This is our shop bike, except no one else seems to want to ride it,” says Chris Lesser as he points to a patina’d Kawasaki KZ1000P. It’s an old police bike he used as a Sweeper at the Red Hook Crit. “It’s very much like The Blues Brothers. Cop motor, cop tires, cop suspension…it weighs 500 pounds but it’s awesome to ride.” Next to the Kawasaki is a Series I Moto Guzzi 850 LeMans. Further back in the shop there’s another Moto Guzzi and an orange Harley-Davidson Sprint.
The bikes at Union Garage are merely a side attraction, some just for show, others on consignment from shops around Brooklyn. The main attraction is the extensive display of motorcycling gear. “Not to toot our own horn too loudly but there aren’t that many shops that just specialize in gear,” says Lesser. He’s right, you can search Google for motorcycle gear shops in New York City and it’ll turn up just a handful of shops — maybe five or six in all of the five boroughs, and most of those are additions to preexisting repair shops or dealerships.
Lesser started Union Garage in 2012 with the help of two friends, one of whom owns the repair/custom shop, Moto Borgotaro, next door. “I met Peter [Boggia] a few years ago when I was living in the neighborhood working as a freelance writer,” he says. “I walked into his shop and I was like, “Okay, I need to work here.’ He was completely fried, so he said, ‘Okay, whatever.'”
A few days later, Lesser started as an apprentice of sorts to Boggia. Lesser did service work on vintage BMW motorcycles, but eventually decided being a mechanic wasn’t for him. “I loved it, but I realized at 32 that probably wasn’t my next career choice,” he says. After tossing around some ideas, he landed on opening Union Garage. He opened up a couple years after he quit working at Moto Borgotaro in what he refers to as “a little shoebox” two doors down from Boggia’s shop.
Union Garage’s inventory is made up of gear that balances safety and style quite nicely. Staples from brands like Rev’it and Aether fill the shop, but Union Garage is also home to some exotic stuff. Lesser is pretty proud that he’s one of the very few shops in the US that cary armored Belstaff jackets. He also stocks a Lost World horsehide jacket — an incredibly thick motorcycle jacket made in Queens. According to him, they’re almost entirely sold in Japan. Union Garage also collaborated with Vanson Leathers to create their own armored jacket, which became popular with international buyers. “That jacket kept us going through our first winter,” he says.
Naturally, with a lack of well-established gear shops and a well-curated inventory, Union Garage was well received. Clientele and inventory grew and eventually Union Garage moved out of the “shoebox” and into the space directly next to Moto Borgotaro, formerly a print shop and home to The Red Hook Star Revue.
“We’re a bit of a funnel because everyone needs gear and there aren’t a lot of places where you get to go and try on, say, premium helmets in one spot,” says Lesser. By his estimation about 20 percent of his customers are new to motorcycling — he’s become somewhat of an unofficial resource for newbies. “A couple times a week during the riding season people come in saying ‘I know nothing,’ or ‘I need everything.'”
Most of those clients are younger professionals — students, photographers, creatives — allured by the freedom, practicality, and image of riding a motorcycle in New York City, even if Lesser considers it the worst place to ride a motorcycle. “It’s a testament to how cool motorcycles are to see people riding them here. We’re all a little vain,” he says. “People like motorcycles because they’re cool and they don’t want to kill that with something like high-vis jackets. But the reality of it is safety is important. Some people put it first, others last. We just try to make it work.”
Lesser and I head over to neighboring Moto Borgotaro. The bikes and the gear on display in Union Garage are impressive, but Peter Boggia’s collection ofvintage Italian bikes and BMWs is genuinely stunning. After Lesser shows me the vintage Playboy spreads plastered over the shop’s restroom walls (which he accurately states as being equally hilarious and disgusting), he points out some of the beautiful and rare motorcycles in Peter’s garage — a Paris Dakar BMW R80 G/S, a Ducati 900SS Desmo, a Moto Guzzi Eldorado police bike and plenty more. Peter Boggia comes riding in on a rare, yet-to-be-completed Laverda Formula 500.
Boggia was born in Queens, and while his love stemmed from the stories he heard about his dad and his uncle riding when he was a kid, it was a move down to New Orleans that fostered his abilities as a vintage bike mechanic. “New York is very difficult to have a good sort of place to learn about [motorcycles],” he says. “I figured if I’m going to get into motorcycles, then I’m going to make myself learn how to work on them and learn them all the more.”
When in New Orleans, he apprenticed with a master mechanic for eight and a half years. “He served as the national service manager for Ducati of North America in the ’90s, he was also the national service manager for Moto Guzzi in the ’80s,” says Boggia. “I got a real education from someone who trained other mechanics over the years for these companies in that time period of the bikes that I love. It was a lucky convergence of what I love and someone willing to teach me.”
After Hurricane Katrina, Boggia moved back to New York and with the knowledge he learned in New Orleans, he opened Moto Borgotaro in 2008. The shop specializes in the repair, restoration and sales of only vintage Italian and German motorbikes. Boggia also does custom motorcycles, but is quick to separate his custom jobs from some aggressively done, trendy bikes.
“I would not classify what I do as building cafe racers. I build European customs within the design ethos of the original manufacturer,” says Boggia. “We never try to get too far away from sort of the feel and the style of the original design. Those designs are the best and that’s why I work on these bikes.”
Actually getting in to have your biked worked on by Boggia is tricky. It can take months for customers to get their bike in, and he’s so bogged down with work he won’t be taking in any more bikes until 2016. Boggia advertises as only open one hour a week; that way he stays on the radar while keeping traffic in his shop to a minimum. He likes to work on the motorcycles in his shop in peace.
Lesser and Boggia have carved out a center for motorcycle enthusiasm on the westernmost block of Union Street in Brooklyn. Sure, other spots exist, but they don’t capture the bikes, products and ethos as well as Union Garage and Moto Borgotaro. As Lesser puts it, “we aren’t also a coffee bar or a barber shop or something.” Here, it’s all about the bikes.