A bicycle cooperative on Columbus' Near East Side not only promotes alternatives to automotive transportation, but also provides affordable access to bikes and the know-how to keep the wheels turning.
For a little more than a year, Third Hand Bicycle Cooperative, a volunteer-run nonprofit, has maintained a not-so-ordinary bike shop at 979 E. Fifth Ave., in the Milo Grogan neighborhood of Columbus.
There, customers can find a wealth of used bikes in various states of repair and function. The median sales price is $30, and those who volunteer can earn discounts on bikes and bike parts.
They also can learn how to get and keep their rides street-worthy from an impassioned group of volunteer "coordinators," who teach and assist in bike maintenance during "open shop sessions" held each Wednesday from 6 to 9 p.m. and Saturdays from 1 to 4 p.m.
The co-op, which evolved from gatherings of bike enthusiasts in home garages almost 15 years ago, seeks to promote cycling as safe and environmentally responsible transportation.
Its members also provide fellow volunteers and customers with facilities, tools and informal bike repair training to help make cycling an essential part of their everyday lives -- which is appropriate, because bikes purchased there are the only mode of transportation for some.
"I would get people that would come in and buy a bike because they were tired of walking to work," said Heather Pirrone, a Third Hand Bike coordinator who lives in the Sharon Woods neighborhood of Columbus. "We really are looking to give these people sustainable transportation."
Third Hand currently has about 10 stations where cyclists can repair or customize their bikes, and where volunteers can strip used bikes of functioning parts to be resold at discount prices.
Although the co-op receives some grant funding from various sources, expenses such as rent and utilities for the roughly 4,000-square-foot space primarily are paid for through donated bikes, which are sold "as-is" to customers.
"The objectives are to promote cycling to get more bikes on the road, and to give an alternative to regular bike shops, which a lot of people can't afford," said Matt Dickinson, an Upper Arlington resident who serves as a co-op coordinator and quasi-trustee. "It's totally self-sufficient.
"Everyone does their own work with help from knowledgeable volunteers, as needed. We don't fix bikes for people, but we show them how to do it."
Coordinator Reda Ashur of Olde Towne East in Columbus said the co-op tries to be inviting to people of all walks of life.
That's evidenced by open shop sessions held for Spanish-speaking cyclists.
There also are a myriad of volunteer opportunities, which range from learning and teaching bike mechanics and creating merchandise such as fliers, stickers and shirts, to serving as a shop greeter/information coordinator/cashier.
Imagination and creativity also are nurtured, Ashur said.
"People can come in and make a bike like they want," she said.
Despite frigid temperatures and streets and sidewalks spotted with snow and ice, visitors at a Dec. 11 open shop session were doing just that.
Elijah Brown of the East Side of Columbus, who was considering buying a bike for $20, said he frequents the co-op because of its open atmosphere and its prices.
Sporting a leather coat decorated with multi-colored acrylic paint, he also said he was an artist and appreciates the knowledge he picks up about bike repair, which helps him customize his ride.
"It's a beautiful form of transportation and, like everything, it's a form of art," Brown said. "I could put a flag on it. I could advertise on it.
"It beats walking. I know that. I'm a diabetic, so it also gets me a little exercise."
John Trego of Whitehall was busy dismantling a bike for parts, one of his initial duties as a recent volunteer.
He said he came to the co-op in hopes of restoring his father's old bike and enjoyed his experiences.
"My dad was into cycling a long time ago and I dug his bike out of the garage," Trego said. "I wanted to learn how to fix it.
"I like the atmosphere here. It's kind of informal, it's helping people out and it's a learning environment."
Now part of the co-op's regular volunteer corps, Pirrone said she also initially came to an open shop session for family reasons.
"My mom died and my dad kind of holed up in the house," she said. "The only thing that got him out was to ride his bike.
"He was spending so much money on tires, and I wanted to learn how to change them. When I started, I'd never even changed a tire."
In addition to the connections made at the co-op's shop, the organization also is working on outreach to promote cycling and the co-op itself.
Dickinson said they maintain a booth at the popular Community Fest (ComFest) held each June in Columbus' Goodale Park, and they've held a bike rodeo in Upper Arlington and collected used bikes during a community recycling drive in Dublin last summer.
Now, the volunteers are setting their sights on raising money to install solar panels on the co-op's roof, and they continue to advocate for public officials in the central Ohio community to consider bike traffic when repairing or enhancing infrastructure.
They're also gearing up to host a Bike!Bike! conference late next summer.
Bike!Bike! is an international, annual gathering organized by and for community bicycle projects. Its conferences provide a venue for participants from shops and related advocacy groups to converge in a different city each year over a four-day period to have workshops and strengthen social networks.
"It increases our visibility and there are workshops ... on how to set up and run any aspect of a bike co-op," Dickinson said. "Typically, 300 to 400 bike co-op enthusiasts attend."