Stoke’s Alpha BMX shop is fronted by BMX veteran and ‘Rise to Thunder’ band member Al ‘Munger’ Cook. Mark Sutton finds out what motivates one of the trade’s biggest characters to open up shop...
How did Alpha come about?
Well I had been looking for a job, with no success due to me being too straight talking. Clever? Opinionated. I guess my time in limbo from the world had made itself show. I had consigned myself to a life of dole and ill health, then some money came my way from some shares my Grandad, Booth Cook, had gifted me and my brother, so we hocked them and I started Alpha with that. The Jobcentre/New Deal gave me rent and dole money for the first six months as I had been unemployed for a year before since losing a music industry job.
Stoke bike shops weren’t doing BMX at all, so it was an easy decision, having Stoke Plaza not long built and a growing scene.
I started riding in ‘83 when I was 12 and have owned a BMX since, apart from a couple of years after it ‘died’. I rode all through the ‘90s and into the noughties, then backed off a while due to life’s other avenues. The bike got dusted off in 2008 and I got serious again. I’m still living above the shop and continue to reinvest profit into the business to ensure its growth.
You’ve got a band – tell us a bit about that:
Yeah, it’s called “Rise to Thunder”. We’re kind of underground and do our own thing – I’ve been in the music game too long to want to make a living out of it, it’s too much like hard work and there’s so many cheats in the music biz. We do it for fun. We have had releases and we have labels wanting more, I just put the shop first these days as it’s my livelihood. I’d have opened a guitar shop if one was needed.
How’s business been in the past few years?
We opened December 2008 and it’s just grown. It’s not been challenging, it’s really been very enjoyable, especially when I get chance to think about how far we have come in a short time.
Alpha has a strong following in the Midlands – what do you put this down to?
Absolute dedication to BMX. Good service and word of mouth has been good, also. Stickers do an amazing advertising job and I am a bit of a character. Kids look up to me as a role model…
I tell ‘em off if they miss school, or abused their bike. The parents seem not to mind me putting them straight and speaking sternly. Discipline has gone out of the window a bit in society.
Most are real good lads, they always listen to advice with bike parts and maintenance, they know I know my stuff. It’s cool to have that respect, it’s one of the things that makes me want to get up and open the door every day.
Find much time to ride yourself?
Yeah, when I am feeling up to it. I sure know that buzz from a good session on the bike. I am 41 years old now, so the bones don’t bend as well as they used to and the bravado has been overridden with caution.
I was never a massive shredder, or known pro rider, I just went to loads of jams in the ‘90s, got to know a lot of heads who are now in the industry and they trust me to serve BMX as it should be presented, as a fun and creative hobby that’s not too serious.
You’re local to a large skate park – does this help business, or bring in new custom?
Absolutely, I helped get that place built. I was one of the first in the area to look at opening an indoor skatepark, but realising I hadn’t the finance to get it off the ground way back in ‘97, I gave all my petitions to the local skateboarders and helped them to rally the council.
Do you put local contests/jams on?
It’s hard to do contests, the council has so much red tape to get an event running. What tends to happen is we have team trips come through for meet and greets here and then take them to the plaza and they will session with the locals. We’ve had up to 500 kids show up. I never thought I’d see crowds like in the ‘80s watching BMX in Stoke.
It was a huge deal to me in the ‘80s when stars came to do displays – the kids love it. I’m for anything that diverts kids from the perils of modern society. I certainly had some entanglements with the darker side of life, but that’s not part of my life now. Giving the kids something to aspire to is a massive part of the Alpha strategy. Stoke is very much on its knees as a city and a lot of antisocial behaviour and poverty exists, so I try to encourage a family vibe in the BMX community.
You’ve a sort of ‘hangout area’ – do you encourage people to spend time in the shop?
Yeah, the sofa is really for waiting to get parts fitted, so Nan or Mum can rest their legs. It’s all very hands-on here, we aren’t the type of shop that makes customers wait a week for a repair, it’s a very fast turnaround. Jamie my mechanic was a kid who had no prospects. I fully trained him in all aspects of custom BMX, now he is an important part of Alpha’s future. It gets very busy in here, so we have to be as efficient as possible. My Michelin engineering background has put me in good stead for working like that.
What’s the long term plan for Alpha?
I guess I had no idea it would take off the way it has, I just had the plan to put everything into it for a few years and I guess that’s still going on. Even though Jamie is here now, I have no intention of taking a back seat, you’ll always find me in the shop making sure everything is done right. Maybe we’ll get some backing with the indoor skate park idea.