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Back Alley Bike Repair will close at the end of March + A letter from owner Ben Rainbow

Photo of the Back Alley Bike Repair shop entrance from shortly after it opened.
The shop entrance in February 2012. Photo from Back Alley Bike Repair.

Born from the ashes of the of old Bike Port, Back Alley Bike Repair opened on this day, Valentine’s Day, in 2012. It was one of three bike shops that opened that week.

Since then, Back Alley Bike Repair‘s small but unique shop in the middle of a Pioneer Square alleyway has been a vital resource for people biking downtown as well as a hub for the bike scene. So it was heartbreaking news to receive a note from Ben Rainbow that they are shutting down after 12 years.

They are already cutting back service, and things will be on sale from now through the end of March.


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“It’s been a wild ride and although this notion has weighed on me for the better part of a year,” said Rainbow. “I wanted to honor what we were able to accomplish and end things on my terms and a high note.” He said he’s keeping his plans for what comes next under wraps for now, but that he’s “super excited.”

The shop recently launched a limited run bike in collaboration with RatKing Frames called The Lost Highway. It’s a high note to go out on.

The closure is just latest in a troubling trend of Seattle bike shops closing their doors as the bike industry as a whole is confronting a hard swing back after years of high demand and low stock. This means it is a good time to buy a bike, but it also means that bike shops are struggling to keep the doors open and wrenches turning.

A letter from Ben Rainbow:

I used to joke that the City of Seattle ought to love Back Alley Bike Repair because we’re finally making taxable transactions in an alley. Of course that wasn’t the only reason we opened up in a covert location.

It was a little over 12 years ago at a First Thursday ArtWalk and I was invited into the tiny backroom of a 125 year old former hotel for loggers, miners, and gold rushers. The property manager of the Nord Building pitched the idea to me of operating a bicycle repair shop from within its charming bricked-out respite from the alley. I don’t recall who else was there that evening as my eyes cruised over the (321sq/ft) layout of barred windows and lack of electrical outlets, except for Desmond, who I knew as a customer and everyday rider from JRA Bike Shop, the tiny shop I worked at 2 blocks away. Knowing I was being asked to ascertain the viability of an “odd” space, I asked him to join me for an early evening glass of wine and to glean his impression of the space.

“Too small” and “where are you going to work on the bikes?” were his deductions. “It’s perfect” was all I could muster, ideas churning faster than words would allow- typical me.

These first thoughts began to articulate themselves into a rough concept for the shop. Beyond providing service to riders of all walks of life, I believed that we had a role within the community and should preserve the dignity of the vulnerable that inhabited this landscape before us. Compassion was a trait I learned from my mother, a Buddhist and beautician, who answered to the call of feeding the hungry. Simple acts, performed selflessly, hold such great power. Simple things like asking a stranger how they’re doing or if they like their bike. Acknowledge them. A basic 4-5-6mm 3-way Allen tool with a swiftly applied couple of adjustments to a brake or seat post sometimes meant they could show up at a job interview on time, or get into the shelter, or feeling a good roll. Having created a safe space inside was spreading outward into the alley, like a smile.

In setting up shop in an alley, I believed the curated bike shop atmosphere was a bit of a place for discovery and connecting. What drew me in were the ideas of Bikes, dynamic art, growth mindset, a diverse commingling of equity, expertise and community. It should be the prescription for any of Seattle’s aching or unsavory alleys. The first handful of years were about establishing dependability. We were the hungry underdog with much to offer and competing with no one but ourselves. We challenged ourselves to be a little bit better than the day before, stoked on all kinds of bikes, riding them and making it up as we went. Our community grew throughout the region. Though incredibly challenging, I’ll look back most fondly on the past handful of years. Beyond sharing the joy of cycling with so many others, I discovered a deep well that invigorated my curiosities, which in turn allowed me to re-envision the shop after incredible hardships. In that space, I also discovered my desire to expand my work beyond a shop in an alley.

We’ve grown personally and as a business from the awards and accolades. We’ve enjoyed the exposure from the countless product placement photo shoots from within and around the shop. We’ve lost count of the profile pics posed for in the alley, the numbers are lost in the manifests of alley cats, wedding cakes, Artwalks, music videos, dj sets, skate edits, commercials, dance parties, drug deals, BAW pics (bike against wall), out-of-towner “oh’s” and in-town “ahh’s”. Not to sound too corny but, Bikes make us Family. And if the alley was a living room, then the shop was our secret hideout.

