Jenni Gwiazdowski of London Bike Kitchen: do stuff and fix shit

In Interviews, London by Claire

Jenni Gwiazdowski is Director of the London Bike Kitchen, a DIY bike space where people can learn how to fix bikes, meddle with them and be part of a community. They come in a bunch of forms, often with kitchen-based puns. She talks about starting hers in East London and went straight in on capitalism, when the switch flicked on giving a shit and doing good stuff, and why she fell back in love with bikes in Japan. It was excellent and she is ace. Evidence below.

Hi Jenny, how would you describe your place in the cycle community?

I feel like I’m part of this bridge between the kind of anarchic, punk DIY bike projects and your trendy hipster bike shops. We’re kind of in between. I don’t know if I’ve told you the genesis story, before.

What’s the London Bike Kitchen genesis story?

I bought a frame at a bike jumble at Halloween of 2009, and then it sat in my room until January 2011 when it was the new Year’s Resolution. I thought I’d build it up and there must be a class somewhere, but there was no class [that covered that]. My flatmate at the time, also Californian but newer [to London], asked if I’d heard of bike kitchens. I was like: ‘No, what’s that?’

“Building a bike is messy and shit is going to go wrong”

After doing some research I thought ‘These are really cool! These are a great idea.’ There’s loads of them. The original one’s in LA I think – LA bike kitchen. It’s called that because they opened up in an old kitchen. They have the Bike Oven. And the Bikerowave. There’s San Francisco Bike Kitchen. They’re everywhere. They don’t all have the same name, like Santa Cruz has The Bike Church. 56A in Elephant and Castle [in London] is basically a bike kitchen. They are a traditional one, that’s run with volunteers and donations.

The US ones can work because they have these massive warehouses and loads of second hand parts, and a lot of them sell second-hand bikes. We are in London and we have a tiny little space. We had to prioritise. We can’t sell second-hand bikes here – there’s no room. So we sell knowledge instead because that doesn’t take up any space.

“I think that’s one of the biggest problems with capitalism and our society today – people work at jobs that are either destructive to the environment, actually destroying things, or that they really don’t like.”

What’s the London Bike Kitchen setup?

We try to focus mainly on education and the thing is, one of the reasons I set up London Bike Kitchen the way I did was because, after talking to several DIY bike projects, one of the biggest issues that came up was that they just didn’t know how they were going to make their rent. They ran on volunteers, so they didn’t have a reliable workforce to help people.

And I thought, well why don’t I set up something where people get paid to do the work that they really like to do. I think that’s one of the biggest problems with capitalism and our society today – people work at jobs that are either destructive to the environment, actually destroying things, or that they really don’t like. Then they go and volunteer at other places or they sit at home and veg out in front of the TV because they feel so shitty.

I was thinking: ‘why don’t you have a job that you actually like and get paid to do to?’ I feel really strange about people extolling the virtues of volunteers – and there’s nothing wrong with that, I think volunteering is a really great thing to do but at the same time if you build an economy that’s dependent on volunteers then you still have the initial problems to begin with.

So what I’m doing at the moment is by no means perfect but I do see it as an alternative. I’m paying staff a living wage (except for myself, so that needs to change), staff feel valued, and they get to contribute. I’d love for it to become a workers co-op but that’s like the next step – we’ll see what happens.

The first London Bike Kitchen stall at Broadway Market

The day the London Bike Kitchen sign went up

I wish we weren’t the kind of place that had to turn people away through lack of [their own] funds. I’m working within the capitalist system that we have now, trying to balance not being too much of a ‘business person’ – because I’m not. I come from this community background.

I hate money and what it does to people – and what it does to me. I really want to get back into using ‘echoes‘. Instead of monetary currency you volunteer and you’re given echoes as a currency, and those echoes can be spent in other places. You’re contributing your skills in order to get other things you need.

Where are ‘echoes’ used as a form of currency?

