More Than a Bike Shop
The ReCYCLEry NC is peddling a better communityBy Erin Binkley | Photos by Jason Binkley
Down a brick alley between two noisy bars, there’s an open door.
The light from inside is welcoming and so are the faces you find there. But you won’t find any tables or booths, and there aren’t any specials. This small concrete room is filled from floor to ceiling with deconstructed bicycles.
On any given Wednesday night, you can come to this small space on Graham Street in Chapel Hill and learn an unusual skill for an even more unusual price. That’s what The ReCYCLEry is about: Teaching bike mechanics for free.
Well, not exactly for free. You’ll earn your keep — and your bike — by giving your time to the shop and those in it.
“Basically, it’s about volunteerism,” says founder Richard Giorgi. “When you exchange money for something, it kind of spoils it a little bit sometimes, if it’s something you love.”
For the love of cycling
It’s an idea founded on friendship and acceptance. Join a community, learn a skill, better your health, get transportation — regardless of whether or not you can afford it.
“It was always meant to be inclusive and never exclusive,” Giorgi says. “That’s the goal. Totally 100 percent inclusive. That’s why we’ve earned this reputation for teaching slowly and kindly and having fun.”
The idea is not new, but when Giorgi founded the non-profit almost 15 years ago in his own side yard, it was unheard of in this area.
“I was living briefly in Ithaca, where I was mountain biking a little bit. And they had a place that was similar to this called RIBS, Recycle Ithaca’s Bikes. You could go in and you could just do stuff in exchange for bicycles. I thought that was awesome.”
The shop has run the same basic process for years. Originally, the founders developed a system of accountability for volunteer hours by using cards and color codes, but it proved too complex.
They moved to an honor system, which has worked for them ever since.
“We’ve got the parts, we’ve got the tools, we’ve got the expertise, but we don’t do the work for them,” says Giorgi. “It’s not like a free bike shop, but we’ve got everything they need.”
When someone walks in the shop looking for a bike, volunteers send them “out back” to a side yard. Inside a fenced enclosure decorated with murals and brightly-colored wheel rims, there are hundreds of bikes. Most of them missing parts, some decades old. The bikes that have been spoken for wear manila tags with handwritten names — the rest of them are up for grabs.
The visitor brings her selected bike inside the small shop and a volunteer sets her up on one of the stands. This volunteer, in most cases, will work with her one-on-one all day.
Giorgi thinks it’s better this way, “I don’t want the volunteers to feel rushed — I try to reserve that for me.” Fixing the bike is largely up to the visitor, but volunteers are there to point the way, offer parts and tools, and check the finished product for safety.
Community members often bring in donations of bikes, but the real reward is when someone who has received a bike returns to offer up their time. Wednesday nights are Advanced Mechanic Night, where volunteers are certified as mechanics. The most devoted volunteers often come from this pool of certified experts.
For those who are a part of this process, it’s changing lives. During Christmas 2010, for example, the volunteers came together to give 130 bikes away to local children.
“You hand a kid a bike, and it’s the greatest thing ever. It’s freedom for those kids,” says Matt, a volunteer at The ReCYCLEry for the past four years.
A huge part of what the nonprofit does is for children, both donating and teaching. Inspired to teach kids to overcome obstacles, the shop holds monthly workshops just for their smallest cyclists.
“We thought if we taught kids something that they didn’t think they could do previously, like fixing a bicycle for themselves, maybe at some point in time when they were dealing with a tough essay or tough math problem, that would carry them through. Like, ‘I could do this,’ ” says Giorgi.
The ReCYCLEry also has a reputation for accepting people who may not find a home elsewhere. The financially and mechanically challenged are equally welcome. Intimidation is eased away. And that can mean breaking down stereotypes.
Though bike mechanics are almost always male, the shop has graduated 60 mechanics — 43 of which were female.
“You get to build things. I like it because I can come work on other people’s projects, or you can just come and do your own thing,” says Ellen, a student who is a regular at The ReCYCLEry.
Two years ago, she took a mechanic’s class, then spent the summer building up her own bike. Now she brings new people in, especially students at UNC.
“It’s usually in their second year, when they’re like ‘I want to get off campus, I want to go do things, but I don’t have a car.’ And I’m like, ‘You could go get a bike. You could go earn your own bike.’ ”
“You can bring people together from disparate backgrounds,” says Giorgi. “Maybe they don’t even speak the same language, or have anything in common besides the fact that they’re working on these bicycles together. And if you get them to work together, maybe they create a bond.”
The nuts and bolts of bike wheels aren’t the only things coming together in this space. A vibrant, surprising and diverse family can be found down the brick alley on Graham street. If you stop by, you’ll ride out with much more than you had when you walked in.
For more information about The ReCYCLEry in Chapel Hill, visit their site recyclery.org or call 919-533-9196.