It’s been two years now since New Paltz resident John Wackman brought the concept of the Repair Café to New Paltz. And in that time, dozens of volunteer “repair coaches” have donated their time and expertise at the free community events to make repairs to other people’s cherished belongings. But Wackman says he’s noticed that while you’d expect people to be most excited about the fact that the items were fixed or that repairs were done for free, that’s not generally the case. “When people talk about their experience at the Repair Café,” he says, “the phrase we hear people say most often is, ‘It’s fun!’ That points to the bonding that happens; the community nature of this.”
Repair Cafés take place on the third Saturday of every other month at the New Paltz United Methodist Church on Main Street, where a special second-anniversary Repair Café was held last Saturday, May 23. In the gathering of people from the community there — some with broken belongings in need of repair and others there to fix the items — what came across the most was a sense of camaraderie; between the repair coaches that attend nearly every event and have gotten to know each other well over the last two years and in the friendliness they extended to the community members who came in.
Like Harsh Nayyar, who brought in his wife’s pedestal table that has been in his garage for several years awaiting restoration. The table came into the Repair Café a little wobbly, but its legs had graceful lines and it was obviously well made; it was easy to see why somebody would want to save it. Nayyar has been an occasional visitor to the Repair Café since last year, he said, after he read about it and subsequently brought a malfunctioning laptop in for repair. “I just love the philosophy behind all this,” he said.
On this occasion, Nayyar’s table was in the capable hands of woodworking repair coach Patrick Murphy of Gardiner, a builder of energy-efficient homes who also first learned of the Repair Café after reading about it last year (in this newspaper, as a matter of fact). Murphy had moved to the area and wanted to be a part of the community, he said, and the Repair Café seemed like something worth getting involved with. “It’s a feel-good thing,” he said, noting how gratifying it is to see the reaction from somebody when they first see their restored item. One woman in particular stands out for him, he said, who brought in a piano stool she had learned to play piano on and was moved to tears by the memories the restored item brought back. Murphy volunteers for most of the events in New Paltz as well as the Repair Cafés that have started up in Rosendale and Gardiner.
Two years ago, New Paltz was the first place in the region to establish a Repair Café, but its success has since inspired organizers in five other towns in the Hudson Valley. In addition to New Paltz, Rosendale and Gardiner, there are regularly held events in Poughkeepsie, Rhinebeck and Kingston. Each is run under its own auspices, but a unified website that provides details on all the locations was recently created by Kelleigh McKenzie, an organizer in the Rosendale Repair Café who is also involved with the sustainability-minded organization Re>Think Local. Having a single website allows people to easily check the calendars for each town to find the date of the next event, says Wackman, as well as to confirm things like whether a particular repair coach will be present at an event. (Some repair coaches are particularly in demand, like knife and scissor sharpener Wolf Bravo.) The new website is at www.RepairCafeHV.org.
The model of the Repair Café that originated in 2009 in Amsterdam (that inspired Wackman to bring the event here) was conceived more as a way of convincing an increasingly throwaway society to fix things rather than just toss them into the landfill. The Hudson Valley versions certainly encourage recycling and re-use, too — and one is welcome to bring in things as prosaic as broken lamps and vacuums — but Wackman says it’s the idea of the “beloved but broken” item being restored that the café here in New Paltz has fostered along with the social aspects of having the repairs done while meeting one’s neighbors over coffee and a brownie.
While the Repair Café is not a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit on its own, the group operates under the umbrella of the Methodist Church, who considers the program community outreach and consistent with their mission, says Wackman. There are “reliably 50-60” people who come out to attend the events in New Paltz every other month, he adds. “And we’re expanding the circles of what we offer. We have someone doing chair massage now. Repairs are free, but we ask people to bring a food donation for Family of New Paltz.”
The concept will continue to grow according to what the community needs, Wackman says. An experiment to hold a weeknight version of the Repair Café at the Treehouse boutique in New Paltz was given a go for six months or so, but ultimately didn’t have enough attendees to continue holding the events. But that’s okay, says Wackman; trial and error to see what works is what any entrepreneurial effort does. “What matters to us at this point is that we’re here to stay,” he says. “The main thing for us is, do we meet the needs of the community? What do they need?