Here in London. Not even that – just East London. The problem is having the time to volunteer to then gain the currency. That’s something I don’t have but I want us to be able to accept them as currency if people want to spend them here. It’s true that you either have time or you have money. Not all the time – I don’t have either of those. But some people do have more time, and that would be a really great way to use their skills and still be able to enhance their quality of life.

[Right now, we’re] trying to make it affordable and at the same time survive as a sustainable business. So that’s what we’re really struggling with right now and that’s why we opened up our second workshop. We’re doing repairs for people now, which I really didn’t want to do for a long time because I was like: ’That’s not our ethos. That goes against everything we do.’ Then it turned into: ‘You know what? We’re turning away business.’

Do you still feel disgruntled about doing repairs?

Yeah I do because every time I do a repair myself, I think that I’d just so much rather teach someone to do this because then they know how to do it themselves and they appreciate the amount of work that goes into it.

Knowledge is one of those things where if you don’t use it, you’re gonna forget it – it’s not like riding a bicycle, you have to exercise that muscle. That’s why I’m always telling people to come here after they take a class: use what you just learned because you will forget it.

And I understand now why mechanics are grumpy because sometimes you’re just stuck in a cave and you’re alone working on shit.

Have you always liked your job?

In general? Let’s see. I started out in retail, like everyone else does. It was a way to make money. Then in my first year uni I worked at some clothing store which I hated and then I got a job at a record store, which I thought was going to be really cool. Turns out it wasn’t cool – it was really boring.

Then I got a job as a tutor at an after-school programme and that was the first job I ever had where I thought: ‘Wow, I’m really enjoying this.’ Making connections with the kids – and it was the type of programme where you stayed with them year-on-year. So for my sophomore, junior and senior years I was with the same group of kids, which was quite fun. You get attached to them, they get attached to you, they listen to you because you’ve developed that relationship with them.

And then from there I got promoted and was a lead tutor organising all 50 students. Then I moved to Japan and did some teaching there. I really like teaching.


Did you move to Japan to teach?

I moved to Japan to teach. I applied to the JET program and that really changed my life. I discovered there’s a whole world – because I grew up in California and, you know, that’s all you need in some people’s eyes, to live in California. Then I moved to Japan and was like “There’s a whole world out there!’ I met loads of English speakers from other countries and I was like, ‘I can communicate with people from other countries! This is great!’

Teaching in Japan is quite different because it was more like babysitting sometimes. I had to come up with really creative and inventive ways to keep engaged with the kids – because that’s the thing I dreaded; losing control of the class. So I ended up doing lots of things like making things really silly [to keep their attention].

The other thing is that because I am half Japanese, I think I was like a gateway drug for Japanese people. Because if white people go to Japan, Japanese people kind of freeze up. They’re like ‘Oh, you’re so different, I can’t talk to you.’ It’s such a homogenous culture, so if anyone from any other ethnicity comes in, it freaks them out. Even the most open-minded Japanese people, because they’re around this homogenous community. If you went, with your red hair, they would be like: ‘Oh my god, can I touch your hair?’ So if it’s coming from me, they are a lot more comfortable around me, which has its pros and cons.

Japan is what reignited my love for the bicycle.

Why was Japan the place that made you love bikes again?

In California, the minute I turned 15 I was like ‘I’m driving.’ I had a bike growing up, of course, but you just wanna drive – it’s freedom. Well, for some reason, you think that’s freedom. Then when I moved to Japan I thought ‘maybe I’ll get a scooter and that’ll be really cute.’ Then my school gave me a bicycle – I was like: ‘What is this?’ It was a granny bike. It was a white Mamachari-style of bike: a granny, sit-up-and-beg, hub gears and brakes, kickstand in the back, chaincase. It was really comfortable.

I remember the first day riding it, it was a bit wobbly but you got used to it and I suddenly realised I could go a lot further and I don’t have to depend on public transport – okay, the public transport in Japan is really good – but I just realised I could do it on my own. I bought rain gear and just thought ‘It’s cool.’ Bought an umbrella – they don’t care. In Japan they’re so cool. They’re so respectful, they don’t have segregated cycle lanes. People are like ‘cool, whatever.’

