You can find a bustling vibe in the most hidden and unassuming of places in this town. Even at a bike shop like Falls City Community BikeWorks, where people of all different ages and backgrounds come together.
A glow emanates from an opening in the dark exterior wall beneath a loft and loading dock overhang at 1217 Logan St. A doorway. Walk toward the light and enter. Immediately you are enveloped by a hum of activity. You’ve arrived at Falls City Community BikeWorks or “Falls City” or “FCCB” for short.
A young man in a work apron greets you. After introducing himself as “Ben,” he asks for your name. “Have you been here before? I’ll give you a tour but first you have to read and sign the shop waiver.”
The place is hopping. Individuals and small groups tend to bikes on stands and on the floor. Some work silently. Others take part in conversations across the room as they examine a cable, reach for a cone wrench, or turn a crank. Metal clicks onto metal as a chain jumps from one sprocket to the next, making a whirring sound as it engages. All manner of bicycle repair tools, outlined, labeled and color-coded, hang on the walls above narrow workbenches.
Ben leads you through. “Inside the shop,” he explains, motioning with his arms, “there are five work stations in all.”
It’s a crowded, uneven space. Gritty. With industrial features from another era. A twenty-something male rolls in a 12-speed from the back and weaves his way through to a free stand next to two women who are tooling on a vintage blue bike with wide metal fenders. A large African-American man sits at a truing stand in deep meditation while he handles the spokes of the wheel in front of him and gently spins it forward. Zen and the art of bicycle maintenance.
The shop spills out onto a large courtyard where, illuminated by an overhead lamp attached to an awning. A father and son surround a bike frame up on a stand. Having just removed the headset, they deliberate on what steps to take next.
“Falls City Community BikeWorks,” explains Ben, whose full name is Ben Goldenberg, “is the place to go to learn about fixing your bike.”
In addition to helping out at the shop every two weeks, Goldenberg serves on the FCCB board. He is also Marketing Director at the Jewish Community of Louisvilleand a recent MBA graduate of the University of Louisville.
“But, unlike other bike shops, we don’t do the work for you. Instead, we give you the tools and knowledge to make the repair yourself,” he says.
The organization is volunteer driven, from novice learners who complete an orientation checklist for which they perform needed shop tasks, to greeters like Goldenberg, to the regular mechanics on duty. And everyone in between.
Learn Your Bike
The do-it-yourself learning opportunity was one of the things that drew 26-year-old Jamie El-Mallakh to FCCB in the first place. El-Mallakh bikes everywhere he goes in town because he cannot afford a car. “I also can’t afford to take the bike to a mechanic who can do things for me, so I had to come here and learn how to do it myself,” he says.
Before setting foot in FCCB, El-Mallakh wondered if this would be a place for him. “One reservation I had mentally was that bike shops are for people who already know bikes,” he says. “People who are inexperienced or unfamiliar with bikes are more unwelcome. And that hasn’t turned out to be the case at all. It was a relief that this shop is very welcoming to all types of skill levels. Pretty chill. Pretty independent. You work on your own bike, your own thing, and ask for help when you need it. Relaxed.”
Omar Ramirez, 35, who also relies on a bike as his main mode of transportation, has been coming to the shop for nearly a year. “I found very helpful people here. It’s educational and wholesome at the same time. Very positive. Every time I come in here I learn something different. That’s the reason I keep coming back,” he says.
For long-time mechanic Jim Phipps, 48, “not a day goes by in the shop, when you don’t learn something.” Whether it is a human or a strictly mechanical issue: “You constantly are learning. If it’s just to deal with a person in a unique way: Somebody needs to hear the right thing to say, or if somebody just needs a little help.”
Phipps moved to Louisville last year from Colorado and now lives off of River Road. Prior, this former airplane mechanic lived in many cities and finds wherever he is, he needs a shop as a place to unwind and connect with others. “It’s the best shop I’ve ever found because it’s grassroots. Everybody’s down to earth,” he says. Currently, Phipps works as a remodeler.
