Steve Goode has a slight problem. A bent tire, the result of a sharp run-in with a curb, must be replaced.
“I’ll need a decent socket; I’ll see what spares are on the shelf,” he said with the authoritative surety of an experienced mechanic, before turning to a friend who’s scratching his head. “Just give me a minute, and I’ll look at your problem, too.”
The 13-year-old’s skills are in high demand at Sopo Bikes. He can tell you why gears are slipping, how to fix it and whether the spokes you’re looking at are any good.
“I learned it all in there,” he said, pointing a greasy thumb to the modest establishment off an East Atlanta Village parking lot. For more than six years, Sopo has operated as a “co-op” business, meaning it’s a non-profit performing a community service.
In this case, that service is bicycle construction and repairs. “We want to empower people to do all the maintenance,” said Dianna Settles, the shop’s volunteer coordinator. And Sopo has the tools and spare parts to help.
The accumulation of its extensive hardware comes from cash, grants and item donations. Despite asking for $5 per hour spent repairing at the shop or per part used, Sopo has signs posted that no one is turned down for lack of money.
“We encourage people to volunteer if they can’t pay,” said Settles, whose involvement represents the shop’s cooperative ethos. Having built a bike from scratch over three days a couple years ago, she was impressed by the time, skills and patience received from on-hand volunteers.
She now regularly “pays it forward,” helping with volunteer recruitment drives or getting her hands dirty through mechanical tasks.
It’s the kind of spirit that founders Rachael Spiewak and brothers Jay and Stuart Varner had hoped to kindle when discussing the concept all those years ago. The story goes that Stuart one day needed a “crank-arm puller,” an expensive bicycle tool typically used once or twice a year. Knowing that many cyclists are financially constrained yet in need of such tools, he touted the idea of a co-operative with the others.
During the first meeting, attended by more than 100, the building plunged into darkness when the electricity went out. Light was quickly restored–but through bicycles headlights. That moment was a definitive communal spark. What followed was an initial mobile repair shop before the permanent site became available in East Atlanta.
While the co-op business model is rare, the Atlanta area has a few successful examples. Sevenanda, on Moreland Avenue in Little Five Points and where Settles once worked, continues to grow in membership and remains a focal community center for organic and natural food shoppers. Progressive economists argue that such businesses, while able to make money, create tremendous loyalty from customers, who perceive themselves more as stakeholders.
“I’d definitely like to see the idea grow,” said Settles. “It’s about empowering the people of the community instead of the corporation being empowered.”
For more information, visit www.sopobikes.org.