Riding on the roads, I never felt scared in Japan, ever.

Then I came here [to London] and it was a fucking rat race, you know – people trying to run you over. But I got a bike! A road bike, and I fucking love that bike. I still miss it – because it got stolen. I got my road bike through the cycle scheme.

It still is my mantra today: I have every right to be here.

My Dad’s Polish, so I got my Polish citizenship and a job at an environmental charity. My Chief Exec, one of the most important things he ever said was: ‘You have every right to be on the road. You have to take the lane. Do not let the cars push you around. You have a right to be there.’ And that really stuck with me. It still is my mantra today: I have every right to be here.

Moving here and riding here made me take on that identity as a cyclist, rather than just someone who rides a bike. Which is a good thing and a bad thing, I think. We become this kind of separate community and really cliquey maybe and people maybe think ‘Oh I have to look a certain way and ride a certain way and then I get this label.’ Whereas in Holland and Japan, everyone rides a bike and they do it for transport not for leisure or racing.

Even at that point I just knew how to change the brake pads and fix a puncture maybe. I was like: ‘I really like bikes. I wanna learn how to build one. I want to build a bike.’

[Gestures inside London Bike Kitchen] That’s actually that bike inside [that started the whole project]. The black Claud Butler.

It’s been a process, for sure. I think I’ve used all the stuff I’ve learned and when I was in Japan. Japan is also when I became really environmentally aware.

Which ties back to community and fixing things. Gotcha. What happened to start that?

I taught at a couple of schools for disabled kids and I don’t know how this came up in conversation – I think I was talking to one of the teachers and she had said that maybe in the 70s or 80s, the Japanese were burning everything; all their rubbish. The people that lived near the incinerator, the mothers were giving birth to children who had birth defects. There’s loads of other environmentally-related horrible things that have happened, like Minamata. It’s fucked people up. It made me realise this isn’t just random. We are causing these problems and these children are disabled because of the choices that we have made in regards to environmental issues.

That was when the switch was flicked.

I just sort of flipped. I used to be someone who really didn’t give a shit and now I’ve gone into bikes and doing what I do because I want to do stuff. It’s one thing to have an idea and another to actually do something about it. That quote that success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration – you have to put in the graft.

I’m doing this because I’m actually doing something about an issue rather than just talking about it, which I just can’t stand. It’s funny because who am I to make a space for myself in the bike world, you know? I didn’t climb through the ranks the usual way.

Who is anyone though? Everyone’s just human – try and do a thing. See if it works.

Yeah, and I’m having a good time. I’m really enjoying being part of the bike world. I think that the bike world has a lot of room for growth. I think that the old guard is hopefully changing, and we’ll see that you don’t have to be a closed-off boys club and not welcome other people to ‘the fold’.

I’m able to use my privilege and try to help people gain confidence, especially women and people of colour. We have, currently, two female instructors out of four teachers. Women make really good teachers but that’s a whole other topic.

Who else makes up the LBK team?

It keeps changing. Right now it’s me and Tim who are the fulltime people. He’s doing the repairs side and a bit more operations – workshop logistics. It’s also the shit I hate doing so that’s good. He used to be a mechanic and manager at Evans, and then he went and worked for greasy lawyers for ten years and hated that, so came back to the fold. He’s my old flatmate. We figured we’ve lived together so we can probably work together.

Nelson is our main teacher, and we have three female mechanics now (not including me). Jo and Ellie are our other teachers. Jo is our wheel building instructor, and Ellie teaches and wrenches – and Amy is doing mechanic duties and we will be teaching her to teach.

Griff is a Pinch Hitter so he’s not an official member of staff but we call him in when someone’s off sick or on holiday. Pinch Hitter is a baseball term – in a game, often in the final inning, if you need someone to hit the ball out of the park then you bring in your Pinch Hitter and their only redeeming quality is that they can hit the ball really far. We bring him in when we have three men on home base and we need that home run.

