Editor’s note: In Issue #12, we examine community bike shops and how they work. Based on my experience organizing a shop, below you’ll find some things I recommend thinking about and looking into if you want to start a workshop in your own town.
By Adam Newman, photos of the Austin Yellow Bike Project by Justin Steiner
Years ago, the idea was circulating to begin a bike collective community workshop in Tampa Bay, Florida. Inspired by Sopo in Atlanta, the Bicycle Kitchen in Los Angeles and Free Ride in Pittsburgh, it was to be a way to help local cyclists learn how to maintain their bikes, get access to donated parts and find alternative transportation options.
It didn’t happen overnight, and it certainly had its ups and downs – and still does – but many good folks pitched in and now the Tampa Bay Bike Co-Op is running strong.
It sounds like a pretty amazing idea, doesn’t it? Having a place where cyclists can come together to share and acquire knowledge and experience? Well, it can happen, but it has to start somewhere. Begin by sketching out your goals, vision and interpretation of what your bike community will be. Share these ideas with friends to make sure you all have a similar vision, and run them passed organizers at other workshops to get their input.
Change your plans
Face it, it’s not going to all go right the first time. So be flexible!
Choose your business model
Not all community workshops function the same, or are even similar. The phrase “co-op” gets tossed around a lot, but many community workshops do not even use the co-operative model. Search around online for – or even better, visit in person – as many workshops as you can, and don’t hesitate to ask the organizers questions.
For example, some shops accept payment or cash donations, others do not. Some sell complete bikes, others don’t. Some let you barter volunteer hours for parts, others don’t.
It’s important to have a good idea of what kind of shop you want to be before beginning. And if what you’ve chosen isn’t working, change it up.
Create leadership and continuity
You’re not going to be able to do this alone. Find some friends and like-minded bike lovers you trust to fill leaderships roles. You’ll likely need a board of directors, a secretary, a treasurer, a webmaster, and more. Make sure the organization has a plan and can survive if one or more members decides to move on. Even you might tire of the role some day.
Find a space
Believe it or not, when the Tampa Bay Bike Co-Op began, it didn’t have a home. Supplies were delivered in the back of a pickup truck to wherever we could meet. The operation quickly outgrew this idea. Finding a secure, permanent space can be difficult, especially with a lack of funds, but you may be able to find an unused garage space, a community center or church basement that will be accommodating.
Even your leadership team won’t be able to handle all the work. Volunteers are vital to keeping the community going. Whether you require a membership, if volunteers can bank hours for credits and how to keep track of who comes and goes are all important things to consider before opening the doors. Having a volunteer co-coordinator to look after them all is a good idea.
This is the hard part. At some point you’re going to want to incorporate and go legal. Not that a bike workshop is illegal, but if you have non-profit 501(c)3 status, you can apply for grants and any donations are tax deductible. There are other things to consider too, like permits, insurance, sales tax and more. It’s worth trying to find a legal expert to donate their advice and expertise, but paying for it is likely worth it in the long run too.
Publicize and be welcoming
Get online, post notices in your community and spread the word. Be welcoming to all types of cyclists, not just ones will interests similar to your own. You will find people from all walks of life will be interested in visiting, and do whatever you can to help them all. Rich or poor, each one can share in the joy of cycling.
That’s the whole idea, isn’t it? Don’t stress out over the workshop. Don’t let it start to run your life. Don’t allow your hard work to suck the fun out bikes. If you need a day off, take it. A well-run organization will keep running without you and allow you the time you need to keep working in the long term. Enjoy!
Read our cover story on community bike shops in Bicycle Times Issue #12, available now in our online store or your local newstand. Be sure to order a subscription to make sure you never miss an issue.