Along with his broken toaster, Steve Vegdahl brought a slice of bread with him to Portland’s repair cafe one day last month. By the time he left, his toaster was working again—and the sweet smell of toasted wheat permeated the room.
“This is the highlight of my day,” Vegdahl said as he waited for the chrome Sunbeam, probably a 1950s model, to cool off so he could take it home. “I’m a software person; I don’t have a lot of mechanical aptitude. I’m not good at taking things apart.”
Since a woman named Martine Postma established the first repair café in Amsterdam in 2009, the concept of free events at which volunteers with repair skills assist participants with broken furniture, appliances, bicycles, clothing and toys, has spread far and wide.
More than 50 cafes operate throughout the Netherlands, France, Germany and the United Kingdom, and, in the U.S., people have begun convening regularly at coffee shops and event spaces in New York, Chicago, Palo Alto, Los Angeles, Seattle and—as of earlier this year—my hometown of Portland, Oregon, to fix busted items.
Repair PDX founder Lauren Gross, 33, says the Portland events attract people philosophically opposed to waste as well as those who simply want a favorite item to work again. Around 50 people attended the first gathering, held last May in a large, airy coffee shop, she said, and about 35 have shown up to the monthly gatherings since.
“We’re going back to some of the old values our grandparents held and moving away from mainstream consumption,” said Cindy Correll, one of the café’s other organizers. “By reusing, we’re keeping things out of the waste stream and eliminating the need to make another product.” Plus, she said, reusing requires fewer resources than its more publicized counterpart recycling.
Correll attributes the success of fix-it ventures like Repair PDX in part to the recent economic downturn. When money was tight, she said, “people started looking at things differently.”
When I carried my broken floor lamp into Portland’s December gathering, held in a historic firehouse on the north side of town, numerous repairs were already underway.
At one table, Stan Jones shaved rotten foam from around a stereo speaker with a thin blade, preparing the surface for a new foam cover. At another, Brett Stern tackled an electric stand mixer, eventually offering to take the contraption home for further inspection. Laurie Sugahbeare fixed a necklace a woman had snagged on her sweater earlier that day.
And Bryce Jacobson wrapped plumber tape around the center rod of a broken coffee grinder to compensate for the stripped threads. “We’re just buying a little time from the landfill,” he said, acknowledging the jankiness of the solution.
Jacobson, who works as a regional solid waste planner by day, said he’s always liked to tinker. Even as a kid, he would take home appliances he found in dumpsters, and he’d disassemble and rebuild them. As a Repair PDX volunteer, Jacobson wants to instill a repair ethic in participants—and teach them the practical skills to back up the ideal.
“One of the most powerful things to realize is that you can actually fix your stuff when it’s not working,” he said. “I like seeing people make that connection.”
Despite recent efforts by people like Repair PDX volunteers, repair culture stands counter to the dominant, disposable mentality. While products like disposable diapers, sanitary pads and paper plates are unabashedly designed for the dump, many other objects—radios, televisions, microwaves, etc.—are made to be tossed as well (though they’re slightly less blatant about it).
Last month when my washing machine began skipping the spin cycle, for example, my landlord’s first response was to have a brand new machine delivered to the house. Replacing the washer, he reasoned, would be cheaper and easier than diagnosing the problem, finding new parts and paying a handyman to install them.
While I saw his point, I also regretted that the entire appliance would rust away in the landfill when probably just a small component had malfunctioned.
Though they’re a determined bunch, Portland’s fix-it volunteers say they often encounter objects that are not only impractical to repair, but impossible too.
“An old appliance makes it easy, because you can unscrew the bolts and take it apart,” said volunteer Randy Greb, the man who revived Vegdahl’s toaster. “Newer stuff, you can sometimes get it apart, but it’s often hard to get back together.”
Across the board, tinkering is a challenge these days. Unlike the radios of generations past, it’s hard to get inside an iPod, and once you do, you face a battery and computer chip rather than moveable components that can be tweaked and adjusted.
Even the businesses that supply the repair industry have become increasingly scarce: in an attempt to boost plunging profits, RadioShack switched in 2009 from selling cables, connectors and widgets for garage and basement hobbyists to selling smartphones and other wireless devices.
The societal shift toward products that are untouchable, robotic and useless when single parts break has given rise to a number of unfortunate consequences. First off, our landfills have swollen: The average American throws away 4.4 pounds of trash per day, compared to 2.68 pounds in 1960, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Additionally, we’ve been forced into shallow relationships with our material possessions and have become increasingly dependent on manufacturers. And finally, overall craftsmanship has declined, and we possess fewer objects worth taking pride in and passing to the next generation. (No one’s going to inherit my $32 athletic watch.)
Back on the Repair PDX floor, I set my damaged lamp beside Jacobson’s table and explained the problem: The on/off knob had become too stiff to turn, and though I’d been able to control the light by screwing and unscrewing the bulb, that strategy had stopped working as well.
Jacobson removed the shade, disconnected the socket and tried cleaning the device with a solvent. When the knob still did not rotate easily, he advised me to install a new electrical connector and showed me how I’d fasten the lamp’s wires to the new piece once I’d obtained it.
The next day, I visited the hardware store up the road: four dollars and a few at-home adjustments later, the bulb lit up. I felt a surge of pride—and a sudden, fierce attachment to the lamp.
While repairing rather than replacing may have become a rebellious action over the last few decades, Jacobson sees room for the concept to grow. From coffee grinders to speakers to lawnmowers to furniture, Repair PDX alone has endowed a multitude of objects with new life.
“It might be a fringe activity, but so was stuff like Craigslist at first,” he said. “It’s got to start with the curious ones, the people willing to take a risk.”