On a Wednesday evening, just up the hill from the Durham Athletic Park, around the back of a cinder block garage, Benton Henderson stands inside the Durham Bike Co-op and works on a wheel of his bike. “It’s as close as you’ll get to flying,” he insists, and he’s not talking about riding a bike. He’s talking about fixing one.
Benton will return to the co-op the following Sunday, when the daytime hours and warmer weather encourage a small crowd of members to wait outside the garage for their turn to maintain their bikes or to earn one by volunteering. For a $50 yearly membership fee (or five hours of their time), members can choose a bike and learn to fix it up themselves. Membership only (sans bike) is $30.
At first glance, the space seems pretty humble. The workshop stores a long, packed row of available bicycles whose handlebars over- lap so much it seems they’ve got their arms around each other. In the back, a select group of higher-end bikes have been refurbished by the organization’s top mechanics; these will go to local stores that have agreed to consign them – a big source of revenue that keeps the nonprofit running. Tools stuck to magnetic strips on the wall wait at the ready, and repurposed file cabinets and library card catalogs help organize parts, including hard- to-find items that even the most avid “bike nerd” would not likely have. It’s a treasure chest of other people’s potential trash.
Empowering everyone to use this hardware to keep their bikes safe and comfortable is one of the primary missions of the co-op, which opened its doors in 2007, in part to provide novice cyclists with an introduction to bike repair and maintenance. “We teach them how to fix a flat, how to change a tire,” says board member Rob Walpole. “Then we look at important things like brakes and gears.” This kind of skill building helps keep members independent, mobile and fit – and it also keeps one more environmentally friendly piece of transportation on the road and out of a landfill.
The organization insists on being a welcoming community to anyone, and on giving all members – regardless of age, gender or ability – a chance to make improvements to their bicycles without the (often well-intentioned) interruptions of other members. “A lot of times men don’t want women to do anything; they want to do things for them,” Rob says, “so you have to mediate.” The co-op also runs programs for kids, the LGBTQ community, and recent immigrants and political refugees.
This social spirit is what keeps so many members coming back. “It’s the engagement with the community,” says volunteer mechanic Keith Ward. The co-op’s volunteer of the year, Thurman McClamy, puts it simply: “I just like helping people work on their bicycles.” Last year, he donated more than 250 hours of his time to the organization.
While the co-op welcomes cyclists from every biking subculture there is, shop coordinator Greg Garneau notes, “We’re best suited for the utility cyclist and the commuter,” a segment of Durham’s population that may need bikes as their primary means of getting around the city.
When considering what makes Durham a fertile place for the growth of a community bike workshop, Greg cites a combination of factors. “There always has been a core of cyclists here who were ready for it, and it’s got two universities. There are a lot of working class people in Durham, and because it’s North Carolina, there are a large number of people who are auto mechanics or are mechanically oriented. It’s part of the local culture.”
A DREAM REALIZED
But when the area surrounding the co-op began gentrifying, and as member numbers increased, concerns about the cost of staying on Washington Street began to arise. “We are in a great location, have a wonderful landlord, and we’re outgrowing our space,” says treasury coordinator Debbie West. Serendipitously, a maintenance facility in Duke Park is available, and with the help of the Duke Park Neighborhood Association, the nonprofit has reached an agreement with Durham Parks and Recreation to secure the larger, more functional space. “The shop floor is similar, but we’ll have a separate parts room and an entire pole barn, which is gigantic. It will take care of bike storage.”
While growing into the new building will take some serious fundraising, Debbie says, “It’s a dream for us. We’re so grateful to the city and to Duke Park. A lot has come together.”
With community support, the relocation is sure to keep the co-op, its members, and their bicycles, moving forward.
A SUNDAY AFTERNOON AT THE CO-OP
Mary Bedard, a senior scientist for a pharmaceutical company, has volunteered more than three hours at the co-op and has now chosen a bike to fix up for herself. With Rob Walpole, she begins the process of making the old bike ride-able, but they quickly discover that parts of the bike have rusted and stuck to the frame, rendering the bike unusable.
Fortunately, there are plenty of others to choose from, and Mary finds another just right for her size and needs. She does most of the work herself, learning not only what to do next, but more generally about the mechanics and anatomy of the bike. “You’re a natural,” Rob says. “I do a lot of engineering type stuff in my lab,” she explains, tinkering with the brakes as she chats. Rob assures her that with her new know-how, she can maintain her bike for a decade or more.
Well on her way to a “new used” bicycle, she says the experience is about more than just scoring a reasonably priced piece of transportation. “The mission of the co-op was really very appealing,” she says. “I don’t want to just buy a bike and then have no idea what I’m doing. You can learn as much as you want here.”