'A cycling culture' is shop owner's vision

Staff WriterMay 17, 2007 

  • May is National Bike Awareness Month, and this week is Triangle Bike to Work Week. For local events, go to www.gotriangle.org.

— Jason Merrill brews a pot of Counter Culture coffee in his bicycle store every day, free for his customers to sip as they chat.

Next to the pot are a few mismatched mugs, a box of raw sugar and a couple of teaspoons for stirring. The cream is in the mini-refrigerator against the other wall. The couch is coming soon.

But the coffee isn't just coffee to Merrill, who opened Back Alley Bikes last month at 108 N. Graham St. It's one small way he's hoping to help create community: a bicycling community.

Merrill fixes and sells used bikes. He also does repair work for cyclists. His mottoes are "Working Bikes" and "Working Folks."

"My intention is to be an affordable bike shop for people who use [bikes] more for transportation than for recreation," he said.

Merrill shoots for the $100-to-$200 range when selling his used bikes, and that's after he has fixed them up so they're running like new, even if they don't always look new. Some of the bikes lining a wall date to 1970.

"I definitely want to promote a cycling culture," Merrill said. "Automobiles, they remove people from each other. ... There's a lot more chance interaction between two human beings -- and positive interaction -- when people are on bikes."

Merrill said people driving automobiles often react to one another with irritation or worse.

"In cars, the only interaction is usually negative," he said. "That's where culture comes from: from chance interaction, the kind of interaction that's not planned."

Merrill worked as a bike manager in Detroit, where he repaired bikes and taught others how to fix their bikes. Although a lot of people biked out of necessity there -- some people he met commuted by bike 35 miles a day for work -- there weren't a lot of bike shops in the city.

Now, though, he's in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area, where several bicycle shops serve the bicycle-friendly towns.

Chris Guffey, manager of Carrboro's The Clean Machine, said he doesn't see Back Alley Bikes as competition, especially since his store focuses on new bikes.

"We're both focused on getting more people on bikes, and any [shop] that can get more people on bikes is a good thing," Guffey said. "I think it's good to have many options since it's a small area."

Andrew Ochs has begun bringing friends into Back Alley Bikes who are also bike commuters. Ochs, who owns an older bike, likes that the shop is geared toward people who share his passion.

"I like [biking] better than taking the bus because you're on your own schedule," Ochs said. "It's faster than walking. It's good for your health. And it's fun."

Last week, Ochs and Peter Starback waited for Merrill to repair a wheel Starback had brought in. Both bike to work at UNC-Chapel Hill and use their bikes to run errands, such as going to the grocery store.

"I'm bringing in hubs as old as me," Starback said.

So far, he said, Merrill has been able to fix all the parts he's brought in, and for a price that fits his budget. He's happy to give Merrill his business, he said, because he appreciates "the quality of the workmanship, and that he's dedicated to getting old rides back out there."

Staff writer Meiling Arounnarath can be reached at 932-2004 or meiling.arounnarath@newsobserver.com.

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