Repair cafés are on the mend

A few years ago, Elizabeth Knight learned that a Repair Café was popping up in Beacon. Skilled people came together to fix broken things for free and she needed her help. “I had this lamp on my dresser,” she recalls. “Sometimes it glows, sometimes it doesn’t.”

Intrigued, she took her lamp to the event and wasn’t sure what to expect. She came up with quite a scene: a young exchange student unpicking the hem of a pair of red plaid pants with an older volunteer; a little girl cradling her ‘stuffed lovie’ (stuffed animal) while another seamstress performs an operation; and two teenagers who were transfixed by a broken keyboard.

“It was amazing,” she says. It took several people to rewire their lamp, but they prevailed. For free.

Knight soon set about organizing a Repair Café in Warwick, her hometown. To find people with skills and time, she made the rounds of various groups of retirees and asked: “How many of you grew up in a household when you grew out of your jeans, they were passed on? How many did they throw out when there was a hole?”

Warwick’s first volunteer was a retired engineer willing to volunteer his time. Others were more difficult to secure until the Mayor of Warwick suggested contacting the local history society. Jackpot: It was there that Knight connected with people skilled in woodworking, IT, and pottery repair.

“We have a whole generation of people who don’t know how to fix things; it’s easier to buy another one at a big department store,” says Knight. Your and other fix-it squads aim to fix that.

But here’s the thing: The items people bring to a repair cafe — typically a monthly gathering at a local church basement or urban recreation space — aren’t always replaceable. They can be time-honoured items or emotionally important items bought on vacations far away. Knight remembers a soft white teddy bear wearing a magenta fedora hat from a repair cafe.

“Press buttons, the bears circle and a song plays,” she says. Originally a gift from a mother-in-law, the repair-seeker wanted it working for her first grandchild. A team effort – sewing team plus small electrical team – made it.

Local repair café movement born in New Paltz

“You think you keep things out of the landfill. They are. But… what you’re really doing is building community,” said John Wackman, who opened a Repair Café in New Paltz in 2013, similar to the one in Warwick today.

Theresa Gochal

Repair Cafés aren’t unique to the Hudson Valley. The idea is said to have originated in Amsterdam in 2009. When volunteer organizer John Wackman opened one in New Paltz in 2013, it was one of the first Repair Cafés in the United States and inspired many others in the area.

At one point there were nearly 40 repair cafes across the Hudson Valley, although COVID has taken a toll and some are currently struggling to get back on track. A calendar of area repair cafe dates lists two taking place this weekend in Red Hook and Yorktown.

“Some of them are worse for attrition from the pandemic; They’ve lost steam or lost volunteers,” says Melissa Everett, executive director of Sustainable Hudson Valley, of Repair Cafés.

Wackman served for years as the coordinator/cheerleader for the Hudson Valley’s Repair Cafés. When he died in January 2021, he was replaced by Sustainable Hudson Valley, a nonprofit organization where Wackman once worked on a solar project and later served on the board. “We make sure these autonomous groups are organized, help them recruit volunteers, publish, and participate to show support,” Everett says.

Sustainable Hudson Valley is currently raising funds to hire and pay for a full-time coordinator position – a Repair Cafe Rammage Sale at the New Paltz United Methodist Church April 22-24 is part of that effort. It was Wackman’s dream to have a steady job as an organizer so Repair Cafés would have a forum to solve problems and share common issues. “He was buried in bureaucracy,” Everett recalls.

Still, Wackman found time to write a book, The Repair Revolution, co-authored by Knight, and share his woodworking skills with the community. He once told Knight, “You think you keep things out of the landfill. They are. But that will never be enough. What you’re really doing is building a community,” she says.

Everett, who has helped fix her share of hems and zippers in the community, loves that the cafes empower people and revitalize the lost art of repair, but adds that of course they are important to the environment.

Skills that will help any repair cafe keep items out of landfills include glass ceramic or wood repairs, bicycle repairs, hand and machine sewing, darning, patching, and small appliance repairs. Some locations even offer weld repairs — usually outdoors in a parking lot.

“It’s so high when you can fix something for someone and that you’ve made a tangible difference in someone’s life,” Knight says.

She will never forget how one woman turned up desperate to have a silver chain fixed. “She said it was the engraved vial containing her grandson’s ashes.” The woman had worn it since the day of his funeral and told her horrific story. Tears flowed as volunteers fastened the solid chain around her neck.

Barbara Lane, a jewelry trainer at the New Paltz Repair Café, had a similar experience with a necklace. Once a young woman walked in, clearly upset about a broken lock – an easy fix. Lane recognized the beads; They were made using a special process that turns petals from a funeral bouquet into pearls. The woman shared that her husband had recently died.

“She was clearly certain that it was broken forever. I held out my hand and she held it for what seemed like a very long time, finally smiling as I handed her back the necklace with the repaired clasp.”

There was a hug and more tears as the woman told Lane she was an angel.

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