Bikes are big business these days. Companies of all sizes will happily sell you a $10,000 dream bike, a $500 custom fitting, $300 shorts -- but bike co-ops and non-profits cater to the other end of the market.
Bling bikes might be a luxury item for some, but a working bike is basic transportation for many. I talked with Cory Rich of Street Level Cycles, a non-profit bike shop, community DIY space, and youth education program, about how the increase in cycling in the Bay Area has affected business.
Street Level Cycles is located along the Berkeley Marina, not far from North Oakland and Emeryville. Instead of gleaming rows of brand new bikes, the shop is stocked with reconditioned used bikes and bins of greasy parts. It's not your average bike shop.
"The primary focus of the Street Level Cycles is always youth empowerment and education," Cory Rich said via email. "While we function as a used bike shop to the public, Street Level Cycles seeks to be a safe environment for interns and students to develop personally and professionally."
Street Level Cycles deals not only in bikes, but also in in knowledge. Anybody can come in and learn. The organization asks for a modest donation for use of the shop -- but you also get access to the staff that will help you fix your bike. You can even build a bike from scratch with frames and parts they have in stock. When you walk into most bike shops it's simply antithetical to their mission to teach you how to do things -- most shops want to keep you coming back for maintenance indefinitely. While there are safety concerns involved in working on your own bike, there are many minor issues that are easy for anyone to address with a little knowledge -- and that's what you can find at Street Level Cycles and other similar organizations.
On the weekends during their public hours, Street Level Cycles is bustling. All the public bike stands are usually full of people wrenching. Customers practically wait in line to test-ride cobbled together reconditioned bikes. The shop routinely sells out of used bikes by the end of the weekend.
"We have seen a huge increase in demand for used bikes and parts in the last few years. I think that several factors have contributed to the rise in popularity of bicycles but a lot of credit is due to our local bicycle advocacy groups," Rich said. "Groups like Bike East Bay (formerly EBBC) have helped to develop the East Bay into a very bike friendly area. From the implementation of bicycle boulevards to all-hours access for bikes on BART, cycling has now become one of the most viable modes of transportation in the area."
Street Level Cycles isn't the only cooperative or non-profit bike shop around. The Bike Kitchen, in the Mission, is similarly configured. Both places let you volunteer for shop time and credit for used parts. But you don't have to volunteer, and you don't have to learn if you don't want to -- I go to shop at spots like this to dig for bargains in the parts bins. I have all the tools I need to do just about anything and I could probably just order parts online -- but I'd much rather dig up a used part and give my money to a shop like Street Level or The Bike Kitchen for a bunch of reasons.
"Making purchases at Street Level Cycles is an investment in the future of the Bay Area since we focus on vocational training for at-risk youth," said Rich. "The profits from sales are funneled back into our youth vocational training programs which allows us provide more free classes and internships to local youth."
Sounds a lot better than lining the pockets of viciously litigious bicycle conglomerates. Of course, not everybody has time to do their own wrench turning, and bicycle mechanics are poorly paid wherever they work -- at a small indie shop, a non-profit, or a big corporate chain. In fact, bicycle mechanics are paid on average less than the average high-school dropout. So wherever you go, make sure to tip your mechanic.