The coronavirus has left us all desperate for safe activities. As our collective calendar was systematically wiped clear this spring, people turned to the outdoors as a refuge and an escape from their homes. For many Iowans, that meant greasing up their gears and hitting the bike trails.
The Iowa City Bike Library has been an incredible resource for folks looking to get into cycling, whether for sport or as a clean and efficient mode of transportation, for almost 17 years. Their friendly staff of mostly volunteers teach basic maintenance and repairs, refurbish used bikes to be rented out or sold and get engaged with the community, offering safety training courses.
As the enthusiasm for biking rose, the Bike Library was faced with a conundrum: How could they efficiently serve this rising demand while staying safe? Little Village caught up with Sara McGuirk, the Bike Library’s Volunteer Coordinator, to discuss how things are going at the Bike Library and how they were able to adapt.
What do you consider to be the role of the Bike Library in the community?
We want to provide this community with the support to get where they need to go with affordable, sustainable, quality bike transportation. Beyond bikes, we also provide structured learning resources, socially conscious programming and advocacy for bike infrastructure and the cyclists who make use of that infrastructure.
With transportation equity and mobility justice in mind, the Bike Library aims to grant those who haven’t previously had access to professional, social, economic and even recreational opportunities the means to take advantage of everything a bike can bring to their lives. When we can provide a working bike to someone who would have otherwise been denied access, we’ve accomplished our mission. When someone learns something that helps them become a more confident rider or when someone feels more at home in this community as a Bike Librarian or fan of the Bike Library, I’ve accomplished my mission.
In what ways has the pandemic impacted operations at the Bike Library and that relationship with the community?
At first, the pandemic hit us hard. We’re a volunteer-run organization with (at the time) only two staff members. So, our team of 30-40 shrank to just Audrey [Wiedemeier, executive director] and me. We made the decision right away: No customers in the shop, no volunteers, no board members, just staff and staff dogs.
With such a high demand for bikes during the pandemic, for-profit bike shops with adequate staffing and new items to sell had their own struggles, of course. But, in our case, we felt this major downshift in man/woman/person-power amidst a major uptick in demand for bikes, parts, repair, etc. With only two of us to wrench on bikes, salvage parts, process donations, refurbish checkout bikes, work with customers, the uphill climb kept getting steeper.
We found solutions for most of our operations, and we can say we’re really thriving now. We made changes that we’ve been meaning to make for a long time. However, one really crucial aspect of our mission is providing hands-on education for riders and mechanics of all skill levels. At the Bike Library, we don’t service bikes; instead, we utilize our hands-off wrenching approach to allow patrons to self-pilot and actually fix their own bikes themselves. You pop your chain, you blow a tire, your pedal falls off and maybe you’ve never cranked a wrench on your bike before — maybe you don’t own a chainbreaker or pedal wrench, right? You used to be able to come to the Bike Library, rent out a bench, use the full set of tools and fix everything yourself with hands-off volunteer or staff guidance.
The loss of any safe alternative to Rent-A-Bench (and to new mechanic class offerings) has posed, I think, the biggest hurdle. For patrons who need access to low-cost, do-it-yourself bike repair, our solution has been something like: We’ll diagnose the problem, find the parts for you if we have them and then maybe show you how to fix a flat or do something simple. For a lot of the high-level or more time-consuming fixes, we’d either have to send you to the other regular retail bike shops or offer you the option to just buy a refurbished bike — often one you could get at a lower cost than the cost of having your bike overhauled.
What interesting or creative changes have you made to the Bike Library business model since the pandemic hit?
As a community bike shop built on the backbone concept of reduce, reuse, recycle, this organization was designed with resiliency in mind. We keep a low overhead; almost 100 percent of what we’re working with in terms of bikes and components has been donated.
We weren’t too worried about breaking even. The real problem became: How do we fulfill our mission? How do we get butts on bikes without letting customers into the shop? How do we refurbish bikes at the rate we’d need to in order to meet demand with only two mechanics? How do we teach kids how to ride if there aren’t any youth programs running with which we can partner?
We developed a Curbside Checkout appointment-based system for customers. And, for the first month or so, Audrey and I were working day in and day out on refurbishing checkout bikes. Sales were up, but the solution wasn’t sustainable. We pivoted, and tried instead to create airtight COVID-safe policies for small teams of volunteers to begin coming in. We began to focus on internal operations: How is our inventory organized; how are volunteers recruited, onboarded and retained; how are donations processed?
The quarantine period became like our off-season, with the chaotic in-season knocking at our door all the while. We overhauled operations from the inside-out. We hired a new lead mechanic, the wonderful Drew Boss. And with only small groups allowed in the shop at once, I decided it was time to go about volunteer recruiting and onboarding in a more meaningful, individually tailored way.
For our summer youth programming, we worked with the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County, the South District Neighborhood Association and the Multicultural Development Center of Eastern Iowa to hold individualized bike safety training classes and a Build Your Own Bike Light class for kids in the Broadway neighborhood. We were one of the only summer programs available to kids.
So far this year, we’ve onboarded 15 new volunteers, checked out between 40-50 bikes each month and served 40 children through our youth programming.
What is the plan for the future of the Bike Library for the duration of the pandemic and beyond?
In the shop, we’re going to keep the momentum way up, and we’re going to expand upon the smoother operations we’ve built.
With so much upheaval in the political climate, we’ll be working to keep bicycles at the forefront of movements for positive change. The bicycle has always been a vehicle for revolution; in terms of mobility justice and transportation equity, it can be a great equalizer. How can it be a tool for protesting, for advocacy, for education?
Over the course of this summer, we’ve pivoted from planning our typical annual ride, Farm Cycle, to working on a forthcoming Black Lives Bike Ride Series. The mission is to bring riders to historically significant sites within the Black community as well as Black-owned businesses, while providing an audio-guided component that will educate riders on each checkpoint (e.g., how to support each local business, what the checkpoint means to this community, what we can do even in small ways to counteract injustice).
We’ll have route guides, a digital storymap, a companion playlist featuring Black musicians and poets, fundraising opportunities for our new Black Mechanic Scholarship, and we’ll be offering plenty of volunteer-led small group rides for each route. Get ready to raise it up! Going live in 2021!
How can people help and support the Bike Library?
Our end-of-year giving campaign is right around the corner, and each year local artist Lexi Janezic creates a one-of-a-kind limited edition letterpress poster you should get your hands on! We’re always accepting donations through our website.
If you’re interested in getting more butts on bikes, teaching bike safety, running rides, learning how to repair and maintain bikes, etc., we could always use more volunteers. Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or make an appointment to stop in and meet us!
Brian Johannesen is a musician, talent buyer, and Little Village delivery man. He enjoys nature, mostly. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 288.