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Repair Cafés Aim to Save Broken Items, Enhance Community

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The Repair Café in Charlotte Town Hall - KEN PICARD
  • Ken Picard
  • The Repair Café in Charlotte Town Hall

On a recent Saturday, small groups of people huddled inside the Charlotte Town Hall to collectively troubleshoot their neighbors' problems. But, unlike the questions that typically arise in this building about zoning, property taxes and building permits, these residents were tackling more mundane issues. Among them: Why doesn't this lamp switch work? Can this old sewing machine be fixed? How do you replace the zipper on a winter coat?

The November 11 gathering was Vermont's first-ever Repair Café, a free service that taps the collective talent and labor pool of individuals in a community. The goal is to help neighbors save old items — clothes, electronics, bicycles, furniture, small appliances — that would otherwise end up in a landfill. Call it an antidote to the engineered obsolescence of consumer goods.

The daylong event was cosponsored by the Charlotte Grange, the Charlotte Congregational Church and Transition Town Charlotte. The latter is a local chapter of the international Transition Movement, which, as event co-organizer Ruah Swennerfelt explained, is dedicated to helping communities move away from fossil-fuel-based economies and consumption-based models of growth.

Ultimately, the movement's mission is to help communities become more resilient in the face of natural and human-caused disasters.

Events such as Repair Cafés not only help people save money and reduce the local waste stream, Swennerfelt explained, but also help resurrect the lost art of fixing stuff. In the process, they bring together people from different political and socioeconomic backgrounds to work and socialize in a nonpartisan environment. As she put it, "It tries to get people out of their own homes and into each other's lives."

Repair Café is the brainchild of Martine Postma, a Dutch former journalist who held the first such event in the foyer of an Amsterdam theater on October 18, 2009. The fix-it function was so successful that Postma launched a nonprofit organization five months later called the Repair Café Foundation, which now helps communities around the world organize their own events. To date, more than 1,400 Repair Cafés are operating in 33 countries, including 47 in the United States.

For a voluntary, onetime fee of 49 euro, or about $58, the Repair Café Foundation provides a digital starter kit that includes liability waivers, online sign-up sheets, promotional materials, and advice to help organizers find local repair experts and suitable café locations.

According to Swennerfelt, the Charlotte event enlisted the help of nine volunteer "fixers," or people with the experience, tools and technical know-how to either repair specific items themselves or show others how to do it on their own.

Charlotte's fixers included a woman skilled in sewing and knitting, who stitched up holes in wool sweaters, sewed up ripped shoulders in overcoats, and repaired or replaced zippers that didn't work. One man knew how to repair jewelry and old watches; another was an electrical engineer who helped fix small household appliances such as a dehumidifier and a guitar amp. Swennerfelt's husband repaired tool handles and sharpened kitchen knives and garden tools. In all, she said, about 30 people got their items fixed, sharpened or tuned up.

True to its moniker, the event also provided free coffee, tea, soup and biscuits to encourage people to hang around and socialize. Though Repair Cafés don't charge an admission fee — "This was neighbor helping neighbor," Swennerfelt noted — attendees collectively contributed $190 and three bags of groceries for the Charlotte Food Shelf.

Repair Café is a concept whose time has come for Vermont's DIY types. In January, the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District will hold its first Repair Café in Barre. The event was planned without prior knowledge of the Charlotte group.

As CVSWMD outreach manager Cassandra Hemenway explained, Repair Cafés completely align with the district's zero-waste management plan, which aims to effectively eliminate the need for landfilling trash. To that end, all of the district's programs — from backyard and school composting projects to the recycling of unusual items such as bottle caps, corks, shoes and pellet bags — are aimed at minimizing waste from the district's 54,000 residents.

Earlier this year, CVSWMD enlisted the help of Cara Stapleford, an ECO AmeriCorps volunteer, who plans to devote her yearlong community service to organizing at least three Repair Cafés for the district's 19 member towns.

"We always wished we could do an event like this but didn't have the programming or the staff," Hemenway explained. However, once Stapleford came aboard a few months ago, she said, "It was absolutely serendipitous. It seems like a lot of people have been thinking about these things in our area."

CVSWMD has also partnered with the Onion River Exchange, a central Vermont time bank, to sign up volunteers who are willing to be fixers or community organizers for the Barre Repair Café. Thus far, the types of repair services they'll offer is still unknown — it will depend upon who signs up and what skills and tools they can provide.

"Cara heard from a welder who said he'd love to help out," Hemenway noted. "But then we realized, we're in a church basement for this [event]. I don't know if we can weld in there."

A common question that Repair Cafés receive is: Do these free events take business away from local repair shops?

Not according to Hemenway, who explained that certain repairs inevitably will be too large, technical or time-consuming to be done at a Repair Café. But to ensure that the events don't compete with local businesses, organizers will allow the latter to set up information tables and hand out business cards.

"This is a great place for people who do this for a living to do some community service," Hemenway added. "A lot of these jobs will require follow-up service anyway."

And, if local repair professionals are lacking certain items or skills, Hemenway and Stapleford plan to offer a resource center at the Repair Café. It will provide books, articles and a list of websites where enterprising remakers can learn how to fix things themselves.


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The original print version of this article was headlined "The Fix Is In"

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