DIY Mechanic Builds DIY Bike Co-op

Aliyya Swaby PhotoWhen John Martin wanted to convert his vintage commuter bike into a single-speed vehicle, he scoured the Internet for instructional videos and tried to gather all the necessary parts.

Now a few years more experienced, Martin is assembling a bicycle cooperative on Bradley Street in East Rock to help DIY newbies build collaborative community around tinkering with their own two wheels.

Two months into the Bradley Street Bike Coop, he is joining forces with the city’s small but vocal force of cycling enthusiasts to turn a dusty, unused garage into a welcoming haven.

The co-op’s home—at 138 Bradley St—has been in Martin’s family for 90 years, along with the neighboring building. When his dad called him about fixing it up, Martin quit his job as an architect in Boston, moved to New Haven in fall 2014, and started helping him gut and renovate the property.

They cleared out what Martin refers to as a “super corner” of the two-building space, which he began to use for tinkering with bikes. First it started off as a fun side gig. “I love fixing bikes. I love helping people fix bikes,” he said. Then he “formalized” the idea into a co-op.

“We have a huge garage space—three cars deep—to open up and explode into and take over and have fun,” Martin said.

When this reporter brought him a bike with stretched brake cables and frayed cable ends, he immediately suggested taking it apart on the stand to doctor it back to health. Upon fixing that problem, he realized the spokes on one wheel needed tightening near the air valve. Then, he recommended coming back later to learn how to install a fender on the back wheel—to keep from getting clothing muddy and drenched in pouring rain.

Fronted by a large garage door, the inner room is cluttered with hand and power tools as well as parked bike fleets. Stacked densely on one wall’s shelves are fluorescent plastic basins filled with different sized parts and tools: one and fourth-inch lock nuts, one-inch hole clamps, one-inch plastic bushes.

What exactly differentiates a bike co-op from existing stores that offer maintenance services? Anyone can drop off a bike for repairs at Devil’s Gear Bike Shop and pick it up a few days later. Those who “want more out of that exchange” should head over to the co-op, Martin said, “to come do self-guided projects and work on your own bikes” with help from experienced volunteers, if necessary.

People can purchase “memberships,” for full access to the space and a “tool archive” during open shop hours. A day pass costs $10, a three-month pass $30, six-month pass $60, and a yearlong membership is $100. He expects the memberships to start pushing the co-op’s finances toward the black.

An earlier iteration of a local bike co-op, the New Haven Bike Collective, fizzled after several months. Martin said his co-op has the structure and resources to succeed. “The difference for me is that I have a space that I own. It exists and we’re not doing anything with the building,” he said.

Martin helped Joel LaChance and Paul Hammer start nonprofit Bicycle Education, Entrepreneurship, and Enrichment Programs (BEEEP!), whose volunteers fix damaged bikes and provide educational programs for underserved communities. About 100 bikes sit in the co-op now, many waiting to be fixed up and donated or sold through BEEEP! “The real overlap between the two ... is education,” he said.

Martin wants the co-op to be the comprehensive educational tool he never had during his journey from commuting cyclist to sure-handed bike mechanic.

His skills as a trained architect don’t exactly map onto bike mechanics, Martin said. But architecture taught him to be good at solving problems and thinking critically. And it made him appreciate building for a city, in a way that’s less tangible than a blueprint or floor plan. “I could fix bikes all day, but I really want to be part of the city,” he said. “I want to be a community resource.”

After the winter ice thaws, he plans to ramp up the recruitment effort, with open house events, bike clinics, weekly maintenance classes and membership drives. As people join the co-op, they will become the driving force for its future.

“I just want people to be around,” Martin said. “I don’t care if you found it on the street and want to fix it up. Or if you race professionally and just want to hang out and have fun and be part of the community.”

To hear the full conversation on WNHH Community Radio’s “In Transit,” listen to the audio below:

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posted by: Cyclogist on December 23, 2015  3:59pm

Nice! This is great for the New Haven community. Looking forward to checking it out and becoming a supporting member.

posted by: Bradley on December 23, 2015  7:42pm

A few months ago, the front wheel of my clunker of a bicycle was stolen, from outside of a church no less. As I schlepped my bike home, I was thinking what a pain it was going to be to replace it. I ran into John as he was closing up the shop and explained my situation. He sold me a replacement wheel and tire for a perfectly reasonable price. I don’t think the co-op is going to focus on selling parts, but I was very impressed with John’s helpfulness.