Wheels hang from the ceiling in the back corner of Tip-Top Cycles, just above a letter of appreciation, handwritten by a customer and taped to the bright blue wall. The customer thanks the shop for parts, advice and for keeping her rolling. Tip-Top, in business since September 2011, positions itself as a hybrid between a bike shop and a bike co-op, co-owner Colin Barry says.
"We try to kind of crash the stereotype of a bike shop," Barry says, referring to the store's welcoming atmosphere. "We never want to talk down to people or anything like that."
Barry and Sarah Taylor, the other co-owner, met while working at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. They use their business to support local artists, too, lining the walls of the shop with their works.
In addition to selling bikes and parts, the shop provides a space where community members can come together, share their love of pedaling and learn more about cycling. Taylor says Tip-Top will host a monthly summer event called "The Back Wheel." The event will include a tutorial covering basic bike maintenance, like how to change a tire or adjust brakes, followed by a small cookout behind the shop.
Barry notes that it seems the primary goal of many smaller bike shops is to just get people riding. To do this, Tip-Top assists people who commute on their bikes, even if they cannot afford a repair or a part.
"If people need to get from A to B and can't really afford it, we'll barter with you. We'll do this work and we'll give you a tire, in exchange for different things," Barry says. "It's not really giving it away for free, but giving it to people for a really nominal cost. And people tend to like that."
Tip-Top is one of a number of stores that emerged in downtown Durham after The Bicycle Chain, a local chain of stores, closed its Bull City location next to Whole Foods and resettled on the incongruous asphalt of a 15-501 strip mall. And Tip-Top isn't the only shop focusing on making bikes more accessible. Other shops such as Durham Bike Co-op and Oak City Cycling Project are also fostering the Triangle's growing cycle community.
Oak City opened the doors of its downtown Raleigh shop in May 2012, and since then, according to Jared Harber, one of the founding owners, the project has become a community hangout in addition to selling bikes.
"We called it a project because it's not just service. We also do advocacy and community outreach, everything from community bike rides to art walks to poetry readings," he says.
Oak City, of course, also sells and services bikes, and repair stands and tools are available for people to come in and use. The shop sells both high-end and highly affordable bikes because the proprietors want to give everyone the option to ride.
"We want to make sure that [bikes are available to] people from all backgrounds, all walks of life, especially service industry folks," Harber says. "We try to take care of everyone because we want to make sure everyone is out riding, enjoying our city and enjoying their time while doing it."
In Chapel Hill, The ReCYCLEry, which began in 2000 as the first bike co-op in North Carolina, is completely volunteer-run. The ReCYCLEry is a nonprofit, and rather than selling bikes, the co-op offers the opportunity for people to earn them by learning bicycle repair. They also hold community events, including a Kidical Mass ride, which is aimed at teaching kids and families about bicycle safety.
In Raleigh, a co-op that was forced to close four years ago is trying to raise funds to reopen. 1304 Bikes is nearing the end of an Indiegogo fixed funding campaign. They hope to raise $18,000, which would allow them to resume their mission of bicycle access and education.
In addition to the co-ops and nonprofits, the small, community bike shop model is still alive and well at stores such as downtown Durham's Seven Stars Cycles and Bullseye Bicycle.
Tyler Kober opened Bullseye in August of last year. The shop sells new and used bikes and does short-term rental. He also created functional art from bicycle parts to furnish the shop, including a bike chain chandelier and a toilet paper holder.
"I feel like the owners [of local bike shops] are all trying to do something a little bit different. All the stores are different enough that people are going to find that niche store that they like for whatever reason, and that works very well for the customer and the people who work in the shops," Kober says.
Back Alley Bikes also bills itself as a shop somewhere between the pro shops and co-ops. Co-owner Jason Merrill describes it as a "fair profit" business and says the shop's small size is actually one of its strengths.
"Rob [Noti] and I are the two owners, and we're also the two guys who are running the shop every day. Compared to most of the bigger shops around that are of the larger, cleaner, well-lit variety, you're not going to find the owners on the floor regularly," Merrill says. "That kind of atmosphere is what I think sets good local businesses apart from the chain stores."
Although many shops have popped up in the last several years, there's an apparent camaraderie among the proprietors. Shop owners don't seem overly concerned with outcompeting their fellow shops, but instead seem to encourage the work of other cycling shops because they share a common goal.
As Tip-Top's Barry puts it, "We're really just trying to get people on bikes."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Wheel access."