‘One more crazy Iowa City idea’: Inside the Bike Library

Iowa City Bike Library Executive Director Audrey Wiedemeier repairs the brakes on a bike. Friday, June 22, 2018. — photo by Zak Neumann

Looking up from the bicycle he was working on, Brian Loring recalled the reaction he got the first time he proposed creating a volunteer-run organization that would fix up old bikes people could “check out” for a modest fee.

“I think everyone thought it was kind of stupid,” Loring said. “It was sort of, ‘OK, it’s just one more crazy Iowa City idea.’”

But it’s an idea that has worked. Since its founding in 2004, the Iowa City Bike Library has repaired and refurbished almost 1,700 donated bikes. Anyone can check out a bike for six months, in exchange for a deposit. The deposits run from $75 to $300, depending on the bike. At the end of six months, the bike can be returned and the deposit is refunded, minus a $50 sustainability fee to cover wear and tear. Or the person keeps the bike and the Bike Library keeps the deposit. Most people keep the bike.

“The whole philosophy behind this is getting bikes into the hands of as many people as possible,” Loring said.

Loring started thinking about a library-style program after observing the Yellow Bike movement while he was living in California in the 1990s.

“You’d spray-paint a bike yellow and leave it out for people to use,” Loring explained. The problem was the bikes tended to be old and there was no system in place to maintain them.

The Iowa City Bike Library at 700 S Dubuque St in Iowa City. — photo by Zak Neumann

“It’s a great concept on some level, but you also need a bike that works to get from point A to point B,” Loring said.

Loring continued mulling over the idea for a bike check-out program after he moved back to Iowa City, where he’d lived in the 1980s while attending graduate school. (When not volunteering at the Bike Library, Loring’s the executive director of Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County.) He knew Iowa City was receptive to ideas that seem eccentric elsewhere.

Finding volunteers wasn’t a problem. Getting city approval wasn’t either.

“I took [the concept] to the city,” Loring said. “The city was doing a youth bike program, and they had some spare bikes.” He didn’t have a fully fleshed-out proposal, but it didn’t matter.

“Basically, rather than try to figure it all out, I said ‘let’s just start something and see where it goes.’”

With a card table at the Iowa City Farmers Market and four bikes in tow, the Bike Library got its start. But not under that name.

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“I think initially we called it the Arts and Community Bike Project, or something stupid like that,” Loring said.

At that first Farmers Market, three of the four bikes were checked out.

As soon as the program began to grow, it became obvious they needed space to work on and store the donated bikes.

“I knew Steven Atkins, the [then] city manager, and I spoke with him and a few others and finally talked them into [providing the Bike Library space],” Loring said. At the time, the city owned the downtown building that had housed John Wilson Sporting Goods and was using it as a storage facility. The Bike Library was given space in the front part of the building.

The current Bike Library storage area. Friday, June 22, 2018. — photo by Zak Neumann

“The roof leaked, so we had this internal gutter system running the water away from us. The ceiling was falling down, but who cares? It was a great space, and the location was fantastic,” Loring said. “The key factor in our success was the location — being right there, downtown with all the foot traffic.”

“The first year was kind of rough, but we got through it,” Loring recalled. The all-volunteer staff brought their own tools and built their own workbenches and tables.

“It’s all about the volunteers. That’s what made this thing work,” Loring said. “We came up with a core of about 15 people who were just solid.”

There’s still one problem the Bike Library hasn’t been able to resolve: space. After 10 years, they had to leave the old Wilson building because it was torn down to make room for the Chauncey Swan Parking Ramp. Since then, the Bike Library has struggled to find an affordable space large enough to accomodate the work it does. The lease on its current location at 700 S Dubuque St expired in February. The building’s owner wouldn’t renew the lease, because he has his eye on redeveloping the property, but has given the Bike Library a series of extensions. Those extensions will probably stop before the end of the year.

“We need about 3,500 square feet of space,” Audrey Wiedemeier, who became the Bike Library’s executive director in May, told Little Village. The fact Bike Library now has a full-time executive director — a position created in 2016 — is a sign of how it has evolved over the past 14 years.

A collection of bicycle forks (a part at the front of a bike frame) rest in the Iowa City Bike Library shop floor. — photo by Zak Neumann

From a few people with four bikes and a card table, it’s grown into a nonprofit where the volunteers donated more than 2,000 hours in 2017. In addition to checking out more than 100 bikes in the past year, the Bike Library also sold more than 200 as-is bikes. “Usually the bikes are in good enough shape that people can take them to a bike shop to fix them up or even repair them by themselves,” Wiedemeier said.

The Bike Library has also launched educational programs. Last spring, it started a program for kids aged 6 to 9, teaching them about cycling and the basics of bike maintenance.

“I have a passion for getting bikes out to kids,” Loring said. “A lot of us see that as part of our mission: making bikes part of every kid’s childhood.”

In the last year, the Bike Library has donated 40 bikes to Iowa City kids through its educational program.

There are now programs six days each week at the Bike Library, and on Friday nights members of the public can rent a bench to work on their own bikes. For $5 an hour, people get a workspace and have access to all the Bike Library’s tools.

Even while facing the imminent loss of its current home, the nonprofit is still reaching out to involve the community.

“We could always use more volunteers. You don’t have to be a mechanic, there’s a place for everybody,” Wiedemeier said. “If you have other skills you think could help a nonprofit bike shop, then we want you.”

Since coming to Iowa City a year ago, Paul Brennan has grown used to its crazy ideas. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 246.