By John Woods
Working at The Bike Shop
As part of my work as a Community Connector at BACI, I met with Jane from The Bike Shop. There’s something going on there that is undeniable. They employ two people – let’s call them Joe and Charlie – who are supported by BACI. The staff there find ways that Joe and Charlie can make a meaningful contribution, and then pay them to do it.
But it’s more than that. Joe and Charlie are part of their staff team in every way. If there’s a gang of folks heading out to a concert after work, Joe and Charlie get an invite. If it’s Charlie’s birthday, some folks from the Bike Shop show up to his house party. If it’s Joe’s, they all go out on the town and have a few drinks. Ex-shop-staff stay in touch with them and hang out every so often.
So I’m out for lunch with Jane, and I tell her I’m interested in the Bike Shop. I’ve seen her before at a conference, talking about how they employ a diverse staff team. It’s inspiring. She starts touching on these points again today as she pours the soy sauce. But after a while I stop her and tell her that this time I actually want to know something different.
I want to know what the Bike Shop’s primary purpose is. I want to know what makes the workplace culture so amazing that Jane is still there seven years later. I want to know what draws people to the shop and what makes them stay – as customers or as staff. I want to know what’s important to her – inside work and out. I see her eyes light up with genuine excitement. Her conversation becomes less rehearsed. I listen.
The Bike Shop began around a decade ago. It’s a registered nonprofit and a social enterprise. A few years back they eliminated all management structure. The workers run the shop directly, and a board gives guidance. The Bike Shop’s mandate is to provide accessible bike transportation to people who are underserved by other retailers for reasons of poverty, mental illness, addiction, gender identity or orientation.
They accept bike donations and re-sell them. They actively encourage people to learn to repair their own bikes using a four-tiered rate scale. For a reasonable price, they will repair your bike for you. For a bit less, they’ll help you a lot as you learn to fix your bike with their tools. For a bit less, they’ll help you a little as you fix your bike mostly on your own. For a bit less, you can use their tools and fix your bike independently. I’m a customer who has slid along this scale, and it has helped me gain independence around repairing and maintaining my belongings. It’s changed how and when I decide that something is finally ready for the landfill.
Jane tells me that most of the staff have been there for many, many years. She tells me that the shop is a culture of mutual support that often includes workplace parties or spontaneous after-work outings. It’s also reflected in their hiring process. They would far rather find a person who is in alignment with their shop’s values and teach them to be a great bike tech than find a great bike tech who struggles with their values. Part of their hiring process involves volunteer hours, and prospective employees always work a shift with Joe or Charlie. Condescension or disrespect towards them is seen as a big red flag.
Jane tells me that this culture is incredibly valuable, and it is a means to an end. Because the shop serves people with mental health and addiction issues, customers sometimes enter the space with their own histories and pains, which can manifest in hurtful interactions with staff. In order for the team to be open and present with their customer base, they need to know that they have strong support from one another. It helps them achieve their primary purpose.
Many of the people who work at the bike store are invested in community organization initiatives. Many of them are also interested in alternatives to the waste of disposable consumer culture and the environmental harm of fossil fuel transportation. Many have had their own experiences of being excluded because of poverty or illness or their gender and orientation.
They stay for years despite low wages because they know their workplace culture is rare and their job is worthwhile. A love of bikes and bike culture is actually not a big motivation for people to work at the store.
For a long time, as we have been trying to foster places of genuine connection for people with developmental disabilities, our sector has been trying to sell the larger community on inclusion as an end in itself. We have found few buyers. Are we taking the wrong approach?
Does an enterprise that focuses on inclusion as an end in itself inevitably and ironically drift towards becoming another sheltered workshop? These spaces have their pros and cons but they are segregated, not inclusive.
What I see at the Bike Store is an enterprise with a mission and a values set. This values set is not inclusion. It contains inclusion – inclusion of people who are underserved elsewhere. But its main purpose is to get them on affordable bikes and to get another car off the streets.
Perhaps as we look for community connections, our organizations should partner with enterprises whose values and missions have just enough overlap with ours – not too little, but not too much either. John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” Maybe inclusion is what happens while you’re busy patching tires.
And while people in my nonprofit sector can learn from this workplace, those in the for-profit sector can learn too. What business – large or small – couldn’t benefit from a dedicated, long-term staff team who support one another through the inevitable stresses of the workday? Or customers who feel great when they spend their money?
I buy my bikes at that store because they employ people I care about. But it’s not just altruism. I also selfishly want to invest in an organization that will invest right back in me if I lose my job and my car and need an affordable transportation solution. That is genuine, radical customer appreciation. That is a vision of reciprocal community. And it’s proving to be a sound business model for the last decade – and going strong.