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Best Community Transportation Project

Velocipede Is So Much More Than a Bike Shop

Michael Northrup

By Michael Byrne | Posted 9/17/2008

To dispel a common misconception: Velocipede isn't a bike shop. It has tools, parts, work benches, and a great many grease-black hands, but it's not the sort of place where you walk in with a credit card and a squeaky chain and walk out with a yellow work order. No, you're much more likely to walk out with your own set of greasy hands and, a few hours later, a repaired bike.

So, a bike shop in the conventional sense would be a place where you go in and buy stuff or someone takes your bike in back and fixes it. For money. Velocipede functions instead on the collective model. Money is rarely traded hands. "We strive to sell as few of the bikes we get as possible, maybe 10 percent," Tim Barnett explains, perched in a circle with a handful of other Velocipede collective members at its space just off Charles Street in Station North. Occasionally, the nonshop will sell a reconditioned bike to pay bills, but buying something here defeats the purpose. Part of Velocipede's "mission statement is teaching people how to do it [themselves]," adds Gabby, another collective member, who declines to give her last name.

Walking into the nonshop for the first time is, well, disorienting. On a full night it looks like a cross between what you'd see in the repair area of a traditional bike shop--aproned workers huddled intently around bikes in various states of assembly and racks of bike-specific black tools--and a bicycle chop shop, e.g., lots of other people carefully deconstructing (donated bikes) and sorting the parts into marked drawers and bins.

If, say, you walked into Velocipede on one of its two public nights (only Wednesday and Thursday, from 6 through 10 p.m., unfortunately) with a broken bicycle hoping for a fix, you'd be confronted with an unusual proposition. No, nobody is going to fix it for you for dollars, but they will show you how to fix it yourself in exchange for volunteer hours (or, sometimes, a "tool fee"). "Some people who you wouldn't expect stay," Beth Wacks, one of the collective's founding members and de facto leader, says. "They look pretty confused, but they put up with it. Some people stay and are grumpy the whole time."

"When people understand their bikes, they will be on the road," Barnett declares. "I've heard of people before I worked here, they'd get a flat tire and the bike would just sit in the garage or locked outside the apartment. Teaching people simple ways to fix these things keeps bikes on the road, and that's what we're after."

Velocipede's bike collective is a simple idea. Before Velocipede, "I worked at a bike shop and I'd see a lot of people coming in that would buy a bike from a thrift store and it would need some work, nothing undoable, but for us to do it at a bike shop--it would be a couple hundred dollars to, like, repack the bearings," Wacks recalls. "The idea was to make a place where people could learn about bikes, do simple repairs, or make more complicated repairs, and be able to afford that. A community space.

"I think it's really empowering to know how to fix stuff," she adds. "It gives people ownership of their lives. There aren't a lot of things in this world that we personally can fix."

Business at Velocipede is booming right now, and the collective is finding itself in the situation of demand outreaching supply. "We're seeing a lot more people because of gas prices," collective member Boson Au says. (Like about "50 percent" of the collective, Au knew next to nothing about bikes before joining as a volunteer and later as a collective member.) "Before, maybe someone would just bring in their old bike to donate--now they want to fix it up."

"We need more bikes right now," Wacks says. But, even more than that, the collective needs members. It's easy enough to get folks in at sort of the "base level," as volunteers. As in, they put in their volunteer hours (three minimum), and after putting enough time in to trade for parts, they build up their own bike and leave. Whereas collective members stay at the shop and become the teachers.

"We want it to be easy for people to get involved in the collective--anybody can be involved in the volunteer process, but we also want to be able to grow, and right now that's one of the main places that we need to grow," Barnett explains. "Not in the number of people that are coming in because they need a bike, but the number of people coming in because they really want to be a part of this project, that want to help the community."

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