Transition hangs in the air, that unmistakable feeling that something has just moved out and whatever is moving in isn't quite there yet. Furniture is sparse, just a couple of chairs and some shelves. The rooms are cold, as though the heat has been off for a while. Sunlight filters through tinted windows, and somewhere down a hallway and around a corner, someone has left a light on. Otherwise the fluorescent bulbs are dark.
Bob Giordano, 47, sits behind a desk in this dimly lit atmosphere, his stubbled face breaking sideways now and then into a huge grin. Standing, he doesn't quite crack six feet, but his presence is large, and he's usually dressed Missoula-sharp—a heavy wool sweater, maybe, or a button-up shirt, and always a flat cap over a short-cropped ring of hair. As he talks in an easy-going baritone, he passes a grease-stained finger over a map of this property on South First Street, its various components shaded either blue or orange. Orange, he says, marks the spaces currently in use by Free Cycles. Blue denotes areas still occupied by other tenants. This office, formerly occupied by Northern Building Supply, went from blue to orange just a few weeks ago. Other spaces, like the large building that now houses Zoo City Apparel, won't go orange for another couple years.
- photo by Amy Donovan
"This feels natural," Giordano says, describing the slow build to an all-orange map. "It doesn't feel out of the ordinary. In fact it feels very ordinary in a way, and real, and necessary. ... I really couldn't picture a scenario of wrecking balls on this property, and people saying goodbye to the buildings and us moving into some other place. That didn't seem like that was an option at all."
Giordano found himself in a tough spot in late 2015. Developers were sniffing around the Free Cycles lot, attracted by its potential to house new condominiums. As the offers came in, owners Tom and John Hightower came to Giordano with an offer of their own: a buy-sell agreement giving Free Cycles six months to purchase the property itself. The $1.1 million price tag was steep, especially for a shoestring nonprofit.
"That was definitely a unifying moment for us all," says Free Cycles shop director John Bonewitz.
Anyone else might have seen the pitch as implausible, pulled up stakes and moved on. According to Emily Jensen, programs director for Free Cycles and its sister nonprofit, the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation, quite a few folks offered their condolences.
- photo by Amy Donovan
- Ten years ago, Free Cycles moved into its current shop space on South First Street. After a challenging year of fundraising, the nonprofit has gained ownership of not only the shop, but the two-acre property surrounding it.
"They were just very set in the mindset that we weren't going to be able to make the goal, that it was too huge, that we wouldn't find a way to make it work," she says.
Bob Giordano, though, always saw things differently. With every new challengea looming deadline, or the discovery of decades-old gas plant residue on the property requiring cleanup—he'd just smile, nod his head and say, "We got this."
In December 2015, a few days after launching the Cycles of Change campaign to raise the property's purchase price, Giordano was lounging in the Free Cycles bike shop next to a plate of bagels left over from the kickoff brunch. The shop was the usual beehive of activity. The sound of hands scrabbling through milk crates full of spare brake parts and shift levers echoed off the worn hardwood floor. The nonprofit hadn't quite hit the 20 year mark, and tax records indicate Free Cycles' annual gross receipts were less than $50,000. Giordano was oddly calm for a man who had just asked the Missoula community to help him pony up for a two-acre lot in the center of town. In fact, his mind was already several steps beyond that $1.1 million, mulling the prospects for a community bikeshare program and a transportation learning center. Like the wheels on any of his three bike—she rides a road bike, a mountain bike and a cruiser—the gears in Giordano's head are always turning.
There's a lived-in charm to the shop where Giordano spends so much of his time, an atmosphere as pragmatic and abiding as one of Giordano's wool sweaters. The boneyard out back houses hundreds of bicycles of all models, sizes and states of utility. Free Cycles has given away more than 18,000 bikes since Giordano founded the operation in 1996. As for how many Missoulians have come here to tune their bikes, cobble together new ones or simply learn the mechanical basics, Free Cycle's estimate of 200,000 seems fairly conservative.
Funny thing is, a bike shop wasn't even part of the plan 21 years ago. Giordano was still a relatively fresh transplant from North Carolina at the time, having traded the Blue Ridge Mountains for graduate studies in resource conservation under University of Montana professor Stephen Siebert. Initially, Giordano and several roommates set out to put "green bikes" on various corners around Missoula, mimicking a free bike program in Portland as a way to increase local bike use and reduce reliance on automobiles. As Giordano recalls, the group sent a letter to 15 local businesses seeking sponsorship and referring to the green bike initiative as "the beginning of a journey we can't predict." Within two years, it became abundantly clear to Giordano that the effort had stirred something in Missoula, and that the journey wouldn't end with bikes on corners. The fact that people began showing up on his East Essex doorstep drove that realization home.
- photo by Amy Donovan
- Eric Letuzinger, the newest addition to the Free Cycles crew, works on a bike in the shop. He joined the nonprofit earlier this year.
"When we started getting people at our house wanting to use our garage to fix a bike or fix a green bike, that led to, 'We gotta get a place where people can work on their own stuff. We can't have them just knocking on our front door all the time.'"
Free Cycles moved around quite a bit before finding its home on South First 10 years ago. Giordano can still rattle off the history: a garage in the lower Rattlesnake, the back room of the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center, Building 18 at the Missoula County Fairgrounds, a friend's two-car garage on California Street, a shed with no electricity and no running water at the University of Montana's community gardens off South Higgins, and, finally, a rock-walled basement beneath a computer store near the intersection of Higgins and Broadway. Landing that space downtown was when things finally began to feel real, Giordano says, but lugging bikes up and down the stairs was problematic. When the Hightowers put the building at 732 S. First St. up for rent, the timing, Giordano says, was "serendipitous."