Repair Cafe gives broken items new life and saves landfill space

hammer timeThe three famous Rs — Reduce/Reuse/Recycle — have expanded to include a fourth — Repair.

Ulster County now hosts several Repair Cafés. Anyone can show up with a “broken but beloved” item and an expert tinkerer will fix it (or at least give it a shot). It’s an idea that appeals to people who don’t want to replace every item that stops working, not to mention people who can’t afford the cost.

Originating in Amsterdam in 2009, Repair Cafés have spread over the globe in a few short years. We have John Wackman to thank for bringing the first Repair Café to New Paltz two years ago. Since then Rosendale, Kingston, Gardiner and Rhinebeck have all started their own, with rumors of one starting up in Woodstock in the near future. They’re monthly events, with at least one and often two happening in different locations each month. Usually a given town will offer one every couple of months.

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So how does it work? You take an item (or items) you’d like repaired, sign in, and get assigned to the person volunteering that day who knows how to fix your lamp, patio umbrella, bike, necklace, doll, printer, antique garden hoe, ancient transistor radio, paper shredder, ripped hem — pretty much anything. All these items were being worked on at the Repair Café I attended in Kingston last month. Then you sit with that person while he or she works on your item, learning about repairs or just shooting the breeze. If there’s a wait for your turn, you can hang out with others who are waiting. It really is a café, with snacks and drinks offered for a small donation, and people really do talk to each other. I saw no one with their face buried in a smart phone. People seemed pleased to meet each other.

I sat down with Gai and Dmitri Galitzine, organizers of the Kingston Repair Café and Transition Town supporters, to learn more about why they think it’s such a great idea. Dmitri emphasized how we’ve been educated to replace things instead of repairing them by our disposable society. In fact, we’ve nearly forgotten that things used to be repaired. He talked about how marketing makes us prefer shiny new things, which can also be very cheap because of the outsourcing of manufacture. Some new things are even (often intentionally) made more difficult or impossible to repair, as rivets replace screws, for example. But others continue to be easy to fix, like toasters, vacuums, and blenders. I met a woman at the Repair Café in Kingston who told me that she’d brought in a hair dryer, expecting to hear that such things couldn’t be repaired, that got fixed up good as new. The target population in Kingston is the underserved who really need to get things fixed because they can’t afford to replace them, but plenty of people “on the same wavelength” attend just because they think it’s a great idea.

Repair Cafes are grassroots operations, organized in each town by residents who recruit people who know how to fix things for one Saturday every month or two, find a venue (often a church basement or library, even, as in Rhinebeck, a town hall), publicize the event, and find a local business (or someone) to provide edibles. At most Repair Café, you can reasonably expect to find someone who will be able to fix electronics (including computers), electrical and mechanical appliances, wood objects (including furniture), china and glass, bikes, books, clothes and jewelry, and toys and stuffed animals. A few specialists will travel to different towns on occasion, but each town relies upon its own residents to supply most of the know-how.

John Wackman, who was working at the Kingston Repair Café, estimates that close to 80 percent of the items that turn up get fixed. So while you’re not guaranteed to have your item fixed, you will have an interesting time and learn something. I personally had a great time and learned that the printer handed down to me by my daughter, which was prone to paper jams, didn’t have a problem at all but did need a new ink cartridge. I’ll be back with my non-suctioning vacuum clear, which I’m pretty sure needs a little expert attention, not just to be plugged in!

Besides promoting sustainability, Repair Cafes are also important as “re-skilling” workshops, where people can learn not only that many things can indeed be repaired but also, in some cases, how to do it. “Re-skilling” is a major focus of the Transition Town Initiative, an international sustainability movement. Repairing things isn’t the only thing we’ve forgotten how to do. Here in Saugerties, for example, canning fruits and vegetables for the winter has been revived by the Long Spoon Collective, a Transition Town working group. Think of all the things your grandparents knew how to do and how easy it is for that knowledge to disappear if it isn’t handed down. These arts can be “lost in a generation,” as Gai Galitzine put it.

David Bruner of Kingston Transition describes Repair Café as a sort of franchise. To start one, an organizer would go to the Repair Cafe website (www.repaircafe.org), where all the necessary information is available, including how to get a start-up manual, publicity materials, and much more. You can also go to the local group of organizers’ Facebook page (Repair Cafe Hudson Valley) or contact John Wackman directly at (646) 302-5835 or jwackman@gmail.com.

You’ll find John in person from 10-3 at the May 23 Repair Café at the United Methodist Church in New Paltz as they celebrate their second year of operation. There will be another on Saturday, June 13 in Rosendale at St Peter’s Catholic Church and in Kingston again on June 27. What a great idea! Shouldn’t we get one going in Saugerties? Sustainable Saugerties Transition Town would be only too happy to support someone in this effort. Along with the contacts named above, send an email to sustainablesaugerties@gmail.com if you’re interested.

Janet Asiain’s column appears monthly.