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, his storage needs outstripped his backyard, so he found a better space for his fledgling nonprofit: the capacious, unused basement beneath Good News Garage, the iconic Burlington charity that distributes donated automobiles to low-income people. He also arranged an affiliation with Local Motion, a nonprofit alternative transportation advocacy group, to serve as Bike Recycle’s fiscal agent.

The Good News Garage headquarters were in a former bus barn on North Winooski Avenue, across from Old Spokes Home. With a mission parallel to Bike Recycle’s, Good News Garage was about as simpatico a landlord as could be found, Manganiello realized. But he also knew he’d better check in with Eames.

“Initially I felt as though there could be some conflict,” Eames said.

“Glenn was nervous about it,” Manganiello recalled. “He said, ‘Hey, I’m already fixing up old bikes for folks. How’s this going to work?’

“I said, ‘The people we’re serving don’t have any money. They’re refugees, they’re out of jail, they’re homeless. I think we’re going to
be compatible.’

Eames’ concerns were allayed.

“We came to an agreement,” Eames said. “What he would be was a grant-based, donor organization. To his credit, he’s stuck by the agreement and his mission.”

“We’ve been great neighbors,” he added.

“Our core mission is really simple,” Manganiello said. “Empower low-income people and put them on the road inexpensively.”

Just inside the entrance to Bike Recycle Vermont, a chalkboard above the front counter spells out the terms of service: “You must qualify for assistance … in order to get products or services from Bike Recycle Vermont.” The board lists nine examples, among them food stamps, Section 8, recently incarcerated.

John Mahatcek, who came bike shopping one recent afternoon, fell in the latter category.

He said that he’d been released 23 days before, that he’d landed a job in Williston — a bus ride away — and that he needed a bike to get to the bus depot from where he was living, 3.2 miles north. He’d been jogging to the bus stop each workday, but now a bike would make his commute a lot easier.

From the scores of bikes arrayed in the “showroom” that adjoins the workshop, he chose a Gary Fisher mountain bike. With
a lock, the bill came to $68.48.

Dil Gurung, a Bhutanese refugee, appeared at the front counter with his wife and 7-year-old daughter, Deeya, and was greeted by Dan Hock, Bike Recycle’s affable general manager and only paid employee. Gurung’s English was limited, but he was able to convey his family’s transportation profile.

“No car, no bike,” he said.

Now he wanted a bike for Deeya and another for his 2-year-old son, both with training wheels. Deeya didn’t know how to ride, he said.

Hock spent about 45 minutes with them, having Deeya sit on assorted models, and they finally walked out with two kids’ bikes and helmets for $32.50.

Bike Recycle Vermont abandoned the giveaway policy after its first couple of years and began charging modest fees for sales and service, according to Manganiello.

“Without a literal buy-in from customers,” he said, “the bikes were not cared for and often not locked.”

Bikes now sell for $15 to $150, considerably less than those across the street. Donations, constantly coming in from people cleaning out their garages, are either fixed up in the shop or stripped for serviceable parts. High-end, high-value donations are typically shipped across the street for sale at Old Spokes.

“Their inventory is ours, and ours is theirs,” said Harris Bucklin, who succeeded Eames as general manager of Old Spokes. He said he was excited about the prospects for collaboration with Bike Recycle — including repair workshops that could be taught over the winter by Old Spokes’ seasonally idle bike mechanics.

Skills training — for neighborhood kids, customers, volunteers — is a key part of what Burlington Bicycle Project calls its social mission. The keystone is Bicycle Mechanics 101, a seven-session course that covers bike anatomy in detail, from bearings to derailleurs.

The union of the two shops might not have happened if Eames had not decided to step aside. In 2014, he let it be known he was no longer interested in being Old Spokes’ sole proprietor. (He eschews the word “retirement.”) The fate of Old Spokes was up in the air as he considered his options. Sell the shop to the highest bidder? Turn it into an employee co-op?

Dan Hock, who had worked as a mechanic in both shops, had another idea. Bike Recycle and Old Spokes could combine forces in a single, self-sustaining enterprise. Proceeds from Old Spokes would fund Bike Recycle and its programs, eliminating the need for chronic fundraising and grant writing. Eames warmed to the idea, in part because Bike Recycle’s mission dovetailed with his own philosophy and his devotion to the community.

“If I were able to select any buyer, this would be my No. 1 choice,” Eames said.

Bike Recycle still had to come up with the money necessary to compensate Eames. Remarkably, according to Manganiello, Bike Recycle’s volunteers and Old Spokes devotees had the combined wherewithal to raise about $500,000 — half in grants, half in bridge loans. More than a few of those volunteers proved to be people of means, individually contributing tens of thousands of dollars to the cause.

Ron Manganiello

Ron Manganiello, center, with outreach director Christine Hill and general manager Dan Hock. Photo by Bear Cieri.

Yiota Ahladas, a Bike Recycle devotee and board member who helped organize the capital campaign, sees Bike Recycle Vermont as a kind of magical place that brings all sorts of people together to work on bikes, well-to-do volunteers alongside the customers.

“It’s a microcosm of the world,” she said, “and everybody is benefiting from being there.”

Whether the new enterprise will in fact become self-sustaining remains to be seen. First, the bridge loans have to be retired. Fundraising is underway to accomplish that.

Meanwhile, work goes on in the shop under Hock’s genial supervision, as could be seen at three stations on a recent Saturday afternoon:

• Two volunteers (a Ph.D. candidate in history and a nursing student) were dismembering donated bikes (“Pull the wheels, save the tires and tubes,” Hock advised after eyeballing the frames).

• A 14-year-old boy who came in with a bike missing a seat was looking to replace it. Hock handed him a caliper and showed him how to measure the seat post so he could find one in the storeroom that fit.

• Ahmed Ibrahim, 15, brought his bike in to get a flat tire fixed. Hock turned him over to a volunteer, Jeremy Vandal, who showed him how to take the tire off, how to patch the tube.

His tire fixed, Ahmed was given another task, since he wasn’t paying for his repair. Hock wanted him to help replace a tire for another customer. Ahmed waited tentatively. Then Hock came over and they both looked at the wheel.

“Let’s go over a few things,” Hock said, before Ahmed got started.

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