James Moore has been fixing bicycles most of his life. But last summer, he ran into a problem: He was unable to repair the damper on the mountain bike he calls “my basic, everyday transportation” because he lacked the right tools.
Then Mr. Moore’s mother spotted a sign for The Recyclery, a non-profit used-bicycle collective operating out of the basement of an apartment building at 713 Seward St.
There, just four blocks from his home, Mr. Moore found access to tools, an outlet for his mechanical skills – and a community of the sort the collective’s leaders envisioned at its founding four years ago.
Several months after finishing repairs on his own bike, Mr. Moore is still coming around to the Recyclery – now as a volunteer, fixing bikes for the collective to sell or give away and helping people fix their own.
During Open Shop hours Monday, Tuesday and Thursday nights and Saturday mornings, beginners can learn bicycle repair basics in an atmosphere the collective describes as “free of mechanical elitism.”
“This is a safe place to come if you’ve never used a wrench,” says Recyclery staff member Camille Hobbs. On a recent Monday night Mr. Moore was one of three volunteers circulating among the six or seven mechanics-in-training with furrowed brows and greasy hands.
“Evidently, I am overhauling the hub,” says Eleanor Perry-Smith, a graduate student in journalism at Northwestern University, intent on repair work that is all new to her. Her bike was a bonus, found leaning against a dumpster just days after her own bike was stolen. After a decent waiting period, she decided to rescue it.
She heard about The Recyclery from a friend and has returned three or four times to put her bike in working order. Sharlyn Grace is the staff member in charge of Open Shop; volunteers like Mr. Moore and Justin Saxby, who works for pay at Turin Bicycle Shop, are here to lend a hand as well.
“There’s a lot of help and guidance, but once they show you, you do it yourself,” says Ms. Perry-Smith. Replacement parts available at the shop – most of them recycled — have cost her just $15, and she says she is grateful to be here. “I think [The Recyclery] is a great thing,” she says. “It creates a sense of community and a sense of empowerment that you can fix [a bicycle].”
Bob Krenn, a Northwestern senior, now knows what size inner tube he needs and how to tighten a hand brake. “They guided me,” he says, “because I have no idea what I’m doing. But I did most of the work.” Ryan Ruiz of Chicago, who says he “picked up a cheap bike that needs a lot of work,” located The Recyclery on Google after spotting a sticker. After a tutorial from Ms. Grace on replacing spokes, he is grinning with pride at his success. On a more advanced track, Evanstonian Chris Vijitchanton is borrowing Recyclery tools and know-how to build a racing bike from scratch.
In addition to teaching bike mechanics, The Recyclery supports ecological sustainability – and community – in other ways.
The collective manages a large inventory of donated and discarded bikes. They accept all offerings (“We have no standards,” laughs Ms. Hobbs) and make use of every one. Their efforts recently won them an Excellence in Recycling award from the Illinois Recycling Association.
“It is rare to tell people [a bike] is not worth fixing,” says Ms. Grace. Most donated bikes, thanks to the skills of volunteers, are rehabbed for a second life. Irreparable bikes are stripped for parts; children’s bikes are donated to Head Start.
The Recyclery’s role does not end there. While a small number of the re-worked bicycles are offered at periodic sales such as one held on Oct. 11, many more are funneled to social service agencies.
About 30 bikes were ready for Saturday’s sale, says Ms. Grace, who shares one 40-hour paid position with collective members Jesse Miller and Ms. Hobbs.
“A good used bike is a valuable thing to have,” Ms. Grace explains. Because contemporary “department-store bicycles are meant to be replaced,” she says, their parts are neither replaceable nor reusable. So the Recyclery’s reconditioned bikes, priced from $40 to $600, are in demand.
The Recyclery distributes many free bikes through local organizations. Ms. Hobbs heads The Freecyclery program, working with Connections for the Homeless, Housing Options, the Salvation Army and Youth Organizations Umbrella to provide self-sufficiency and practical transportation to low-income families and those with mental illness.
Mr. Miller runs the Earn-a-Bike program in collaboration with Y.O.U. and Chicago’s Broadway Youth Center. Each at-risk youth enrolled in the program gets a free bike at the end of a course comprised of bicycle rides, education and hands-on work.
The idea for the Recyclery arose as members of Reba Place Fellowship searched for a way to “relate to our neighbors, both poor and well-off” in the Fellowship’s gentrifying neighborhood, says Mr. Miller, a Recyclery founder.
Looking for a common work project, the group realized bikes “made sense as a meeting point of our interest in sustainability and community” and were a way “to bring a diverse group of people together,” Mr. Miller says.
From the beginning The Recyclery was “a community-wide project,” he says. Supported by Reba Place, the collective began moving toward independence.
The organization expects to receive non-profit, 501c3 status soon and is looking for a storefront location for their shop. More donated bikes and volunteers, including Recyclery collective members, are always needed.
The seven current members of the collective meet weekly, make decisions democratically and, in accordance with their mission, foster respect and welcome diverse opinions. They are the ones who keep the wheels of the organization turning.
Learn more at www.therecyclery.org.