There’s something suspicious happening at the Way of Compassion Bicycle Project in Carbondale. From the outside, it looks like a regular bicycle co-operative or bike repair shop. But go inside, and you’ll see there is something curious about it, like a paradox. Something going on behind the scenes. Something hard to describe.
Walking in, you never know what to expect. Bikes, tools and parts are ubiquitous, but not disorganized. There might be three or eight bikes up on stands, with two to twenty people fussing over them, taking them apart and fixing them up. You will hear the click of freewheels mixed with laughter and clinging tools, scents of metal, rubber, grease and people.
You might come just to see it in action. Or if you want to buy a used bike, have one to donate, or need one fixed. If that’s the case, you might do some of the work, but volunteer mechanics and others will be there to help. You’ll also notice it’s hard to tell who is “in charge.” There are older and younger folks, and middle-agers like me, fixing up bikes and helping others solve issues or find parts. Everyone is a customer and an employee. It’s rare to see such a mix of people working together and alongside each other, making progress toward common, tangible goals. It’s fun to be in the mix, putting together and taking apart simple machines – people working together, making mistakes and friends and progress. True cooperation.
This is where it gets interesting.
When you spend a little time in there, you start to sense something. What looks like a little bike shop becomes something more. More than racks of tools on the walls and wheels hanging from the ceiling, more than just people wrenching bikes. You start to notice it, but it’s still hard to figure it out. Especially when you’re so focused on fixing your brakes or a flat tire or whatever you came in there for.
Eventually you’d see a lean guy with a mechanics jumpsuit and spectacles and that’s Aaron Taylor. He is an enigmatic, unassuming guy and one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. He’s also a skilled mechanic, rider, and teacher. He started the bike project but he’d be the first to tell you, it’s not his. It belongs to all of us. Actually, it’s now a certified 501c3 nonprofit under The Way of Compassion Foundation, and is now officially called The Way of Compassion Bicycle Project. And while it’s still just a little shop in the 3rd Street Center, it’s come a long way in the past ten years.
From the beginning
It was born in 2008 as The Bonedale Bike Project. The “bike pile” and all the tools were stored in a trailer parked in an alley behind Main Street. Aaron and a few others were out there in the dirt lot fixing up broken bikes and getting them back on the road. Then in 2011 they moved to Aloha Mountain Cyclery, and operated out the back door of that shop for a while. Then to a basement room in La Fontana Plaza, which was a big step up because it was inside, and the rent was $200 a month.
Finally, at the start of 2018, it stopped being an “underground” operation and moved over to the Third Street Center. This move brought more exposure, higher rent, and as the organization’s website states, “It has windows, heat, running water, and bathrooms!” Not only that, but the giant bike-pile has moved to an “undisclosed location.” More and more bikes keep coming in. As Aaron says, “used and broken bikes are an almost limitless resource, so they become a really good mechanism to do some good.”
I remember many Sundays at all these locations, with cycle-fanatics wrenching mountain bikes, some older folks with older bikes, bike commuters, and tons of teens and tweens tuning their main modes of transport. I once helped a six year-old put training wheels on her sister’s Barbie bike so she could ride it.
It’s been remarkable watching it grow from an idea into a real community bike space. Aaron Taylor had a vision, and has showed up once or twice a week to make it a reality. That kind of perseverance is uncommon, which may be why the WOCBP feels uncommon when you’re there.
At first, it was just a plan to save bikes from the dump. To date, the WOCBP has completely refurbished over 500 bikes, and repaired thousands more to keep them on the road. But in the process something else has happened, but I can’t put my finger on it.
So I went in there, just to ask the question, “Besides the bikes, what’s going on in here? Why is this place so cool?”
One smiley kid, fixing an old mountain bike turned to me and said, “I mean it’s just like, how people can connect, out of a need for transportation. It’s something different for everyone. Some people just come to help, some need a bike. Everyone gets something out of it. I mean, I met my best friend in here! Plus, I mean, it’s really fun!”
And another guy, with a red t-shirt and short gray hair said, “Yeah, what he said!” And we laughed, and he went on, “It benefits everyone. People like me, who want to give back and participate in something we think is super important. People who donate the old bikes feel good, people who fix the bikes get a satisfaction, and people who come in because they need a bike get a good deal on one.”
That made sense to me. Everyone wins. Which, in today’s world, feels a little weird. Then Aaron said, ”It helps the community just having people out on bikes. But bikes need maintenance. So people learn how to fix the bikes that they ride every day, there’s a sense of pride in that.”
“And it makes the bikes happy too!” I chimed in.
“No I don’t think so, they aren’t sentient beings,” said Aaron.
“Don’t you think they have a sort of spirit? We can be friends with them,” I asked.
“We can project a spirit onto them, and we can be friends. But they are not alive,” he smiled.
“I think they have a spirit!,” said the kid, pumping air into his tire.
“Me too,” I said, though I wasn’t so sure anymore. Right when I started to figure it out, I found another paradox.
I looked at Aaron Taylor with bewildered admiration. For a guy who loves bikes and what they can do for us and our environment, he is clearly focused on helping people. It’s not about the bikes at all.
That’s when it hits me. This place works. People are working together toward a common goal. When so much of our society functions badly, it feels weird to be in a place that doesn’t. People are working together to solve simple problems with their hands and minds. They are respectful and very patient, learning the whole time. Some are learning how to fix a flat. Some are learning to talk to people. It’s really fun to see and be a part of.
In its own tiny way (and every tiny bit matters) this place is making a better world, but it’s also a model for a better world. People working together, fully invested, helping each other and the planet. It’s unsettling, and yet, extremely comforting. A paradox worth checking out.