Grandma’s tea cup with a broken handle. A favorite jacket with a bum zipper. A book with a torn binding. Many household items are easy to break—and easy to fix when you know how. At Repair Cafés, skilled volunteers not only mend broken items for free, they teach the owners how to do it themselves.
“People bring in something they’ve had for years or something they’ve had a short time that they paid a lot of money for, and they want it to work,” says Jackie Carter, who coordinates a Repair Café for the Latah County Library District in Moscow, Idaho. “As we repair, we tell (the owners) what we’re doing and help them to do the hands-on work so they know what to do to fix it. If it needs a special part, we tell them how to order it and how to get on YouTube to watch a video and figure it out. It empowers them to do it themselves.”
The first Repair Café was organized in 2009 in the Netherlands by Martine Postma to reduce waste, teach practical repair skills and encourage an appreciation for old possessions. As repair shops have closed and interest in DIY repairs has spiked, her movement has grown to more than 2,500 cafés in more than 35 countries worldwide.
While Jackie’s original intention was to decrease the amount of stuff going into the local landfill, the cafés have evolved as a gathering place to share stories, encouragement and skills. Visitors can enjoy a cup of coffee or tea while they wait. There’s plenty of inspiration at a reading table where repair books can be enjoyed onsite or checked out.
The library hosts cafés four times a year. Repair stations range from jewelry to bike repair. The most popular is small appliance repair, where volunteers see lots of lamps, mixers, vacuums and fans. The knife-sharpening station has seen such high demand, an extra volunteer has been added to help.
Jackie, who works on damaged books, remembers a woman who brought in her mother’s treasured copies of “The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis.
“They were pretty far gone, but I got them to the point where they were readable, and that’s all she wanted,” she says.
Val Carter, also known as “the glue guy,” helps people stick their broken pieces back together. The senior instructor at the University of Idaho’s College of Art and Architecture—and Jackie’s husband—has volunteered since the program began more than four years ago.
“As an artist and an educator, I teach people how to make and fix things, so it is a natural thing for me to do,” he says. “One of the wonderful things is that the person is sitting across the table from you. I talk with them as I problem solve, discuss it with them, show them how to fix it and how to maintain it after the repair.”
Val has seen a lot of ceramic, glass and plastic items, from a sentimental keepsake to a utilitarian meat thermometer. His most challenging repair so far has been a jade dragon that arrived in hundreds of chunks and shards.
“It took a half-hour to just get pieces back to where I could glue them back together,” he says.
Sara Holder volunteers at the sewing and textile station repairing zippers, hemming pants and patching jeans so they can be worn again. The owner of Altered Ego—a local clothing alterations and repair shop—meets people who have never learned to sew or mend or don’t have access to a sewing machine. Those with poor vision or unsteady hands can find it impossible to sew on a button.
“My favorite is fixing little kids’ toys,” she says, remembering a girl who brought in a small stuffed unicorn with an open seam at the shoulder. “It’s really fun because they are scared, but they want it fixed. It’s very sweet.”
Another volunteer teaches people how to darn socks and fix sweaters.
“People are just so happy and grateful,” Sara says. “Moscow is such a great community. People are ecofriendly, want to keep things out of the landfill, and want to learn more to help their appliances, clothes and books have more longevity.”
“This is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done outside of my own family,” she says. “I’m really proud of the program. I feel like we’re doing something positive.”
Start Your Own Repair Café
The Repair Café International Foundation offers a starter kit with everything needed to create a Repair Café, from finding local repair experts and the right location, to collecting the right tools, finding funding and promoting repair events. There are also templates for signs and posters to use at the café. The kit costs 49 euros (less than $60). Learn more at repaircafe.org/en.
The Repair Café website also offers links to tens of thousands of free repair guides.