Old Louisville resident Samantha Rivera, 25, says that “Falls City offers a no-pressure environment to learn about bikes and create lasting friendships. I’m still learning so much through not only getting aid from knowledgeable people, but making my mistakes and evaluating what I did wrong. For me, hands on is the best way to learn and Falls City is all about that concept.”
Rivera works as a screen printer and recently applied for a scholarship to attend a two-week bike mechanic course at UBI in Ashland, Ore. She rides her bike for enjoyment, and it also serves as her workout. “It actually takes up quite a bit of time,” she says.
A Bike Shop is Born
Back in 2013 Isabella Christensen, who works at the Centers for Neighborhoods, and myself were looking for a space for a kind of bike shop that Louisville lacked. The name and Facebook page existed, but no physical location.
As a recent transplant and a parent going through a divorce, I was searching for a place to bring my kids to learn how to work on bikes. By checking social media and calling around, I found the remnants of a bike collective called Freewheel that was part of the BRYCC House, a community outreach group that had recently moved to an old warehouse on Floyd St. I was given permission to try to resurrect Freewheel in the basement.
Soon invitations were sent out through Facebook to come Sunday afternoons and Wednesday evenings. Important contacts to the Louisville bike community were made including to future FCCB mechanics Seth Short and Andy Dyson
Christensen recounts what brought her there: “It was the summer of 2013, I was in an adventurous mood and got interested in learning how to fix my bike. I tried to learn from YouTube videos, but I didn’t have the kind of tools they were talking about and didn’t understand their language. It was a mystery to me. And so I looked around town to find a place that could teach.”
But the Freewheel location was less than ideal. Too few people took the ride down the freight elevator to the basement each shop day to visit. Furthermore, the BRYCC House was not able to meet its rental obligations.
As Christensen recalls, when faced with the reality that things weren’t working out with Freewheel, “the two of us thought: How hard could it be to start up a place like this? And we were game.”
After spending many months searching for a shop space, an excellent possibility in Shelby Park finally materialized: An underutilized warehouse at 1217 Logan St.
“Both FCCB and Shelby Park found each other at the right time,” says Chip Rogalinski, President of the Shelby Park Neighborhood Association (SPNA). “FCCB’s energy immediately drew positive attention back to Shelby Park’s central location and affordability. More than a non-profit, FCCB is another neighbor and has helped SPNA recruit new residents and interest.”
“By that time we had already written up our mission and it has not changed much since,” adds Christensen.
FCCB is organized around a two-part mission: Providing space, tools, and instruction to anyone willing to learn and practice bicycle maintenance and repair; and channeling the donation of refurbished bicycles to people in need of reliable transportation.
Bicycling for Louisville (B4L), a bicycle advocacy group in Louisville with deep roots, agreed to support FCCB and act as an umbrella organization as the new group launched.
The Open House/Grand Opening Party took place in May 2014.
Outside the Shop
Today, FCCB is a fully-equipped bike shop with more than 400 members and an active board of directors. Membership runs $60 a year but may be paid for by logging volunteer hours.
In addition to normal shop hours on Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays, workshops are offered on a range of bicycle repair topics. Some are a part of community outreach programming. For example, earlier this year FCCB sent a mechanic and mobile repair station to Volunteers of America and to the Shelby Park Community Center and held a series of bike repair workshops for kids.
In February 2017, FCCB plans offer a six-week in-depth course through the JCPS Lifelong learning program. Participants will receive a free year’s membership to FCCB.
FCCB also works on ways to get bikes to populations in need, whether by hosting in-shop events such as the Annual Holiday Hot Cider & Kids’ Bikes Fix’em Up, or by working together with other groups in town like Pedal Power, which aims at making bikes road ready for refugees, or The Broke Down Bike Club of Clifton whose members have recently begun a program to help children learn bicycling skills at St. Joseph’s Children’s Home.