap or work on your vintage bike. And it kind of brewed and brewed, working in the yard, which is the original Madhouse. My family’s house. It’s a lovely place, but it’s a madhouse.
Eventually we moved to a place in Somerville, a smaller place, and Lucas was a customer of mine. And again, I was still sort of like grinding my teeth through it and not really liking doing maintenance, and the city came and they wanted to shut us down on permitting because we were too close to a bunch of carpenters and woodworkers and I was doing metalwork, which is too flammable. And I was like OK, screw it. I don’t want to be a mechanic anymore. I’ll go do something else. I’ll be an ironworker, and Lucas convinced me into opening up a full-size shop. He just wouldn’t stop coming at me. Being like, dude, you gotta do it. You gotta do it. Take a chance, I’ll find you a spot I won’t charge you for my real estate agency fee. Just do it. And he talked me into opening up a shop, and now I've been in business for almost a decade, more than a decade.
I didn’t really want to do it, but now I love it. It’s like the shop is my sanctuary. My staff members are like family. My customers are like family. The dust is settled and my animosity towards tire and oil changes has chilled out a little bit. And I’m able to create more and do more fun restorations and enjoy custom builds. And it’s not as much of this desperate rat race to do maintenance in the cold in the dark, and so things have eased up. But if you asked me 15 years ago if I’d still be doing tire and oil changes, I would have been really upset. But now I’ve kind of come to peace with that.