The Cycle Warehouse

Once Just A Hobby, Chris Gatto's Parts Fetish Has Become A Full-Time Obsession

Like most of us, Chris Gatto was into motorcycles as a child. Growing up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Tarentum, his youthful hobby was supplemented by the fact that his parents owned Gatto Harley-Davidson-a large, multi-brand dealership. "I was maybe 10, but I loved the smell of leather and rubber and oil in the shop," says Gatto, now 42. "I wasn't old enough to own a streetbike of my own, so I'd hang around the shop, asking if I could keep the parts people were taking off their bikes and going through the dumpster." From there, he began purchasing broken bicycles from neighborhood kids for $5, repairing them and re-selling them at a 400 percent mark-up.

There are people in Chris Gatto's life who wish he would have stopped asking customers for spare parts and flipping bicycles because, 30 years later, his hobby is a full-blown, dyed-in-the-straitjacket obsession. Launched in 2002 as a small Internet and retail operation proffering used and NOS parts for American V-twins, Gatto's business, Cycle Warehouse, now occupies five floors of the old Troutman's department store on Main Street in sleepy Butler, Pennsylvania. As if Fred Sanford were a motorcycle nut, every inch of the place is packed to the rafters with motorcycle ephemera, hard parts and hundreds of bikes in various states of (dis)repair. Like the archetypal general store of rural America, Cycle Warehouse is part pawn shop where customers can hock or trade bikes and parts when times are hard, and part museum-quality curiosity shop filled with rare and collectible machines like the 1926 Indian Chief in the front window. In an age of look-alike, smell-alike dealerships, Cycle Warehouse may be the last of an endangered breed of shops more concerned with stocking what customers want rather than what the OEMs demand.

Gatto is a whirlwind of physical activity, so capturing his attention during business hours is difficult at best. The first-floor showroom is typical Rust Belt biker emporium, occupied by aging longhairs with Willie Nelson hair and their default choice of motorcycle on their tattooed sleeves. These customers, Gatto says, are Cycle Warehouse's base; the people who come offering everything from automatic weapons to cars and horses for motorcycle parts. "I didn't know it when I was a kid, but you can always re-sell Harley parts," Gatto claims. "Maybe it's just our location, but everything from chrome parts to whole motors will sell all day."

These walk-in clients are mostly unconcerned with the treasures lurking behind the chromed primary covers on the walls, such as parts for every Triumph motorcycle ever made or 1970s Maico motocrossers. "The people who come for the British and German and Japanese stuff really know what they want," Gatto confesses while making inventory lists in his head. "They understand how hard it is to find certain things and they have the patience to stick around until they find exactly what they need. They fuel an entirely different part of the obsession."

Our tour begins in the cellar room known as "The Dungeon" for its cobwebs and endless rows of chopper front ends. Next to those, rows of tin shelves as long as a J.C. Penney sporting goods department are piled with carburetors, cylinder heads and jugs. The clank of metal being wrenched apart competes with the sounds of classic rock and several phones ringing at once, creating a symphony of the absurd. Add some hallucinogens and this place could be what Hunter S. Thompson dreamt of when he thought of the hereafter.

In spite of the shop's greasy, high-mileage charm, Gatto's six employees utilize the latest computer technology to maintain their Internet sales site, and resident software expert Brad Cowen has a college degree which comes in handy when shipping globally. "We have requests from Russia, from the Middle East, Australia-basically everywhere except North Korea," he jokes. But if there are old motorcycles or parts to be had in Pyongyang, Gatto will likely ferret them out as he has quite the nose.

Urban legends of ancient motorcycles resting beneath dusty tarps in barns may be as common as oil leaks under an Indian, but Gatto can attest to hundreds of such finds. "It's all word of mouth. One of my customers has an aunt who remembers her husband kept a bike in the shed, and the next thing you know I'm trucking home a vintage bike that's rough but can be made to run," he proselytizes. "They're still out there; you just have to look." Like a two-wheeled Indiana Jones, Gatto's career unearthing motorcycling's detritus provides a rare, inside view of an industry rife with waste. Many dealerships erecting new buildings will scrap or bury small fortunes in non-current stock. Old-school, family-owned shops often shutter their doors permanently, lacking the wherewithal or manpower to sell off rooms full of dusty parts. "I've had to pass up whole warehouses full of stuff I just didn't have room for," Gatto laments.

Still, I get the impression there's no way one man could remember the precise location of so much, well, junk. "Trust me, when it comes to inventory, it's all in here," Gatto says proudly, scratching his shaved head.