My version of success was pretty simple at first – if we could attract professionals from the neighboring work spaces to bring their bikes in for service in the morning and have them return at the end of the day to pick-up and they were still smiling, we won. Their nonverbal cues would indicate to us that we had succeeded in creating a meaningful safe space. A disarming place to offer our best effort to maintain their preferred mode of personal transport to and from work and wherever else they’re off to. Having such loyal female customers, clients and colleagues in such a male-dominated activity felt like a bit of win. Our regulars brought their friends and colleagues in at lunch time to share their little secret gem of a bike repair shop. We’d go on to build them their new bikes, with supple tires and smooth fenders and Dyno light systems. We’d put baskets on their bikes before they were in vogue and encourage them to keep the weight (and sweat) off their backs. We’d give them those low low gears for making buttery tracks up the steepest inclines. We’d enhance their love for bicycles and the city and for moving through the city with friends.

We had little idea what or how these folks went about their business from 9-5, but their bikes would tell us all about how they got there and often times what they would do for fun on the weekends. We’d hear it ALL THE TIME “my favorite parts of the day are going to work, and away from work”. And folks were generous with their gratitude for facilitating their best of selves. And through those relationships we nurtured, we could express our gratitude to them for taking us along on their ride.

For the past dozen years, the community of friends and clients fueled the incarnations of team chemistry within the shop. I’m grateful for every one of those who expressed their talents to our customers and myself, by those whom nurture the craft of bicycle repair. To witness personal and professional growth with an “Ahh hah” is a magic moment, a thing of beauty. The bike shop is a special place for “pro tips”, “method” and information exchange and Back Alley generated that essence and convergence for people of incredibly diverse backgrounds. In a freaking alley of all places.

I’ve observed virtuosos learn to pluck for relative spoke tension and then had our front door stomped in by smash and grabbers, violated by those who just cannot help themselves but do harm unto others. We’ve created some stunningly beautiful machines of freedom for equally amazing and deeply beautiful people. We engage with and preserve the shredded dignity of our most vulnerable and outwardly grotesque community members, and felt their gratitude as their faces softened to say “thank you, sir”. I’ve even seen the day when those who can break free from the brutally vicious cycles of desperation and accept the responsibility of a new job and sense of purpose. They’d come back and tip $5. It’s literally amazing. And then we step out, into the column of light that cleaves the alley like a sign from the heavens that everything just might be alright.

But this chapter is over for now. I’ll write something more about it sometime, maybe you’ll see it. Maybe you’ll recognize yourself in that story and that time we shared together will come flooding back like the light that cleansed the alley clean. Or maybe it will resonate like that bike ride we took from our front door around the mountains, to that unbelievably beautiful place overlooking the still water and the mountains beyond. Or just maybe, during the quietness of a long hill climb you’ll recall our conversation about drivetrain hygiene and that a clean bike is a fast bike. Maybe not. And that’s cool, too. Either way, and whether you knew it then or not… it was actually amazing. And for that, my humble gratitude.

Photo of the counter in the shop with a cat statue and a sticker that says shot hitting me with your car.

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Comments

25 responses to “Back Alley Bike Repair will close at the end of March + A letter from owner Ben Rainbow”

  1. Gordon Padelford

    Thank you Ben for running a great shop with integrity and kindness. /i was one of those happy customers when I worked in Pioneer Square. Best of luck on your next adventure!

  2. Cathy Tuttle

    What a beautiful letter.

    Thank you for sharing what your shop meant to you. I know if meant a lot to me.
    See you on the road sometime.

  3. Jean White

    Hi Ben, I was one of those happy return female customers. I miss bike commuting (my old office sent its staff to work from home) and I no longer work. You were always so helpful and kind. I felt respected by you and your staff. Best wishes!

  4. Bob Anderton

    Say it isn’t so!

    As one of Back Alley’s customers who has dropped off quite a few bikes to be picked up at the end of the day, finally shifting or braking correctly, fitting me better, or undoing some misguided fix I attempted, I will miss your convenient if hidden presence in Pioneer Square.

    I hope that you will remain a part of Seattle’s bicycling scene and will find a new way to continue to make Seattle a better place.

  5. Molly

    AaaaH nooooo! I know it’s been a few weeks since I towed a lotta bikes over there but I’m never done doing ridiculous things to the family fleet! You’re the flat ride w my f’d up bike, the place that puts on baskets, I mean sure you don’t share my love for double leg kickstands, but I’m devastated.

  6. tyler boucher

    lovely words, ben. thank you for your contributions to our community.

