ANCHORAGE - On a recent rainy evening, Wendy Baker hauled her antiquated bicycle up a half-flight of stairs at the old Mat Maid building on Northern Lights Boulevard and pushed it through a maze of used bike parts and do-it-yourself bicycle mechanics. It was Baker's first visit to the Off the Chain bicycle shop and she just happened to arrive on "Ladies Night," when the shop's team of grease monkeys was mostly women.
Kayla Spaan, a 22-year-old artist who volunteers at Off the Chain, took Baker to a special bicycle stand - called a truing stand - where the two took a closer look at Baker's shaky front wheel.
Hundreds of people like Baker have made pilgrimages to the volunteer-run Off the Chain bicycle shop since its founding by a group of University of Alaska Anchorage students nearly two years ago.
Mostly by word of mouth, Anchorage area residents have learned they can pick up spare parts at Off the Chain and learn to how fix their own bikes with help from the shop's knowledgeable volunteers. The shop is run by a member-owned cooperative, which pays its expenses with donations from visitors and depends on free labor from volunteers.
Off the Chain barely resembles its previous incarnation a few years ago as a student-run bike shop at Goose Lake, near UAA. Now in a much larger space, it serves an expanding clientele from its base in Spenard - from homeless people and seasonal workers to students and white-collar professionals.
The core volunteers who run Off the Chain are an eclectic but tight-knit group: among them a computer programmer, several artists in their 20s, a few bike mechanics, a geology student and a special projects manager for the Alaska Railroad.
"We came up with the idea to make it about the community, and not just middle-class (college) kids," said Spaan, a recent UAA graduate pursuing a career in printmaking.
The co-op recently signed a new lease for its Spenard space and the volunteers have taken on an array of projects around town. Some donate their time on Saturdays with kids at the Mountain View Boys & Girls Club, hosting them on bike rides and teaching them how to maintain their own bikes. Others volunteer at local races and festivals, and occasionally offer their services as "bike valets" for people who ride to downtown events. The co-op includes 20 to 30 active volunteers, and the core members meet once a week to discuss the shop and plan for the future.
The evening of Baker's visit, Off the Chain was buzzing with women getting their hands dirty on Ladies' Night.
While some men were present, the shop was filled mostly with young women helping each other out, fixing a few bikes.
Spaan and Baker inspected the front wheel or Baker's bike and went to work with two sets of wrenches, trying to locate and then tighten a loose element in the wheel hub.
"Not too tight, not too loose," Baker said, repeating a mantra she heard at another bike shop in town earlier that day. She said someone at the shop had suggested that she bring the bike - a 1980s model that she bought for $20 off Craigslist - to Off the Chain.
"She totally almost did that by herself," Spaan said later.
Plenty of people buy a bike but never find out how it works or how to fix it, she said.
Most of the Off the Chain volunteers are in their 20s and 30s and some of them live car-free lives. Several have bicycled across North America. A few of them share lodging and sometimes the volunteers bring vegetarian meals to the shop.
But Off the Chain has won a diverse fan base. Volunteer Brian Lindamood's interest in bicycles revolves around recreation and exercise. He rides his bike daily to his white-collar job at the Alaska Railroad and then rides back home to his family. He's no vegetarian.
One of the reasons he is attracted to the co-op is that he wants to help support Anchorage riders in the low-income bracket.
Many of them are riding bikes "where they are lucky if two gears work and they have one brake," he said.
The shop is a place for them to get their bikes working better, he said.
Off the Chain mechanics salvage, fix up and sell bikes that have been abandoned around town - some pulled out of creeks - using a storehouse of donated tools, shelving and recycled parts that the university's bike club developed over the past few years.
The sale of those abandoned bikes is a secondary source of income for the shop. Also, the co-op is seeking nonprofit status that will allow it to apply for grants and perhaps pay for a staff position.
Off the Chain is not such a novel concept, it turns out.
Volunteers have created bicycle cooperatives all over the world, many specializing in short-term bicycle loans or rentals.
Before Off the Chain launched about 18 months ago, the UAA bike club experimented with running a "bike library" for students. But the club discontinued the library after discovering that bike borrowers often abused and abandoned the bikes, some of the bike club's former organizers said.
Ben Hussey, who was involved in the library program, says Off the Chain was an outgrowth of the club's early work. The co-op now serves a much larger group of people and its shop hours have expanded from 10 to 25 hours per week, he said.
Teaching people how to work on their own bikes gives them a new skill, and spending time at the shop "breeds a sense of community," he said.
That doesn't mean everything runs perfectly all of the time.
For example, the co-op has a waiting list of about 60 or 70 people willing to serve as volunteers but needing some training first.
Hussey, the co-op's volunteer coordinator, has a day job and doesn't have the time to manage that many people - it would likely require a paid staff person, he said.
For now, he says, "Really, if you want to get involved, just come in and start working," he said.
"Everyone is welcome."