Taking the High Road 

When deciding between bike shops, sometimes it's the big things that make a difference.

There are people who spend all day thinking about bikes. They fix them, they build them, they buy them, they sell them. And then there's everyone else, those of us who think about bikes only when they stop working, or when we need a new one. Given the dizzying abundance of bike shops throughout the East Bay, the decision to visit one after a prolonged reprieve is often marked by a particular affliction known as bike-shop paralysis. It's enough to make one reach for a skateboard.

But consider this: A host of East Bay bike shops set their moral sights beyond simple good service and fair prices. Dan Woloz opened his eponymous shop Bike Man Dan (5927 San Pablo Ave., 213-8356, BikeManDan.com) in North Oakland in March, with the goal of democratizing bike repair. He charges for labor on a sliding scale: Patrons pay what they can based on a suggested price. So not only does he offer sales and service, but also that warm, fuzzy feeling. It could flat-out cure bike-shop paralysis.

Housed in the basement of an old bungalow situated conspicuously amid commercial establishments, Bike Man Dan may be the East Bay's smallest bike shop. In all, it totals about 200 square feet. The ceilings are seven feet high, the floor is cement, and the walls consist of bare white drywall; it has one bench, one stand, one tool rack. But the well-trained Woloz has all he needs here, and can perform a full range of services at some of the lowest prices in town. Even his parts are cheap, since he almost always employs refurbished ones.

Most customers pay the suggested rate; some pay more; some pay less. In the end, it all works out. The intent is to not price anyone out of bicycling — especially those who are more interested in utility than sport. "I really want to serve the commuter, the everyday cyclist," Woloz said. "That's how I got into it, because I wanted to get places without using a car."

Street Level Cycles (84 Bolivar Dr., 644-2577, www.WatersideWorkshops.org/slc/) in West Berkeley is similarly geared toward making bike repair available to the masses. In this case, however, the masses do the work themselves. Located at the north end of Aquatic Park, the shop is open four days a week for customers, as it were, to walk through the front door, throw their bike up on one of the six public stands (assuming one is available), and get right to work — entirely for free. Tools, lubricants, and guidance from experienced staff and volunteers are on the house. Only parts, of which there are many on hand, both new and used, require a fee.

Naturally, the shop's services are in high demand. Founder and director Chris Thompson said its six stands are usually full, often with a line leading out the door. The shop also sells a huge range of fully built bikes — everything from a $20 department-store Huffy to a $550 1970s Raleigh road bike was stocked recently — but its economic model would seem somewhat tenuous. Indeed, the nonprofit shop relies on graciously low rent from the city and regular donations of cash, bikes, and parts to stay afloat. But it's all for a groovy cause; on off days, Thompson and other staff help teach bike repair and business to local youth, many of whom end up helping out at the shop.

Over in Alameda, Changing Gears Community Bike Shop (650 W. Ranger Ave., 995-1478, ChangingGearsBikes.org) takes a straight tack toward community building. Known as Cycles of Change until last October, when it entered into a new partnership with Berkeley's Earth Island Institute, Changing Gears is another nonprofit that serves a higher ideal. Proceeds from sales and repairs aren't an end to themselves, but part of the funding mechanism for the shop's more civic-minded endeavors, such as providing on-site job training to the homeless, offering volunteer and earn-a-bike opportunities to both youth and adults, and leading bicycle field trips. Changing Gears also operates a community repair shop; use of the tools and stands runs $5 an hour.

Housed in a cavernous warehouse near the former naval air station at Alameda Point, the shop has a huge supply of used bikes on hand — often, donated bikes that have been fixed up for resale — and provides repair services to the general public. Among the East Bay's do-gooder bike shops, it's one of the largest and most securely funded.

Bikes 4 Life (1600 7th St., 452-BIKE, bikes4life.com) in West Oakland, recently opened a new shop as an outgrowth of its annual group rides. Every third week in July since 2007, the organization has thrown a massive bike rally through the streets of Oakland; the events typically draw upwards of four hundred people who might otherwise never congregate in the same place. Bikes 4 Life manager Tony Coleman says the ride has helped break down social barriers. "The ride is the most diverse critical mass in the Bay Area," he boasted.

The rainbow of folks represented at the first Bikes 4 Life rally told Coleman he was on to something. So he hatched a plan for a community bike shop. With significant support from staff at The Bikery (2289 International Blvd., Oakland, 536-6732, TheBikery.weebly.com) — they gave Bikes 4 Life its first wrench, and let Coleman order parts through their accounts when he was just getting started — the Bikes 4 Life shop officially opened this past January. "We're really here to service the community," Coleman said. "We work with at-risk and troubled youth dealing with the transition from the system. We've basically been a resource for them."

Back in Berkeley, Recycle Bicycle (3121 Sacramento St., 666-1300, recyclebicycleshop.com) has been preaching the used-bike gospel since 1997. Not long ago it moved across Sacramento Street to brighter and more spacious digs. Manager Patrick Smith said the shop's goal is to get people on bikes as easily and quickly as possible. That means lots of used bikes and parts (hence the "recycle" moniker). The shop picks up quality bikes at auctions or through trade or donation, fixes them up, and sells them on the cheap — from $100 up to about $650.

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