Repair Cafe: Fixing the World, One Broken Toaster at a Time

Putting people who like to fix things together with those who need something fixed makes everybody happy. And that’s what the Repair Café movement is all about

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Tekla Perry: If it’s broke, fix it. If you can’t fix it, bring it to a Repair Café.

The Repair Café movement started in 2009 in Amsterdam, spreading to about 30 sites in the Netherlands before expanding through Europe, Canada, and now the United States, where four cafés are operating so far. The concept is simple: Bring together people who like to fix things with people who need things fixed, and by doing so, take a small step towards changing our throwaway culture.

I’m Tekla Perry, and I recently visited the United States’ first Repair Café, which last year started holding quarterly events in Palo Alto, California.

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There’s no audio. So we need to find out if there’s a simple way to determine if there’s output from the AM and FM tuner that’s not getting to the audio amplifier part of it. So I think what we’re going to have to do is take a look inside of it at this point because we’ve determined from the front panel that everything seems to be functional.

Tekla Perry: I’m Tekla Perry at Repair Café in Palo Alto. This event is held about once a quarter. It brings together volunteers who like to fix things with people who need things fixed. And it’s jumping. People are walking in with broken DVD players, electric toothbrushes, microwave ovens, VCRs, water fountains, clocks, lamps, and some low-tech things like umbrellas.

This is Robin, who held her youngest child as she described what brought her to Repair Café.

Robin: We brought in a 15-year-old outdoor water fountain where the pump had just stopped working, I think because my kids had dumped sand in it. He opened it up and turned the motor a little bit to get some of the sand that was stuck in there unstuck. We’re very happy. My kids love to play with it, so they will be thrilled.

Tekla Perry: This is Katalina.

Katalina: I bought the computer from a Korean student that was going back to Korea, and he left all his Korean software on it, and because it has all this Korean stuff we can’t figure out what the error messages are for loading the software for the Internet.

Tekla Perry: This is Louis.

Louis: I have brought a hydraulic electric toothbrush. It was not functioning properly. They do not make them anymore. There’s nothing better than this brush, but it’s been inoperable for several years, and I happened to see the Repair Café and thought I’d see if they could do something to repair it. They’re doing a fine job—they certainly know what they are doing. I’m very happy that we came.

Tekla Perry: The volunteers seem to be having even more fun than the people getting things fixed.

This is Jim Wall, a retired computer architect and entrepreneur who is on the board of the Museum of American Heritage, which hosts the Palo Alto Repair Café.

Jim Wall: We liked the idea of benefitting the community, because that’s what museums try to do. We had a room that they could use, we had the tools, and we had a group of volunteers that spend their time playing with old radios and old TVs, and it seemed like a really good fit.

Tekla Perry: Today, Wall is trying to fix a broken microwave.

Jim Wall: We’re working on a microwave oven, which usually we refuse to take; microwaves tend to deal with voltages that are not safe to play with. Sometimes we get lucky and it’s something as simple as an interlock switch or a bad contact. This particular one came with the donation of bagels. The bagel shop said, “I have a broken microwave. Could you try to fix that?” So it was this little quid pro quo. So we made an exception to try to play with their microwave oven.

Tekla Perry: Wall’s been volunteering at Palo Alto’s Repair Café since it got started. Volunteer Phillip Remaker is new.

Phillip Remaker: I worked with Cisco Systems for the past 21 years in their services organization doing diagnostics and troubleshooting. And in my spare time I like to mess around with things that are broken. I never met a problem I didn’t like.

So far we’ve fixed a VCR by identifying a stretched out belt, so people are bringing all kinds of stuff. We’ve got old stereos, VCRs, there’s a turntable out there coming on. I was expecting more high-tech stuff, but there are some really interesting old things coming in.

Tekla Perry: For volunteer Andrew Shelton, Repair Café is a natural balance to his day job.

Andrew Shelton: I work for GreenWaste, a garbage and recycling hauler, so half of what I do is tell people what to do with things that couldn’t be fixed, like if it can be recycled or has to go in the garbage, and because I like fixing things as well, I bring my tools and try and repair things. I try to be a zero waster whenever possible. Repairing things means we don’t need to throw them away or recycle them. It does seem like a lost art, fixing and repairing things, but it's something my grandfather and dad instilled in me, so I like to fix things.

Tekla Perry: The fixers help each other; a person there to sew ripped clothing proved to be a valuable resource for an engineer trying to fix a sewing machine who had no idea how a sewing machine is supposed to operate. That’s just the kind of community effort Palo Alto Repair Café founder Peter Skinner had in mind when he organized it.

Peter Skinner: I thought it would be hard to find volunteers to do this, but it’s not; we get 40, 50 volunteers every time we do one of these things, and they really get a kick out of it. It’s very fun.

Tekla Perry: Skinner is not actually the kind of guy who knows how to fix things, but he sure knows how to organize things.

Peter Skinner: The New York Times did an article about a year ago, and I saw this article, and I thought wow, this is a great idea…talked to people in the neighborhood and kind of the community to see if somebody else was doing it and nobody was, so I decided to kick one off.

And I talked to the people in Amsterdam and sort of affiliated with them to be part of a bigger network, a global network of repair cafés. There are other kinds of organic fix-it clinics and things like that elsewhere that have been going on for some time, so it’s not a unique idea, really. But we were the first Repair Café to get kicked off in the U.S.

Tekla Perry: It’s going well, says Skinner.

Peter Skinner: Community support has been amazing. People are really interested in this kind of activity, both because of what we’re able to do in terms of kind of resuscitating old stuff and keeping things alive, as opposed to throwing it out and contributing to the waste stream and buying more stuff. But that part didn’t surprise me. The community really likes doing this, and that makes it very fun.

Tekla Perry: On the day of my visit, 76 people brought in 114 items; the few dozen volunteers were able to fix 76 of them (and partially fix another 14). Repaired items included bikes, clothing, cameras, cellphones and computers, lawn mowers, luggage, lamps, toasters, CD players, microwaves, sewing machines, a Nerf gun, and a 1980s-vintage Macintosh computer. That last repair had a little expert help, when Dan Kottke, Apple employee No. 1, passed by and couldn’t resist jumping in. This is, after all, Silicon Valley.

For IEEE Spectrum, I’m Tekla Perry in Palo Alto.

Photo: Tekla Perry