Training wheels

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Handmade signs, mismatched chairs and a myriad of shapely old bikes lend Third Hand Bicycle Cooperative the cluttered charm of a neighborhood garage sale. With bikes priced lower than a tank of gas, most anyone can afford a two-wheeler at the co-op, but organizers aim to deliver more than just a bargain.

"Sales are how we keep running, but the main emphasis is to teach people," said Justin Morse, Third Hand co-organizer.

Most people don't realize how easy fixing a flat or shooshing a squeaky brake can be, he said. Teaching riders to work on their own bikes, and become self-sufficient in the task, parallels the co-op's hope of encouraging environmental sustainability.

In the garage behind the sales floor, Gregory Gross carefully lubricates a seat post with a greasy toothbrush. He's one of nearly 200 volunteers who make the shop possible by helping guests fix their bikes for free. "You don't want to pay a mechanic $15 an hour for something you can do yourself," he said.

The nonprofit bike shop relies on donated bikes, parts and supplies to operate. Modeled after bike co-ops found in other cities, Third Hand began very quietly in 2003. As it grew more successful, the shop relocated from the back of a record shop to a member's garage to its current location in a Victorian Village storefront.

Often bustling with customers and volunteers, the co-op feels like a bazaar permeating with clanking sounds and odd sights. In the garage, brake cables drip like waterfalls next to bins of old parts. Wheels hang from the ceiling, while tubes and tools clutter the floor. There, bike techs perform life support on old cycles - anything without a pulse will be recycled.

Third Hand estimates they've sold more than 500 bikes this summer, and many of those would otherwise be destined for landfills. The co-op's inventory constantly changes, but customers can always count on helpful, no-pressure purchasing advice. Most of the shop's cycles are priced at $40, and on occasion, gems like vintage racing bikes or shiny-new cruisers turn up.

"We've been selling way more bikes than usual this year," said Nate Biroschak, a shop co-organizer, crediting rising gas prices and the co-op's new location.

The bike co-op's organizers have changed over the years, but they've long avoided any hierarchy of power. Third Hand belongs to the shop's many volunteers. Helping hands contribute to all the organization's duties - not just wrenching bikes - and they can use their hard work to earn credits toward purchasing bikes, parts or stand time.

Third Hand's effort to make cycling a part of everyone's lives has made the shop a rallying point for the city's appreciative riders. The co-op organized a ride-and-camp outing this summer, but it largely serves as an outlet for cyclists to promote their own thriving, two-wheeler activities.

"[I think] Columbus is one of the more bike-friendly cities out there," Biroschak said.

Third Hand Bike Co-op is open to the public 6-9 p.m. Wednesdays and 12-6 p.m. Saturdays.