Moments after the bike helmet is donated, Steve Miller picks it up and puts it on.
It's a helmet that might cost $40 at the store, but for Miller, it's free -- an unexpected benefit of working on his bicycle at Schenectady's Electric City Bike Rescue.
The 54-year-old Schenectady man is a regular presence at ECBR's open shop nights, which are public and draw a steady stream of teenagers, children and adults to the organization's crowded workshop in the Edison Tech Center on North Broadway.
The space hums with a low-tech industriousness, as skilled volunteers help visitors repair bicycles using the tools, parts and bike stands at the shop.
Essentials such as tires and cable are readily available, and in high demand. Some visitors, such as 18-year-old Luis Medina, a senior at Schenectady High School who tells me he wants to be a car mechanic, are knowledgeable in the ways of bikes and work quietly by themselves.
"I'm putting in new brake cables," Medina says when I ask him about the freestyle BMX bike he's fixing up. "I put on a different seat. I changed the tires. I tightened the bolts." When he's finished, the bicycle will become part of the Electric City Bike Rescue's inventory, to be sold to an interested buyer.
During the ECBR's three years of existence, the organization has seen thousands of bicycles come through its doors. Those in poor condition are stripped for parts, but the others are returned to the streets, to be used for recreation, transportation or some combination of the two.
In recent years, the city and county of Schenectady have taken small steps toward becoming more bike-friendly. New bicycle paths and lanes have been built or planned, and a bike-sharing program is expected to launch this summer, with sites throughout the Capital Region.
Governmental support is crucial to making the area easier to navigate on two wheels, but grassroots, do-it-yourself efforts to improve and promote cycling are just as important.
The ECBR is creating a community of cyclists and also providing a valuable service for those who might not be able to afford to buy a new bike.
Unlike a typical bicycle shop, which tends to be dominated by middle- and upper-class customers, the ECBR's open shop draws people from all kinds of backgrounds. Many of them speak openly about being short on money and needing a bike to get around town.
"I use my bike for transportation, for work," Miller, a plumber, tells me. "I have a driver's license, but I can't afford a vehicle. Money is tight right now." The ECBR has "been a lot of help," he says. "They are kind and giving and beautiful people."
Richard Lazer, a 74-year-old who lives in Schenectady's Lincoln Heights public housing development, was shopping for a bike on one of the nights I stopped by open shop.
"I'm tired of walking," Lazer explained. "I'm killing myself. ... I'm on a low-budget and I want to buy (a bicycle) I can afford."
The ECBR recently hit some major milestones.
It became a tax-exempt, non-profit organization, adopted bylaws and elected a board, and was honored with a well-deserved Good News award from the Capital Region Chamber Chamber of Commerce.
These are exciting developments for those of us hoping the ECBR has a long and productive future in Schenectady.
The Edison Bike Works on Broadway in Schenectady is a flurry of activity.
A bike rescue is a great resource for a community -- Troy and Albany are home to similar organizations -- and Schenectady has benefited from ECBR's work. In addition to open shop, Electric City Bike Rescue volunteers go out into the community and run programs for youth, with the aim of educating, entertaining and empowering.
The Electric City Bike Rescue doesn't give bikes away, but it does sell them at much lower prices than anywhere else, and pricing is flexible. One option for the cash-poor is to volunteer in exchange for a bike.
"We've sold bikes for as little as a couple of dollars," David Davis, one of ECBR's founders, said. "We don't just give bikes away. We ask for something in return."
On the night I met him, Davis was helping 12-year-old Kenny Frederick, a Mont Pleasant resident, fix an old BMX bike discarded near his house. The bike was mounted on a bike stand, and Davis patiently guided Kenny through the process of replacing the brake cables.
"This bike is going to be ride-able when he leaves tonight," Davis told me.
Like many of the bikes serviced by the Electric City Bike Rescue, the old BMX bike doesn't look like much. It's a little beat-up, a little run-down. But it will enrich a boy's life, and that has real value.
The ECBR's open shop runs from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Edison Tech Center in Schenectady. The organization's first bike-fixing community event of the year will be held May 13 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Bridge Christian Church at 735 Crane St. in Schenectady.