Vulture Space and the Bike Shop Spectrum [From BA 43-500]
"In these types of shops the owner has biked to work for 30 years, there is a bin of used $5 tires, and old biking jerseys and dated accessories from the 70s are sprinkled around the shop."
by Ian Klepetar
Ever notice that there are three types of bike shops? Those that sell bikes, those that sell biking, and those somewhere in between. Having been fortunate enough to have visited hundreds of bike shops in recent years, I’ve seen firsthand the full spectrum. Some have you feeling inadequate to even be in there if you don’t have a bike made of rare metals from the Himalayas (like the one in my hometown) and will even say things like, “Isn’t it cold to be riding a bike?” Others are so “grassroots” that no money switches hands and no bicycle part (no matter how worn) ever has to fear getting trashed. What’s interesting is that how these shops operate will determine, to a large part, how bicycle culture, awareness, and levels of ridership develop in any given city or town.
Before bicycle advocacy groups sprung up, bike shops were the hubs for organizing related events and ideas. The owners were passionate about getting people on bikes, no matter the customer’s age or how much they had to spend. They wanted everyone who stepped through the door to be biking more and built their shops to create a gathering area around that idea...and to help people fix their bikes. However, as capitalism in our country grabbed ahold of a good idea, the focus moved away from selling biking to selling bikes.
There are only a handful of shops that haven’t changed much since those old days of biking. Most have been overtaken in the interest of profitability, expansion, and becoming bike superstores. Many others have died off when their towns became too car-centric and potential customers disappeared. Those shops that have kept to the roots of riding offer a visit to simpler times where biking is fun, accessible, and not about the fancy things that the shop has for sale, but the experience that two wheels can offer. Customers of all shapes, sizes, and income brackets feel welcomed and excited to get biking. In these types of shops the owner has biked to work for 30 years, there is a bin of used $5 tires, and old biking jerseys and dated accessories from the 70s are sprinkled around the shop. The mechanics shows you what they're doing as they sift through your old ball bearings looking for ovalized ones.
These are the bike shops of the past and these are the bike shops of the future. The only difference is that many of the people who are starting these shops are, from the beginning, accounting for profits based on how many bikers they help put on the streets, instead of the amount of money they can stuff into their cash drawer.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is lucky to have an excellent example of a biking-centered bike shop, one that other shops would be wise to follow. Vulture Space (also known as the Milwaukee Community Bicycle Project) has helped bring bike culture, bike access, and bike ridership to the Milwaukee streets. Founding director Evan Pack started the shop with the purpose and vision of doing just that. Bicycle Prom, Bike for Art Sake, and ongoing sales of mostly donated parts and refurbished bikes help pay the bills. Offering free bikes for college students, inexpensive parts, do-it-yourself bike repair, and the ability to build a bike from scratch with reused parts demonstrates a few of the many ways that a small bike shop can do big things for biking in Milwaukee and other cities.
Even when it’s no more than 5 degrees outside, Vulture Space is filled with life and spirit inside. On one winter day, I witnessed two gals building up a bike, one guy trying to true his wheel, and two experienced volunteers organizing a new system that will allow small parts to be found more quickly and easily.
Yerba mate is passed around in traditional communal fashion, people stop in to warm up, and everyone who comes in the shop is treated equally no matter how many teeth or bikes they happen to have. Lawyers come in, doctors come in, students come in—as do houseless folks and everyone in between. It’s for the people and by the people, and what's more, there's an informal sliding scale for payment based on people’s ability to pay and and how often they will be using their bike.
Perhaps through a clear vision and passion, Evan Pack has hit the sweet spot of what a bike shop can be and the many great things that can erupt out of the intent and energy to get more people biking in a city. It’s a shop that brings people and bikes together and is truly the future of bike shops in America. To the lifeless concrete and asphalt of the cityscape, Vulture Space is a flower breaking through the cracks and bringing life back to a world that has lost it.