  7. Ben P.

    Take care Ben and all the current and former Back Alley staff. You all have been so helpful the past 12 years. You built such a community. The neighborhood, city and world has been made a better place. Let us know how we can support you in the future.

  8. Jess Zimbabwe

    Dear Ben: Sending love and appreciation for a job well done and a community well-served. Looking forward to seeing what comes next, from your former cousin. :)

  9. Steve Durrant

    Ben, you are a beautiful man. Thank you for your thoughtful strokes. We are all looking forward to your next lap.

  10. Mike

    Hi Ben, Loved reading your story. Wishing you success in your next chapter. We’re a dying breed. 😭 Mike Williams owner Brampton bike and ski in the U.P..

  11. Al Dimond

    Something in there about the power of bikes… or the power of people that bikes bring out.

  12. Simon

    This is sad. While I’m probably not the most frequent customer, they were an awesome place that was convenient for various nick-knacks, helped set up our rental bikes, and the people involved were always great to talk to.

    Wishing I knew this was coming – perhaps I would have visited it more often.

  13. Weston Hein

    Back Alley will always be remembered, thanks for all you’ve done Ben!

  14. James Grindle

    Truly a sad day for Seattle, bicyclists and vital alleys. So many amazing experiences, thank you for being a conduit, facilitator and fixer. Truly a unique space from a unique human

  15. Jack Whisner

    Thank you Ben. You helped me. You helped Lisa Quinn who worked downstairs for Feet First. I meet Benedict Wheeler, aka Ultra Romance, in your shop. You built an Elephant NFE for Rob Harrison. May your next adventure be profitable.

  16. Aaron Gannon

    The folks at Back Alley Repair have saved my butt twice. Last April, my wife and I were en route to a weekend away at a hotel in Bothell when I blew out a spoke (I eventually ended up replacing the tired rim). The folks at Back Alley Repair got me sorted out while we had a coffee around the corner. Six months later, they helped me out with a flat on my commute home. I was very grateful on both occassions. They’ll be sorely missed.

  17. Becca Aue

    Noooo! What an irreplaceable asset to the community your bike shop has been. You are such a kind person and have been so helpful. Back Alley Bikes will be sorely missed, but I’m excited for you and your next adventures (maybe something to do with bike packing??). Cheers, Ben!

  18. Mark

    Great letter – well started words about the power of the bicycle to build empathy, connection and community. I will be forever grateful to Back Alley for helping me recover my stolen cargo bike as your staff bravely locked the bike up until I could arrive to claim. You refused any reward but I bought some new pedals anyway – had to do something!

    I truly wish you success and smooth riding on your next adventure.

  19. Peter Clitherow

    Boo hoo. I’ll be very sad to see it go, even though I have only been in there a few times. it was so nice to know it was there, conveniently a few minutes from my work. I hope there’s still a market for a downtown bike store.

  20. Joseph Roberts

    You always had time, and usually just the right part to get the job done. I loved knowing that Back Alley bikes was … well … in that back alley! All my best to you and the staff. Thanks for the years you gave us, and best wishes for your next chapter!

    And yes, I’m very sad you’re closing :-(

  21. Amy Kate

    Back Alley is my safe space mid-commute. Knowing it was there–offeirng great advice, a nonjudgmental welcome, and affordable, fast repairs–made it much easier for me to commit to biking year-round. I bet this is true for a ton of us. YOU WILL BE MISSED, Back Alley.

  22. Ref Lindmark

    Ben… thanks for all you did for me and for what we were trying to do in the crazy “Pronto” days. I enjoyed being a customer and I enjoyed your friendship. I wish you the best and look forward to your next chapter. take care my friend… Ref

  23. peter

    Thank you, Ben, for all your work on my bikes. You’ve “reformatted” my 40-year-old steel racing bike to an awesome commuter and upgraded my Renovo to help my Korean 600KM bike travel this past fall! Good luck with your future endeavors; with your enthusiasm and energy, you’ll be successful in your next adventure for sure! THANK YOU!

  24. Pat Gallagher

    WOW – a journey well travelled indeed!
    Thanks Ben for sharing this story and the years of giving of yourself and the many talents and knowledge over the years.
    No matter what was happening you always had time to listen and share your enthusiasm for what you love!
    The integrity of you and your team members have always had the best interest of the rider and the most precious vehicle below – Thank You!!!

  25. Kwan Wah Lui

    Back Alley is going to be missed. Ben and the other staff members have always been so enthusiastic and helpful fore me. They also allowed my cats to hang out in the store as well (they had great time hiding)

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