Parts are flying off the shelves and bicycles are selling fast for the first time in a while at Missing Link Bicycle Cooperative, which is closing next month after half a century in Berkeley.
The final decision to shut was an emotional one for the seven co-owners. More than a bike shop, the worker-owned co-op had become a hub for East Bay biking enthusiasts and, for the community that sprung up around the shop, a second home.
“We’re kind of heartbroken, so we’re not sure we can talk today,” a tearful Anne Fulmer, an owner of the business since 1992, tells me when I walk into the shop Monday afternoon. “It’s a Berkeley institution, so we feel really bad to close it,” she says with a laugh, her voice strained.
In addition to selling bicycles, parts and cycling accessories and doing bike repairs, the shop hosted parties with local rock bands, sponsored local cycling teams (first the Berkeley Wheelmen and later the Berkeley High mountain biking team) and taught a generation of people how to fix their bikes.
What brought people together was the underlying value “that bikes are the best way to get around,” Fulmer tells me later over the phone, reading a reflection she wrote the night before.
After finding out their building was slated for demolition from a Berkeleyside article — the site will become home to a 26-story apartment complex — the co-owners, who call themselves “linkers,” ultimately voted not to reopen in another location. The shop’s last day is up in the air, pending a reply from the landlord, but the lease expires on Dec. 18 and the owners expect to close within a month or so.
Over the course of two afternoons at the shop, I piece together a story of what led to Missing Link closing. For years, the store had seen declining revenue.
“We decided we couldn’t ignore the trends anymore,” says Chuck Betz, who, at 68, is the longest-standing co-owner.
There wasn’t any one factor. As online shopping and bike and scooter share programs became more popular, the number of people buying bikes and parts at Missing Link dropped. It hurt when Trek pulled their bikes from the store, and the loss of a nearby parking lot. The co-owners stuck with “acoustic bikes” as electric bikes and scooters gained popularity. Then, the store survived the COVID-19 pandemic on loans and donations, but profits took a serious hit. The impending demolition was just “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” as Rose Mota-Nadeau, another co-owner put it.
Since announcing their closure, a stream of customers has been showing up to say goodbye to the place that sold them their first bicycle and later, their kids’ first bikes, too. “Oh, I’m going to cry,” says one woman, hugging Betz in the repair shop.
Alexander Bailey, who bought his first bike from the shop when he was a teenager and forgave the staff for once kicking him out for having a BMX bike, shows up twice in two days to talk with Betz. On Monday, he brings a gleaming, baby blue BMX bike, which Betz built the wheels on, and the next day, a massive green cargo bike.
“It’s kind of cool to have people express their regret. All day long,” says Bill Sparks, a co-owner and Fulmer’s long-time partner, who has a rough sort of humor I immediately recognize. We were interrupted by a customer whose bike seat has fallen off a second time and I think I hear him mutter “Jesus Christ” and something about coming back “all the damn time.” Upstairs, someone shows me an advertisement for the shop describing him as “Frank Zappa with glasses.”
When I return Tuesday, Sparks (“Sparky”) isn’t there, and I talk to Aaron Isenstadt, a 31-year-old member who joined the store last year. Isenstadt said he felt two ways about the outpouring of support: it was heartwarming, but also reminded him of “vultures on the carcass.”
“It sort of makes me personally question, where has everyone been this whole time?”
From anti-capitalist beginnings
Missing Link began as part of an “experiment in cooperative business” by UC Berkeley students in 1971, according to The Berkeley Gazette. It never abandoned its anti-capitalist spirit.
In the beginning, revenue from Missing Link and a few other shops on Lower Sproul Plaza — Cleo’s Copying and Dirty Rainbow Artists’ Materials — went toward Students of Berkeley, Inc., a nonprofit organization started by Cal’s student government designed to give students money that the “university regents would be unable to control.”
