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Ottawa's reCycles searching for new home as COVID-19 keeps its volunteers busy

The DIY bike shop, currently located on Bronson Avenue, isn't sure where it might end up next.
The shopfront window at reCycles, on November 3, 2020. Kieran Delamont/

For the last 10 years, reCycles had found a home in a low-slung building at the corner of Bronson Avenue and Gladstone Avenue, that dated back to the 1920s and had been used to manufacture cemetery headstones.

Passing by, this might seem like an apt metaphor, where in place of tombstones were rows of old, beat-up bicycles. 

But reCycles is not some kind of bike graveyard, nor is it a sketchy chop shop. There, the task at hand is to breathe life back into old bikes, and to get them back on the road at as low a cost as possible. 

“Our mandate is to help people put more bicycles on the road by providing affordable, recycled bikes to folks who want them,” says John Gibson, one of the many long-time volunteers that makes the place run. “We also want to provide low-cost access to a fully-equipped bike shop, so that people can maintain their bikes in safe working order, and extend the life of the bikes they have.” 

reCycles has been around, in one form or another, since 1996, Gibson says.

Originally, it was run out of a donated space in the Gloucester Centre. As a nearly entirely volunteer-run operation, money has never been in great supply, but especially in those early days, the DIY character was particularly pronounced.

“After a bit, folks realized that it would make sense to have a more stable presence rather than being beholden to the kindness of landlords, who of course could rent the space at any moment,” Gibson says. 

Government grants helped them rent a small room on Nelson Street in 2000, “surrounded by rock bands who were using the area for rehearsal space,” and then to a slightly larger space in 2005, and then another space, larger still, in 2008.

By 2010, they took up residence in their Bronson Avenue location, and have been there ever since. 

Places like reCycles offer something unique in the transportation landscape, a spot where the emphasis is not on expertise but on empowering people to learn the skills they need to sustain a strong cycling community. They are not flashy bikes, nor are they always all that pretty. What they are, is functional. 

“One of the reasons that I still really enjoy volunteering with reCycles is the stories I get about somebody who comes in, who faces an hour-and-a-half just to get to work, and then back again with three bus transfers,” he says. “They spend one month’s worth of bus money on a bicycle, and suddenly they’ve got transportation to work how they want it, and their radius is suddenly twenty clicks in any direction.” 

Demand has always been there, as reCycles serves more than 4,000 people a year, and since they started have recycled more than 10,000 bikes. No small feat for an operation with one part-time coordinator. 

The used bike industry has been booming during COVID, with uncharacteristic shortages everywhere.

“We’ve seen that first hand,” Gibson says. Even with all the restrictions they’ve had to put in place, “we’ve had more donations this year than last year,” Gibson says, and the lineups for their twice-weekly bike sales often begin forming well before opening. 

Which is not to say COVID hasn’t posed challenges for the shop, which thrived on being a shared space.

“We did have to close down our do-it-yourself [services] early in the spring,” Gibson says, calling it “one of the things that affects us most deeply.”

The bike shop, he says, is a social space, a space where “you get to hang out with a group of like-minded individuals who are also outside cycling and cross-country skiing and enjoying the city.” It is a space where, over the years, Gibson has seen countless people discover a love and aptitude for bike repair that they might not have ever known they had. 

But now reCycles is once again looking for a new home.

The owner of the property recently sold the building, and reCycles finds itself once again on the move. But to where? TBD, says Gibson. 

“We’re looking for something not too fancy, because we are a bike shop; something that has maybe 1,800 to 3,000 square feed, with good access for people who are going to take transit, or ride their bikes, or walk to the doorway,” he says. “High ceilings would be a real plus, because then of course we can put our shelves up. That’s really it.” 

One thing is for sure though — reCycles is going to live on, somewhere, in some form or another. “We will be in business,” Gibson says. “We just don’t know all the details yet.”

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