Among the many things mid-Hudson residents love that temporarily vanished off the map in March 2020, because they require humans to congregate and risk transmission of an airborne virus, was the phenomenon known as Repair Café. These gatherings of do-it-yourselfers who offer their talents at fixing “beloved-but-broken” objects for free originated in Amsterdam in 2009 and migrated to California by 2012. The first Repair Café in the Hudson Valley was organized in New Paltz in May 2013, spearheaded by a solar energy activist named John Wackman. By the time COVID shut them down, there were close to 40 Cafés happening at regular intervals throughout the region.
The concept was too timely and popular to die out, though. Over the past year-and-a-half, “fixers” would arrange to meet people in library parking lots to hand off their items in need of repair. Some coaches offered virtual clinics via Repair Café websites or on YouTube to walk people through the steps needed to fix their own broken items. That approach aligns very closely with the Repair Café philosophy of empowering owners: When you bring something to a Café, you don’t simply drop the thing off and come back to pick it up when it’s done. You sit with the coach, watch and listen while he or she explains the process, so that next time you might be able to do it yourself. You also have to accept some ground rules, including that there’s no guarantee that your broken object is ultimately fixable.
Wackman, who had turned organizing the local movement into a full-time career, spent his 2020 downtime collaborating with Elizabeth Knight, coordinator of the Repair Café in Warwick, to write a book titled Repair Revolution: How Fixers Are Transforming Our Throwaway Culture. Published last October by New World Library, it was intended to inspire and empower fellow sustainability geeks to get similar free fix-it networks going in their own communities.
And now – tentatively, as news about the spread of scary variants of COVID fluxes from one day to the next – Repair Cafés are coming back. The first to reemerge in the mid-Hudson was Warwick’s, on July 17, followed by Woodstock’s, as part of the Earth Day Is Every Day event at the Mescal Hornbeck Community Center on July 31. The Gardiner Library hosted one this past Sunday, August 22. Sadly, regional founder John Wackman wasn’t around to see any of this rebirth process: He was found dead in his Kingston home in January, apparently of a sudden heart attack.
“Today’s a little emotional,” said Holly Shader of Gardiner as she sat behind a folding table repairing jewelry at Sunday’s event. Shader, who teaches science at Circleville Middle School in Pine Bush, was Wackman’s Significant Other, and found herself the keeper of his e-mail list of volunteer coaches in the wake of his untimely demise. It fell to her to jumpstart the process of bringing Repair Café back to her town, in collaboration with Ana Linneman, who took over the Gardiner series from Wendy Toman in 2017. “We got together at the beginning of July and decided to revive it. Things just started to look like they were opening up some more,” Shader explained. “So, we sent out an e-mail to the volunteers, asking them, ‘What do you need to feel comfortable? Inside, outside, masks, no masks?’”
Because of the rainy weather on Sunday, most of the repair coaches were working indoors; there was room for only two worktables in the covered entryway of the Gardiner Library. According to Shader, four new coaches who had signed up backed out when they found out that they couldn’t set up their workstations outdoors. The half-dozen who did show up were kept hopping as the owners of compromised objects lined up to await their turns.
Perhaps the most reliable regular is a Rosendale handyman who prefers to identify himself simply as Ken Fix-It, who was among Wackman’s first recruits to the cause: “I’ve been doing this since before Day One. I met John about a month before the first one.” He agreed from the get-go to do the work for nothing, Ken explained, so long as he was supplied with “lamp parts and pizza.” As the resident expert in electronics and small appliances, his aid in in high demand.
For all his expertise, however, Ken Fix-It had to pronounce the digital switch on this correspondent’s floor-model fan a lost cause. It wasn’t the first object that stymied the coaches that day; there was also a lamp that refused to light despite several parts being replaced. Some broken household items, like some hearts, are simply beyond repair. What matters most, it seems, is that people come together with good will to salvage whatever is salvageable and let nothing of value go to waste.
According to Holly Shader, Repair Cafés will return to Newburgh on August 28, Kingston on September 11 and New Paltz on September 18. Visit https://repaircafehv.org for more details on dates, times and locations. There’s also a signup page for those who wish to volunteer their services as repair coaches.