Doubting his acumen, I follow him up the dusty stairs to the second-floor storage area. Though the shop is in a constant state of re-invention-orders are filled, inventory is stored and shuffled in/out-the proprietor does seem to have a mental GPS coordinate for every pile of parts. Along one wall lie stacks of original motorcycle owner's manuals, some dating back to pre-WWII. He plucks two for an order from last week, peeling off a tank decal and a turn-signal lens for yet more orders. Someone on the horn from Japan needs a cloth wiring harness for a side-valve Harley-Davidson, and Gatto sprints up two flights and grabs one of dozens from an open crate. So fast does this obsession metastasize that Gatto seldom has the chance to dismantle the mid-century department store he bought for a song in this decaying former steel town. The women's beauty salon, replete with cameos on the wall, now holds dozens of 1960s Triumph Bonnevilles and dusty BMWs awaiting beautification, while the bridal department houses several choppers and Japanese streetbikes from the '70s. But the scene inside the store is no less surreal than Gatto's appetite for two-wheelers. He sheepishly confesses to owning not just this 85,000-square-foot store, but several warehouses and 27 tractor-trailer loads of parts and bikes that he hasn't yet had time to sort.

"People give me a lot of sh*t for collecting so much, and I know this was a hobby that got out of control," he admits. "But let's face it: Everybody has an obsession, whether it's Beanie Babies or model trains. Every week, my girlfriend comes in and gives me the lecture, asking, 'Do you really need to buy anything else?' Every day I walk in here I think I'm nuts, but look at the average motorcyclist-they're all nuts; they all want more than one motorcycle."

Wading through the melange of machinery, I spot at least one of my own aborted custom bikes and a dozen others I'd gladly take home-from a flat-black, rigid Triumph chopper that resembles a prop from Peter Fonda's Wild Angels to a 1987 Suzuki GSX-R750 in need of only polishing and fresh tires. But wanting and owning more than one motorcycle is a far ride from the sort of life-rending hold that two-wheeled machines hold over Chris Gatto. His office is crammed to the ceiling with seemingly worthless items such as a key-cutting machine from a local Indian dealership that ceased business in '53, some original Norton Girls posters from the '70s and a few Fonzie model kits, complete with miniature Triumph Thunderbird. Needing a '63 Triumph Bonneville for his personal collection, he ended up purchasing a lot of 15 British twins as the owner refused to sell in part.

Kneeling over in a dark corner and giggling like Dr. Frankenstein's helper discovering a fresh batch of human brains, Gatto reveals something only he could find of inherent value. "They're Harley-Davidson piston rings from 1941," he says excitedly. Still in their bar-and-shield packaging, there are more here than one can count. It would take decades to sell even a fraction of these obscure items, making their worth-and Gatto's sanity-questionable at best. So why does he continue to pile up the goods?

"Damned if I know," admits Gatto, who as yet has no heirs to inherit his greasy fortune. "I think sometimes about opening a museum, but I don't know. It's just fun to collect this stuff and I don't really care what happens to it when I'm gone." Keeping in touch with what's gone seems to be the real motivating factor behind Cycle Warehouse. Nostalgia is a powerful motivator and Gatto is as afflicted as the hosts of Antiques Roadshow.

"I remember a time when not every motorcycle shop looked exactly the same. Now they're just clean and sterile," says friend and employee Mike Bestwick. In those days, customers could barter services for the parts needed to get back on the road, or work off debts in the service bays without worrying about violating corporate liability regulations.

Those days may be gone forever, but not in Chris Gatto's corner of the universe. "I remember going into Zepka Harley-Davidson in Johnstown and you had to knock before entering the third floor because their old aunt lived up there and she wasn't always decent," Gatto recalls. "They were just cool people; down to earth. It was fun visiting shops back then. I guess we're still trying to keep that alive."

Top 10 Oddball Finds At Cycle Warehouse
1. 1940s jockey-shift knobs with tiny photos embedded beneath Lucite inserts
2. 1968 Triton cafe racer the author wrecked in 2002 (above)
3. Five complete Harley-Davidson KHK engine
4. A dozen peace-sign sissy bars
5. Indian Motorcycle warranty logbooks, unused
6. 1943 BSA British Army M20 single, complete
7. Fonzie scale model kits
8. Genuine 1952 Whizzer scooter, unrestored
9. 1977 Honda CB750F, brand new
10. White-leather saddlebags with rhinestones and studs

Chris Gatto began dumpster-diving for used motorcycle parts outside his family's dealership as a child. Today, he's amassed one of the country's largest, most eclectic collections of bikes and parts.
If it involves grease and two wheels, Chris Gatto will buy or sell it. Ancient OEM parts, service manuals and ephemera are stacked to the rafters and beyond.
The old Troutman's department store still looks the same from the outside. But inside, British classics fill the beauty parlor and early V-Twin engine parts occupy the bridal salon.
One man's trash being another's treasure, Gatto can see the purpose in new old stock. What doesn't fit on the shelves occupies several railroad boxcars and two additional warehouses.
Forget the fringe and leather, Cycle Warehouse staff can identify and locate everything from a vintage Fonzie doll to a BSA Ligtning cylinder head within seconds.
The "Dungeon" room houses enough 1970s vintage springer forks and American V-Twin engine parts to outfit a Bandidos chapter.
You want tires? Cycle Warehouse has as many as you want, in any size and color as long as it's black.
Having more Indians than Little Big Horn has brought Cycle Warehouse customers as diverse as Japanese billionaires and Cris Mathews, host of cable TV political talk show Hardball.
If it's not here, you probably don't need it.