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Chain Reaction | How used bikes are helping people out of poverty

Written by Tim Johnson on . Posted in Entrepreneurs, Outdoor Rec and Nature

Photos by Bear Cieri

Two uncommon bike shops flourish in Burlington’s Old North End, less than a block apart. They’re both well-entrenched, but they’ve never been competitors, and their business models are quite different.

Bike Recycle Vermont operates out of a basement, relies on volunteers, sells everything at discount and serves a clientele that can’t always afford to pay. A cashless customer who shows up looking to get a flat tire fixed will likely be put to work on the repair.

Old Spokes Home, which occupies its own freestanding two-story building around the corner and across North Winooski Avenue, is more like a typical retail enterprise, with paid staff, market-rate merchandise and a conventional customer base: people with money.

BEACON OF HOPE | Bike Recycle Vermont, in Burlington's Old North End, works with people in need of basic transportation, often as a lifeline. Photo by Bear Cieri.

BEACON OF HOPE | Bike Recycle Vermont, in Burlington’s Old North End, works with people in need of basic transportation, often as a lifeline. Photo by Bear Cieri.

For years, the two shops maintained an amiable coexistence and had little to do with each other, but then something counterintuitive happened. The basement operation, a volunteer-driven nonprofit that started on a shoestring and came to depend almost entirely on grants and donations, took over its commercial counterpart across the street.

This was not a trivial acquisition. The purchase price was about half a million dollars. The result of this unlikely business deal, proudly announced in January 2015, was a new, combined enterprise, a nonprofit called Burlington Bike Project.

The new entity remains a work in progress, but its creation is a testament to the melting-pot neighborhood that gave rise to it and to its crew of visionary bike enthusiasts — including the shops’ two founders.

Glenn Eames set up Old Spokes in 2000, having left his job as service manager at a downtown bike shop with his eye on a niche market, secondhand bikes. What set Old Spokes apart was its sales focus on the used and the reconditioned. Eames’ venture soon attracted a loyal cadre of customers who relied on bikes as a practical alternative to cars.

“Old Spokes Home is not about sport,” Eames said recently. “It’s about transport.”

The business prospered, but in 2005, Eames learned something that gave him pause: another used-bike outlet would be starting up across the street.

That shop, called Bike Recycle Vermont, was a brainchild of Ron Manganiello. The recycling idea had come to him the year before when he heard from a friend that a Somali refugee in Burlington needed a bike. Manganiello found a castoff Raleigh three-speed that worked fine, so he passed it on. Then he realized that “a gazillion other refugees” resettled in Burlington also could use bikes to get around, so he soon was collecting unclaimed bikes from the police department, hauling them to a mechanic friend to be rehabbed and giving them away.

Before long,

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