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I've always liked the idea of a group of people getting together to improve the community in a practical, meaningful way. I mean, don't get me wrong, advocating things like equality, justice, and the ever-nebulous concept of freedom are certainly important, but at the end of the day, these are just abstract concepts. Very important, but abstract.

A lot of concepts that should have more practical application generally just get an enormous amount of lip service: Reducing your carbon footprint, losing weight, conserving gasoline. And here's a huge example: Grassroots charity.

Right here in Columbus, Ohio there is a grassroots nonprofit that assists all comers regardless of circumstance in reducing their carbon footprint, getting and staying fit, and conserving fossil fuels. It's called Third Hand Bicycle Co-op, or just "Third Hand" for short - and it's awesome.

The building itself is nothing to be excited about, really. It's a converted commercial property that may have once been a single-car auto mechanic's shop. The front, where a waiting room probably used to be, is quite literally full of bicycles. There are a few tenuous footpaths for browsers, but it's clear that space for humans is a secondary consideration.

At one point in their lives, they were all donated to the co-op, most of them totally trashed. Volunteers take the trashed bikes and fix them on their own time in the co-op workshop with donated and scavenged parts. Once the bikes are mechanically sound, safe, and ready for a new life, the co-op sells them at prices so low that at first I thought the price tags were for individual components.

The back room, the workshop, is where the real magic of Third Hand happens. Sorted and inspected used parts are organized into bins, drawers, and tubs. The walls are lined with tools, including many specialty bike tools. There are six professional bike clamp stands on the floor. Volunteers circulate to answer questions, offer opinions, assist with tool use and part hunting, diagnose problems, and most important of all, teach customers how to do whatever needs to be done to their bikes.

Third Hand does not charge for rack time. You bring your broken bike in and the bench, tool use, and expert advice and instruction (if you need them) are all free. You pay only a pittance for the parts you might need - I picked up a complete rear pivot brake assembly, cable and housing, and various small hardware for mounting and fitting for $3.

The place is always a madhouse during open night. People come from all over the city to adjust brakes, rebuild cranksets, grease bearings, restring spokes, change handlebars, and re-index shifters. They come in knowing "it doesn't work" and they leave not only with a fixed bike, but knowing how to do something themselves that might have cost them $100 at a bike repair shop.

The philosophy is simple and effective: Make decent bikes affordable, and help people to help themselves. Build a bicycle-friendly community by being friendly to bikes, and friendly to bike riders.

There is no snobbery, either, or at least if there is a tight lid is kept on it. It's interesting to see someone with a $4000 bike take a break from doing micro-alignment on his fixie drivetrain to go help someone who was just told they need to rebuild the crankset on their $20 yard sale Huffy, but doesn't know how to put air in a tire.

I live right around the corner, so I expect if you stop by with a bike problem, there's a good chance I'll be there to help.

Hours and address, among other things, on the official website: http://www.thirdhand.org/

Yes, "Third Hand" is a two layered triple pun - it's a play on "second hand", as well as a reference to a specialty bike tool, which in turn is a way to do the work of three hands with only two, hinting at the volunteer instruction and assistance.

Since the original writing, Third Hand has moved to a larger shop, just a bit down the street from the old one. I moved across the city, and don't make it down too much anymore.

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