Looking to buy your Hells Angels T-shirt but wanting to avoid the holiday rush? Fear not.You can order directly over the 'Net.
The door to the Hells Angels New York City clubhouse shut behind me, blocking out the light and noise of East 3rd St. I walked past a pile of orange safety cones used to reserve the Angels' parking spaces, glanced at the walls plastered with placards, and noticed a monitor beaming back images of the street outside from one of three closed-circuit cameras.
So this is what the inside of a Hells Angels hangout is like.
But this surprisingly quiet and cozy six-story building is not just a place where Angels meet; it also houses a thriving electronic commerce operation, bigredmachine.com, which sells an array of club merchandise.
Most e-comm headquarters cause nary a glance, but the Hells Angels attract a bit more attention. New York's finest tend to cruise by a couple times an hour to eyeball the place.
The U.S. government also monitors a Web site based in California dedicated to Ralph "Sonny" Barger, who is considered to be the unofficial chief of the notorious worldwide biker organization. Barger's site received more than 100 hits from government officials in October alone. The site sells statues of the man some consider a folk hero and others call a criminal.
The Angels' products are not for everyone. One T-shirt says, "WHEN IN DOUBT . . . KNOCK 'EM OUT!" A bumper sticker says, "SEE YOU IN HELL!" Some of this stuff has logos that are unprintable.
The Web site's offices, located several floors up, consist of a few rooms full of T-shirts, hats and other gear packed into plastic containers; on a desk sits a slider used to verify American Express cards.
Our guide is the soft-spoken, black-leather-clad Helene Czech Garcia, who is the head of the New York chapter's Internet-based business.
As we talk, Garcia casually mentions that she just added nose cones from the original Hells Angels World War II fighter bombers to the catalog. Not many know that the Angels began nearly 50 years ago when fighter pilots fresh from the war were looking to raise some hell.
The New York chapter's Big Red Machine Web site (one of about a dozen worldwide) is Garcia's brainchild. The wife of a club member, Garcia decided to launch the site a couple of years ago primarily for direct sales. Before the Web, sales were driven only by direct mailings and Big Red Machine ads in Easy Rider and other biker magazines.
"We wanted to target international customers and ones not accessible by mail but who have access to a computer," Garcia says. So back in 1996, she headed to the Web, getting a local service provider to do the hosting while she did the design. So far it's been successful in expanding the business. Hells Angels gear "sells itself," Garcia says. Just how much she won't say, although she acknowledges the club moves hundreds of items a year worth thousands of dollars.
The New York Big Red Machine site sells gear from a number of Hells Angels chapters to a wide range of people. "We do a lot of business in Japan," Garcia says. "And someone in Thailand can look and say, 'That's a cool shirt on there' and order it. They know who the Hells Angels are. It's amazing; it's such a small world." According to Garcia, the club really has no competitors - after all, there is only one Hells Angels.
Working on a Windows 95 PC, Garcia does her Web updates using Adobe PageMill. Security and server tools are provided by the ISP. Payments are made by the usual e-commerce means, such as credit cards.
Like many Web site managers, Garcia has a hard time keeping up with all the correspondence: As many as 160 e-mail messages per day go through her Eudora mail basket. In fact, a fair number of the members of her chapter are online. Garcia also posts the dates of Angels parties, and in the future, she'd like to create a chat room.
Some of the money raised on the Angels' Web sites goes to the various clubs' legal defense funds. For instance, the West Coast of England chapter (www.wcoast65.freeserve.co.uk) sells clothing to pay the legal costs of a "brother" given 10 years for "manslaughter with provocation."
One man's opinion
George Christie is a prominent Ventura, Calif.-based Hells Angels member. Christie, speaking from his Ink House tattoo shop, says the group is just changing with the times. "The Internet is a way to reach out to a lot of people," he says. Christie's chapter in Ventura is about to launch its own Big Red Machine Web site.
The managers of the Angels' Web sites do not view themselves as competitors. "We're all part of the same organization," Christie says. Although not a Web surfer himself, Christie says a number of the members of his chapter are. But browsing and blending with the rest of society are two different things. "I have never felt part of mainstream society and don't think I ever will," he says. "I don't feel any different than I did 25 years ago."
Another thing that hasn't changed is the willingness of the Angels to defend their turf. Witness a recent e-mail exchange from a Swedish Angels site (www.insidethe/Web.com/messageboard/mbs.cgi/mb36607). After someone wrote that the Angels "are simply the best, of course, besides the Bandidos," a man named GRUMPY replied, "This is the wrong neighborhood for that kind of talk."
The authorities' takeLaw enforcement officials are not totally surprised by the bikers' Web presence. "They are a very sophisticated organization, despite what some people believe," says Terry Katz, a lieutenant in the criminal intelligence bureau of the Maryland state police. "They're not just barroom brawlers. They have a reputation for violence and intimidation, but they can becharming."
Hence the club's sponsoring of Toys for Tots bike runs and other public-relations opportunities.
"They have an impressive ability to expand," Katz says. "They're very conscious of their image."
Moreover, Jack Levin, an author and criminology professor at Northeastern University in Boston, has some concerns.
"Every shadowy organization in existence is on the Web and attempting to make money out of it if it works," Levin says.
Teenagers who are drawn to anything that appears rebellious are the most likely to respond to such Web sites, Levin believes.
What's with Big Red?By now you may be wondering where the name "Big Red Machine" comes from. Why not hellsangels.com?
For the answer, we turned to the testimonial of club member Tricky Tramp, which was posted on the Windsor, England, site (www.cityweb.co.uk/brm/.) According to Tramp, a group of Angels spontaneously coined the term during "a stoned night in Amsterdam" in 1989. The "most righteous brothers" were staring at a poster of "a bearded head blown brother roaring at you via the walls and bars of a jail"; during a burst of inspiration, the group, whose official colors are red and white, began to chant the phrase "Big Red Machine," again and again, Tramp relates.
Eventually, they created the Big Red Machine logo - which indicates support for the Hells Angels but avoids trampling on the precious death's-head trademark. Consumers are free to wear Big Red material, but the actual Hells Angels logo remains strictly for members.
The head Angel
Not satisfied with the Big Red Machine selection? Just pop over to www.sonnybarger.com, where you can pick up a $300 statue of the Angels' organizational architect Barger astride a Harley. The site plans to sell Barger's in-the-works biography when it is published, as well as a video based on the book.
"He's an American legend," says Jack Lupertino, a long-time friend of the 60-year-old Barger, and manager of the Web site.
Based in Santa Cruz, Calif., Lupertino is a member of the Ghost Mountain Riders, an Angels affiliate. It was Lupertino's idea to create the statue of Barger and market it over the Web; he sealed the deal with Barger with a handshake.
Lupertino got a friend to set up the page, and the site went live in June; in October, it received 20,567 hits. "The thing's potential is phenomenal," says Lupertino, who adds that Barger's fame translates well on the Web.
The hits the Barger site gets are from all over the world - Russia, South America and New Zealand, for example. Lupertino makes note of the 100 hits from the U.S. government. Whether it was the Justice Department or some other agency, he doesn't know.
"All we do is sell statues," he says. "I don't know why the government is interested in that." Especially since Lupertino dropped ads from pornographic and tattoo companies.
Passing comments through Lupertino, Barger says he's amazed at how many people are hitting his Web site, and that the rapid growth of the medium is like nothing else he's ever seen.
Barger notes that today there is more e-mail shuttling back and forth than regular paper mail. "Information is the most important thing we have in running this world," Barger says.
Big Red Machine Web site
Includes a secure server for ordering T-shirts and other merchandise.
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