Sharing the Wealth

December 19, 2014

Louis Krauss

Dozens of used bicycle frame forks are lined up straddling a two-by-four.
Photo credit: Matthew Lester

Being a college student doesn’t come cheap, as prices continue to rise for essentials like textbooks, clothing, and sometimes a bike to get around. However, over the last few years, several student organizations such as the Bike Co-op, the Free Store, and the Book Co-op (SWAP) are becoming increasingly popular options for those looking for more affordable ways to get supplies. In fact, these groups offer all of their goods for free and are even starting to attract the attention community members.

Textbooks often take a big toll on wallets when returning to campus, leading many to search online for better deals than the college bookstore. Recently, SWAP has provided an alternative way to get textbooks. Instead of asking for dollars, SWAP uses a point system that enables students to “sell” old books for a set amount of points, which can then be used to acquire new books for the same amount for which they were sold.

According to management team member and second-year student Natalie Hartog, the co-op aims to allow people to acquire and donate books without exchanging money. “Unlike the bookstore, which makes a profit off students renting books, we have a point system,” Hartog says. “You get points for donating any textbooks you might have, and then can use those points to take out new books. Since each book you take out costs the same as someone sold it for, everyone’s getting a fair deal.”

The co-op is also trying to involve people from the community by offering books other than textbooks. SWAP manager Joe Martin says his main hope for the co-op is for it to become something local residents also use to get books. “While we would like to eventually be more popular than the college bookstore, our more concrete plan is to be an organization that involves people in the community,” Martin says. “We have some non-textbooks, but we want to make it something everyone uses.”

While textbooks aren’t that high in demand for local residents, there are other stores that offer a wider variety of goods, such as the Free Store. Located in the basement of Asia House, the Free Store contains everything from clothes to toys to old computer monitors. Anyone can go in and take up to three items per visit without spending a dime. Students can also donate items, which is where the store gets most of its merchandise.

Free Store worker and second-year Beth Minahan explains that the idea behind the Free Store was to change the cultural norm of throwing something away, even when it may be useful to someone else. “We’re trying to reduce consumer culture and reduce how many people go out to buy something new when there are so many items circling around that aren’t used and are being put in landfills. So instead, people can bring anything here.”

The Free Store has also branched out to encourage Oberlin residents to use the store, which Minahan said is good since college students might not have as big a need for clothes as other community members.

Besides books, clothes and home goods, another item many Oberlin residents need is a functional bike to get around. Thankfully, there’s the Bike Co-op, a group that offers to fix your bike for no money. Primarily an educational space, the aim of the Bike Co-op, located in the basement of Keep, is to show volunteers how to fix bikes by themselves and invite those interested in working on bikes to train for a few hours each week. After working nine hours, volunteers get to make their own bike, choosing from the co-op’s extensive collection of frames, wheels and other parts.

Co-op mechanic and fourth-year Peter Schalch says using the bike co-op is a good investment because it teaches students how to fix their bikes in the future. “People don’t want to spend an arm and a leg to fix their bikes, and I think it’s cooler and smarter to come to us instead, since you don’t have to pay for the parts and you can do it for the rest of your life,” Schalch says.

Walking around the basement of Keep, it’s almost like a sci-fi movie seeing the hundreds upon hundreds of bike frames and wheels people can recycle to make new bikes. One thing Schalch says the Co-op prides itself on is the sustainability of reusing old parts. “Obviously riding bikes is green, but the bike industry—not as much. We’re kind of like a recycling center. People bring us their broken bikes, and we will do things that other shops wouldn’t, like taking a wheel apart to save some little parts,” Schalch says. “It’s a stark contrast from just ordering a bike online and then throwing it away later, so I think that part of what we do is great.”

The Co-op has also done a lot to reach out to the surrounding community. Schalch and a few others held a summer camp for young kids, whom the mechanics taught to build bikes they then used for bike trips. Locals also use the Co-op, but typically just on the weekends when it is open during the afternoon.

Everyone is looking for more affordable college supplies, but groups like the Bike Co-op, the Book Co-op and the Free Store understand that locals need these things too. One thing Schalch thinks is great about the combination of a college and small town like Oberlin is the fact that they help each other. “The fact that college students can give back while also forming these groups that are a lot of fun, is great. It’s really cool to see how we’re bridging the gap to bring everyone together,” Schalch says.

Schalch added that, over the last couple years, he has enjoyed seeing how more locals have gradually been using the co-op, as well as in the summer when they host a bike-repair summer camp for local kids.

These organizations afford students the opportunity to help each other and tap into the common goals between students and locals to make the Oberlin community a more accessible place where no one comes or goes empty-handed.

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