By Zachariah Bryan
Northwest Asian Weekly
The first memory Benjamin Rainbow has of bicycling is when he was five or six. The cottonwoods were blooming and he was cruising on his bike with bullhorn-shaped handlebars, floating cotton whipping past him like he was in the Millennium Falcon going warp speed.
“I was like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo and Chewbacca all put together,” he joked.
Rainbow, who is half Thai, now runs Back Alley Bike Repair, tucked away in the Nord Building alley in Pioneer Square, off of 1st Ave. and between Main and Jackson. All the things he loved about bicycling as a child, exploring the world around him and blasting through the space-time continuum, has carried on into his adult life.
“I got into bicycling because it’s a great way to travel through the neighborhood … riding around with friends, going through the woods, finding trails, making trails,” Rainbow said.
Rainbow couldn’t remember when he first started fixing bicycles. It’s something he’s always had an interest in and a natural talent for. But it all came home for him when he met a master wheel builder.
“He spoke so fluently about the complexity of the wheel, the need for tension and building it so slowly and calmly. It gave me this zen-like state of mind about it,” Rainbow said.
Running his own small business, Rainbow is able to bring his own fun and personable style to work. Wearing a baseball cap with the Rainier logo on it, a hoodie, jeans and his trademark mustache, he seems more like an old friend than a business owner. Likewise, customers coming in and out of the shop will trade fist bumps, jokes, and good conversation with Rainbow.
“We don’t want to water down the wine,” he said of his customer service style. He described how he is comfortable with running a small business and having a close-knit, word-of-mouth clientele.
Really, he said, it’s a style that was passed down from his mother, who is Thai. While growing up in Minneapolis, she ran a salon out of their house, using two chairs and a dunk tank. All the neighbors knew who she was, and once a year she would host a luncheon for all of her customers and friends using the tips that she collected. Her small business grew to be such a fixture that she received a Good Neighbor award from the mayor.
Rainbow’s mother had moved from Thailand after the Vietnam War with his father. At the time, she was a court translator and a small business owner, and he was a U.S. attorney. Here in America, she passed on her values of hard work to Rainbow, who as a kid mowed lawns for people in the neighborhood and shined shoes. He also learned what made her mother’s business so special.
“People will get behind someone who has even a little bit of confidence. (You learn) how to take the lead in a community,” he said.
When Rainbow moved to Seattle eight years ago, partly because of a job transfer but also to play in bands, he integrated himself into the local bicycle culture. He managed JRA Bike Shop’s Pioneer Square location before eventually buying it out and starting Back Alley Bike Repair.
But more than just fixing bikes, Rainbow is involved in the Seattle bike culture. On Monday, he was at the press conference for the opening of Seattle’s first bikeshare program, Pronto. He said that Seattle had taken one step further to becoming the most bike friendly city in the U.S.
“One of my goals with this thing is, within a window of time, we should make Seattle the most bicycle friendly city in the U.S. Not just second or third, but first,” Rainbow said.
He did note that it was quite a mountain to climb. Literally. Being a city built on seven hills, and with rain and clouds conquering the city more months than not, it can be a challenge to make bicycling accessible and fun for everybody. Still, Seattle has made a lot of progress throughout the years, from the Burke-Gilman trail and greenways to bike lanes and cycle tracks.
In the end, Rainbow is not just the guy who fixes bikes. He’s a fixture in the community, he’s a cheerleader for infrastructure, he’s the guy you can high-five and jam out to music with — and he’s willing to go warp speed with you on another bicycle adventure.
“Helping to encourage people to take the next step, I think, is something this shop has been able to do: Unlock the hesitant cyclist, unleash the hesitant cyclist,” Rainbow said. “Seattle is a beautiful city and beautiful cities are best seen by bike.” (end)
Zachariah Bryan can be reached at email@example.com.