The ‘Pay What You Can’ Bike Co-op
The first rule of the St. Petersburg Bike Co-op: It’s not a bike shop. For a total of six hours a week, the co-op at 559 Mirror Lake Drive North is open for anyone to come in and buy a bike or get a bike repair. The bikes are mostly donated or built from scratch by shop volunteers and mechanics. That factor allows prices to be extremely low.
“I didn’t enjoy working for profit,” says shop coordinator Caelan Jeffery. “Working with expensive bikes and pompous people, it’s not for me.”
Along with a fluctuating team of about 10 volunteers, mechanic and co-op coordinator Jeffery runs the show in an equal distribution of power that only a co-op can truly attain. Volunteers are paid with free of cheap bike parts, and the “Build a Bike” program that allows dedicated volunteers to build an entire bike from the wheels to the bell — if they choose to have a bell.
Anyone is allowed to volunteer, at all levels, including those with minimal mechanical knowledge. “We want people to know about this place because we want the bike community to be accessible to everybody,” Jeffery said. “A lot of people think we’re a bike shop, but we’re not; we’ve got something totally different going on.”
Most of the bikes propped outside the small, cement co-op in downtown are on sale for less than $100. There’s a Relic, a bike worth $10,000, on sale for $3,750. A sale like that helps the shop continue running and selling bikes for the low. But most of the time, Jeffery must assess the customer’s situation and charge them for what he feels works for them. It’s not always an easy conversation.
“They have to be vulnerable with me,” Jeffery said. “Not always, but sometimes they have to tell me what’s going on so I can best help them.” That was the case with co-op customer and current volunteer Oeeulio Robert. He’s lived in north St. Pete for over 30 years and identifies as homeless.
With an injured foot, life would be even more difficult for Robert if he didn’t have a bike. So, when he found himself in need of some new wheels, the co-op came in clutch. “I didn’t have no money and with my broken foot, I couldn’t get around just walking,” Robert said. “It would be awful If I didn’t have one.”
A month ago, Robert walked into the building and explained his situation to Jeffery. Robert left with a new bike and promised to pay what he could when he had it. He ended up staying on as a volunteer to show his gratitude. “He volunteered to pay it back,” Jeffery said.
It’s a common story at the co-op, and not one that goes unnoticed by the people it’s helped. Aside from some of the more urgent situations, such as Robert’s, there are people who come in for a simple repair or to browse inexpensive equipment. “We want people who need help to be able to come here, no matter what their need is,” the shop coordinator added.
Room to Breathe
Sitting on prime real estate in downtown, the co-op luckily rents from the adjacent property, the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club. The Shuffleboard Club rents from the City of St. Petersburg for a whopping $1 a month. The Shuffleboard Club then rents to the co-op for $50 a month. It’s cheap rent, but the co-op is always looking for additional funding.
“People don’t realize we rely on donations,” Jeffery said. Whether that donation be monetary or in the form of bike parts or volunteer hours, the co-op is grateful.
Another form of community aid the organization is tentatively looking out for: a new space. Currently, volunteers work out of a small, non-ventilated building that can become sweltering in the Florida heat. “We’re grateful for this space, but it’s small and it’s hot,” Jeffery told the Northeast Journal.
Currently, anyone who wishes to enter the shop must wear a mask. Often, the line of people waiting to enter is maskless, and are given masks to enter. Sometimes, people are upset that they must put masks on, Jeffrey notes, but the co-op isn’t budging in their efforts to be as safe as possible. “I think we’re one of the only places around here that still requires masks,” Jeffery said.
Visit the shop at 559 Mirror Lake Drive North on Mondays or Thursdays, from 6-9:30 p.m.