NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – It’s Thursday afternoon and Anna Hausmann is furiously scrubbing the rust off a blue Sapient. After several minutes, the bristle brush has removed years of neglect from the chain, allowing the tires to move again.
The job of refurbishing old bikes sometimes calls for some elbow grease, but Hausmann and the other volunteers at the New Brunswick Bike Exchange are driven by a passion to promote cycling and physical fitness, the joy of working with their hands, the satisfaction of their altruistic endeavors and the feeling of watching children hop onto their first bikes.
“It’s especially exciting when we have children come,” said Hausmann. “They get so excited when they get their new bike and they drive around. For a lot of these kids, this will be their first bike. Some of our kids bikes go for $10, $15, $20. That’s something their parents can afford.”
Battered BMXs, shopworn Schwinns and others are donated and turned into reliable, safe and reasonably priced bicycles in this garage. Rutgers students often come by looking for a bike to take them around campus, but residents of all walks of life from New Brunswick and beyond have been coming here since 2013 in search of the perfect ride.
Shop manager Harve Moy said the proceeds from the sales of the bikes go to the Puerto Rican Action Board (PRAB), which owns the garage at 90 Jersey Avenue where the bike exchange calls home.
Since 2015, when the New Brunswick Bike Exchange started keeping records, some 700 bicycles have been refurbished and sold, raising about $36,000 for PRAB.
“We feel like we are providing a great service to public,” said Moy. “We love what we do. It’s a great feeling to know we’ve helped many people own a mode of transportation or recreation at an affordable price.”
But if this program is to survive, it’s going to need to find a new home soon.
Moy said PRAB has sold the building and has told the handful of volunteers that they will need to move everything out of the 4,000-square foot garage before Feb. 1.
He said they have reached out to members of the New Brunswick city government and leaders in the community for help in identifying another location that could house the hundreds of donated bicycles, boxes of brake handles, stacks of wheels – as well as the inventory of ready-to-sell bikes.
So far, no one has offered to take them in.
“Of course, if we were to move somewhere else, that entity would receive the proceeds from the sales of the bikes we repair,” said shop manager Nelson Bayas.
One early evening last week, the volunteers were too focused on rusty chains, bald tires, broken pedals, and damaged hand brakes to consider the possibility of closing shop.
These volunteers, much like the people who come on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6-8 p.m. to purchase a refurbished bike, have varied backgrounds.
Moy works at Home Depot. Hausmann is a veterinarian. Bayas is a physician support analyst at Saint Peter’s University Hospital.
They each have a work station in the center of the garage with screws, nuts, bolts and other pieces strewn about. The bikes are held by a clamp-like device that allows them to realign brakes and replace inner tubes.
The back of the garage is filled with donated bikes – some of which are hung on hooks that are held aloft on either side by tall filing cabinets.
Every piece of the bike is either refurbished, repaired, stripped for parts or sold for scrap. Last year, a trip to the recycling center netted $43 for PRAB – a human services organization that has been offering early childhood, youth, family and community services since it was founding in 1971 as a way for a group of Puerto Rican/Latino volunteers to provide English classes to recently arrived Latinos.
Not only was PRAB been gracious enough to give the New Brunswick Bike Exchange a home during its infancy, but others in the community have lent a hand, too.
For instance, Chris Cardelfe, store manager of the Milltown Home Depot, who provided the group with a generous supply of masks, gloves, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although there are similar programs in Trenton and other cities, these volunteers who worked into the evening last Thursday said they will miss the New Brunswick Bike Exchange if should close.
“I would hate to see it go because it’s a rare thing,” said Marcia Stanton, who comes from Branchburg to volunteer. “We’re generating funds for a community program that puts it where it needs to go. It’s all good. It makes you feel good being here, being with like-minded people.”