by Stan Purdum
For the last four years, I’ve been a part-time volunteer mechanic and staffer at a nonprofit bicycle shop called The Bicycle Exchange (BEX) in Plainfield, New Jersey. It’s been an interesting and educational experience, and I’ve written about it before in Road Bike Rider (see “Wrenching at the BEX Pays Myriad Dividends”).
The BEX is a program of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, which provides after-school activities for young people, and for each of the last three years, our shop contributed $15,000 to the Club from the sale of old bikes we’d refurbished, as well as from repairs we made on the bikes of walk-in customers — a service we provided because the BEX was the only bike shop in town. Our bikes were all used and priced below what similar used models sell for online, and our repair prices were very reasonable.
But as of the end of 2019, the BEX in Plainfield is gone.
The decision to close was made by the administrators of the Club, and those of us running the shop can’t fault them for it. The shop operated in the same building as the Club itself, and the time had come where the Club needed the space the shop occupied to accommodate more children. Serving boys and girls is the Club’s main mission, so we understood.
Previously, the Club had programs for younger children in satellite locations within the public schools, but recently, the schools stopped permitting that, so the Club had to bring the young children’s programs in house. There, the teenage club members didn’t welcome being crammed next to the little kids and stopped attending the Club. And fire-safety regulations limited the occupancy of each room in any case. So the Club need the shop space to expand their in-house services to the full age-range of kids.
As I said, we in the shop understood, but it didn’t lessen our sense that something worthwhile was being killed off. Ned Fox, the director of the shop, had been with it the longest — seven years — and unlike me, he was a full-time volunteer. He had been the one to acquire the necessary bicycle tools and maintain our inventory of new cables, tubes and other supplies. He’d set up the bins for parts we stripped from bikes not worth repairing so they could be used to resurrect other bikes. He’d set store policies, trained new volunteers and overseen repairs and customer relations. When the edict to close was handed down, Ned said, with only a trace of irony, “I’ve been fired from my volunteer position!”
At the time the closing decision was made, we had several bikes repaired and ready to sell, and many more in the “bone room” awaiting evaluation to either be fixed or stripped for parts. We also had a bench full of tools and three bike stands. In the last days of the shop’s existence, we sold one of the stands and a few bikes at greatly reduced prices, and donated some parts to another organization that restored bikes.
We also helped load the remaining bikes, tools, parts and fixtures into a truck from the one remaining BEX in the area, the one attached to the Trenton Boys & Girls Club. Their operation is much larger than ours was. We had one full-time and three part-time volunteers. The Trenton shop has 50 active volunteers and their own building, and it contributes over $100,000 to its branch of the Club each year, so the remains of our shop went to a good home.
But all of that felt like picking over the bones of a dead friend, and Plainfield, which is home to many low-income folks, now has no bike shop. Some of our customers, among them men who used bikes from our shop to get back and forth to work, will have difficulty affording the prices at regular bike shops.
Several of our customers were immigrants and some spoke no English, which made for some interesting encounters in the shop, where only one of our part-time volunteers spoke Spanish. When he wasn’t there, the rest of us did the best we could. Sometimes we could find someone in the Club who was bilingual to help us, but they weren’t cyclists and often didn’t know how to translate terms like “derailleur,” “presta” or “bottom bracket” in ways that made sense to the customer.
Ned had picked up a few Spanish phrases that helped, but by the last week, all any of us needed to know how to say was “la tienda está cerrando para siempre” — “the shop is closing for good.”