Inside a tiny storefront just off University Avenue in St. Paul, bike fairies magically make people’s pedaling dreams come true.
Well, maybe not fairies. But, for the hundreds of people each year who receive free bicycles from Mr. Michael Recycles Bicycles, it feels pretty magical. You need a bike? They’ll give you a bike. People simply call to register, give their height, gender and type of bicycle they want and Michael and Benita Warns do the rest. There are no income guidelines, no forms to fill out. Over the past 20 years, the Warnses and a team of wrench-wielding volunteers have taken donated bicycles — some in pretty rough shape — and worked magic to make more than 4,500 people, most of them adults, happy. So far this year, they’ve given away nearly 300.
Benita Warns, a retired U.S. Postal Service employee, is company president — running social media, writing radio ads for Hudson-Wis.-based WDGY-AM, tracking orders. Her husband takes care of the mechanical stuff.
“Nobody works in this place,” she said.
“We play with the bicycles,” he said.
The idea for fixing ‘em up and giving them away to those less fortunate was born in 2007, Benita Warns said.
That’s when a chatty 6-year-old neighbor boy by the name of Zeek, who scrounged through alleyways for scrap metal with his grandfather, heard Mike could fix bikes. Maybe, Zeek asked, Michael Warns could help him fix up one of the beat-up bikes they sometimes found in alleys? So Zeek could have something to ride?
But the plan got considerably bigger when the Warnses, volunteering for their annual neighborhood cleanup, were given the task of processing donated bicycles. They learned that, while nice bicycles were loaded up to give away, the rest were to be broken down for scrap. Mechanical engineers by training, they knew those “scrap” bikes were nicer than anything Zeek and his family had.
“So we got the idea,” Benita Warns said. “If there are so many bicycles being wasted in our neighborhood, what’s happening in all the other neighborhoods?”
For years, their home garage was their shop. Now, they rent space on Prior Avenue in St. Paul’s Midway area. In the beginning, they got their bikes from St. Paul cleanups. Now they contract with several suburbs and accept individual donations. They have 10 garages stuffed floor to ceiling with bicycles and parts. The shop is open to the public on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Not everything is free. There’s a selection of bicycles for sale. They also sell parts and do repairs for a fee. The money pays the shop’s bills and buys the parts they cannot scrounge.
The couple, married for 19 years, don’t collect a salary, pretty much living off Benita’s pension. Michael’s been unemployed for three years. They’ve started a wholesale parts business they hope will someday make money. But their intent has always been to give bicycles to those who need them.
“There’s always been enough,” Benita Warns said. “There’s always been enough bikes. There’s always been enough customers. There’s always been enough.”
Stacy Maher, a University of Minnesota employee and single mother, couldn’t believe her good fortune. Her 12-year-old son, Tim, recently had his bicycle stolen and she couldn’t afford to buy him a new one.
“He used his bike to get everywhere,” she said. “It allowed him to be independent.”
When she heard about Mr. Michael Recycles Bicycles (mmrbstore.com) through a co-worker, she gave them a call. On a recent Tuesday, Maher surprised her son with a stop to pick up his new bike.
“They’re a gem — an absolute gem,” she said of the couple who came to her rescue as she put Tim’s bicycle on her car’s bike rack. “They have a customer for life.”