Four of the LBK team at a training session

Then we have our WAG volunteers, and WAG kind of runs separately to Bike Kitchen. It’s more of the DIY non-hierarchical structure. I mean there is one, but we try to acknowledge it and not allow it to take over.

How would you define the Women and Gender-Variant (WAG) sessions?

They are twice a month and for two and a half hours. The first hour we teach something that’s often practical (from our introduction to maintenance course, which is six hours) and then second hour is a modified drop-in session. People can bring their bikes in if they have any questions.

We’re taken away the hierarchy of having a male disseminate the information, and we have females disseminating it. It makes it more comfortable and an easily approachable for, I would say, most women. It takes a certain kind of woman to walk into a workshop space and feel confident enough to just talk to the people in that space. The idea is that the WAG sessions are a safe space where people can come in and feel that they are talked down to or condescended to. You can ask for whatever you want and no one’s going to make fun of you or patronise you. You can learn and become more comfortable.

Our WAG nights, we’ve been doing them for five and a half years. It’s not been an overnight success. We’ve been working really hard at creating the infrastructure for a supportive environment for women and gender variant people to come to, and only now I think this year it’s taken off and become real popular and been really useful for people. We make our WAG night one of the central features of what we do, the workshop is run by women – I’m here. I have definitely noticed an increase in the number of women coming to use our workshop in general – I would say that maybe half of our customers now are women.

I’ve been putting myself out there too so people say ‘Ah, that woman that works in that bike shop.’ There are so few of us. We don’t have that perfect world, where there’s an even keel between the men and women getting the jobs or even be encouraged [to try them out]. It starts quite young. I don’t know what the school system is like here or what’s changing but I’d love to create a youth mechanics programme for young women just so they know – they don’t necessarily have to go into these fields. So yeah, problems with gender in the bike world again!

Is it getting easier or harder to run London Bike Kitchen?

It does kind of run at this state on its own. I did all the set-up work for it in the past. Now I’d like to change things over to make myself redundant basically because I don’t want to be the linchpin, and that’s the hard bit; getting all the stuff that’s in my head out. I’m a starter not a finisher. I’ve already got four ideas for the next thing, it’s really bad.

I think it’s quite fun but people think you’re a bit mental because you’re always going: ‘Oh my god I have this really great idea’ and they say: ‘Oh no, not another one.’

That’s the fun bit to me.

It might depend on Brexit. That old chestnut. The fact that I might have to leave the country has made me wonder what’s next. That’s always hanging over your head. That helps the gears turn – that’s the grease. How am I going to survive? We’ll see.

And you’ve just written a book?

It’s written! It’s done! It’s just come out! It’s called ‘How to Build a Bike’ and it’s a how-to manual of .. how to build a bike.

I was very prescriptive – it has to be a vintage frame from the 70s/80s with this spacing on the back and single speed so I don’t have to deal with gears. The idea is that it’s aimed at people, especially women, who may have never built a bike before and I started working on it last August, finished it in May. I had two other mechanics read through the whole document and do loads of editing because I know it’s going to happen – someone’s going to read it and go: ‘Actually, you should have done this instead of this.’

We had loads of photo sessions because it’s a photo how-to, rather than drawings. My Editor wanted the book to be clean and pretty and I was like: ‘that is not what building a bike is.’

Building a bike is messy and shit is going to go wrong and you’re probably going to cry. And I want to convey that. You are going to get dirty. It’s no clean Scandinavian concept like Hygge. It’s quite the opposite.

Find Jenni on Instagram and Twitter. London Bike Kitchen on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Find WAG on Instagram and Facebook, and information here. Jenni’s book ‘How to Build a Bike’ here. And Jenni and Alex from Look Mum No Hands do a podcast called ‘Wheel Suckers’, which is all the fun and on Soundcloud.

ClaireJenni Gwiazdowski of London Bike Kitchen: do stuff and fix shit