By 1974, the Students of Berkeley, Inc. was facing financial troubles brought on by poor bookkeeping and persistent shoplifting, the Berkeley Gazette reported. The bike business was sold to Max Shepherd, a nonprofit owner, who promised to run a tighter ship.
Business ebbed and flowed. Kathleen Krier, a former linker who worked at the shop from 1989 to 1993 and again from 2008 to 2012, remembered painting “KAK rules” on the wall upstairs after a particularly profitable quarter.
At its peak, Missing Link was run by over 20 linkers, all weighing on various aspects of the business at monthly meetings, which could go on for hours. To make any changes, an owner had to gain the support of most of their colleagues.
But making more money was never priority No. 1. Workers were always talking customers out of buying something new in favor of fixing it.
“A bunch of hippies trying to run a bike shop,” Sparks said, apparently quoting Betz, who was sitting nearby, building a wheel. Sparks joked that Fulmer was an “anti-sales person.”
Its workers had a penchant for making themselves obsolete. Until the pandemic, it hosted free bike repair classes that taught you “how to fix your whole bike,” starting with a flat tire and moving to the gears and suspension. Upstairs, I find a handmade sign dictating the “Loaner Tool Pool Rules.” Number Six: Ask Not For Help.
“They sell moderately priced bikes and they help you take care of them. That’s not a recipe for making money,” said William Holzaptel, a customer and astrophysics professor at UC Berkeley. “But it’s a recipe for helping people out and getting them into cycling.”
Holzaptel shows me the loaner tool area, where you could borrow tools to fix your bike yourself. The tools would always disappear, and every year, Grizzly Peak Cyclists would give the store a donation to replenish its supply.
An ethos that put sales second might have something to do with its 40 1-star reviews on Yelp, where aggrieved customers complained that getting someone to repair their bike “felt like pulling teeth” or that an employee had unleashed a “stream of profane anger ” at the sight of their carbon bike.
And yet, Missing Link made it for 50 years, owing in part to the close bonds that owners built with regulars and with each other. For every 1-star review, there were three with 5 stars. It was a family shop, too — Fulmer and Sparks raised their kids upstairs, in what they called the “financial playpen.”
It was also a place for joking around. At least among owners, pranking was commonplace, people pumping water into each other’s bike tires, as was teasing. On a wall filled with quotes, many of them crude, someone wrote that “Bill Sparks is expanding and becoming more wonderful exponentially,” with his reply: “Yeah.”
Just as the owners taught their customers self-sufficiency, the owners got their own lesson in it, too. Without a boss, everyone tried their hand at all parts of the business, becoming equally responsible for its successes and failures.
Hillary Livingston, who started working at Missing Link in 2018, found the democratic nature of the cooperative empowering. “How you have to learn how to rely on yourself without a boss,” she says. “There’s been a really beautiful process of growth.” Behind her, a guide to “Enabling Self-Aware Consciousness at Work” from 2016 is pinned to the wall.
And it’s what made the decision to close the shop particularly painful. “Who am I voting for then?” Livingston asked, reflecting on the vote. “Am I voting for me or am I voting for us? And by us, do I mean the legacy or do I mean the seven of us, or do I mean co-ops? Or do I mean Berkeley?”
Now, the linkers have a month or so for their last job: Packing up five decades of local history. The shop walls are covered in relics: retro cycling posters, moth-eaten woolen jerseys and vintage bicycles. A stack of hand-drawn advertisements will need to be packed up, among them one called “The Bill + Anne ad,” which features a drawing of the couple and their two kids. “Thanks to Bill and Anne and their cool kids, the Link is truly a “Family Bike Shop!” the advertisement ends.
Sparks remarks that some of these ought to go to the Berkeley Historical Society, though he has already claimed a plump green figure named “Mr. Safety” and a Barbie doll lodged in a bike wheel, once part of a miniature replica of his workbench. Everything upstairs will have to go, too, from the binders with financial records to the photo albums of a shop that had become a family.
Nico Savidge contributed to this story.