Walk into a Repair Cafe any Saturday or Sunday afternoon, somewhere in the Hudson Valley, and you’ll find a hive of activity. In the front corner, an expert seamstress is sewing a torn backpack. In the back, someone is drilling into the plastic housing of a broken air cleaner, trying to access parts that the manufacturer envisioned as non-user-repairable. A chair stands on a table in clamps, glue drying. And people are constantly carrying lamps to and fro.
Hudson Valley Repair Cafe describes their events as community spaces to bring a beloved, but broken item to be repaired for free. Community “repair coaches” bring their skills — and their specialized equipment — to help anyone who walks in to repair their item.
At the Woodstock Repair Cafe last month, Dave West was scrutinizing the back of a watch under a magnifying lamp and prizing at it with a set of small pointy tools. West founded the Schenectady Repair Cafe and often travels around the Hudson Valley sharing his skills at other Repair Cafes.
“People should fix the things they own. Otherwise those things own them.”
“People should fix the things they own,” he said. “Otherwise those things own them.” He traces his interest in fixing things to his great great grandparents, who brought everything they owned by wagon across the continent to Oregon. “You can bet they knew how to fix everything they had,” he said.
I had brought in my main kitchen knife to be sharpened, and after a few more minutes with the watch, West put away his watch repair kit and got out his knife sharpening tools. He asked me a few questions about how I use the knife — for cutting bone, or only softer things? — carefully examined the blade, and then tested it against a sheet of paper. It tore an ugly curving rip through the paper, rather than cutting it cleanly — a bad sign.
West then ran it through a specialized gizmo — my technical term, not his — to remove the nicks I had gotten in it. Then a few swift strokes along another instrument, and he tested it again. This time it sliced straight through the paper. West then got out a sharpening steel and taught me how to hold the knife and run it fluidly along the steel in both directions. Different knives are sharpened at different angles, West explained. Mine should be held at about 15 degrees to the steel. If I did this every few days, I could keep it in good shape.
As he was putting away the knife kit and getting ready for the next repair, I asked West why he travels all over the region on his weekends offering all this help. “It’s not just about the things,” he said. “It’s about the people, the connections. And even more than that, the stories. Because people don’t bring in any old thing to repair. They’re treasures, heirlooms even, that have been sitting on a shelf.”
One time, West recalled, a woman brought in a music box that had been in her family since she was a little girl. It was made in Switzerland, probably in the 1890s, West said. It had stopped working when she was still young. West guessed that the spring had been overwound. He was able to take it apart, unwind and rewind the spring, and it started playing again. “She hadn’t heard the music in 40 years,” West said. “She was delighted.”
Kappa Waugh, who helped me with a frustrating homemade jewelry problem at the Esopus Repair Cafe in June, expressed a similar sentiment. “We all have broken things in our lives, physically and metaphysically,” she said. “People have sentimental treasures. They might remind you of a romance, or a family member, or a special trip. They just lie there, rebuking you. We can make them right.”
As to why she comes in every other month to help people fix their jewelry, she said, “I like being useful. I’ve been given talents. I can make use of them.” And she says, she’s enjoying the community of it, making friends she never would have met otherwise.
Speaking at the East Northeast Green Tech Conference in Newburgh in June, Orange County Legislator Kevindaryan Lujan was an enthusiastic booster of the Newburgh Repair Cafe. The latest one was held on the sidewalk like a small community fair, he said, with kettle corn, games, face painting, and flowers. Thirteen bicycles were repaired, precious family pictures were resurrected from an ailing computer, and a microwave and a TV were both saved from the landfill by 50 cent parts. “But it was not just about the things that were repaired that weren’t going to landfills,” he said. “It was also about our community.”
John Wackman, who calls himself the coordinator, communicator, and cheerleader for the 30-plus Repair Cafes in the Hudson Valley, agrees. He says it’s important to understand the Repair Cafes in a much larger context: the repair movement, and the re-creation of a repair culture.
“How do you turn a throw-away economy around?” he asks. “It’s like turning a battleship. We’re extending the useful life of items, yes. We’re also bringing in people who have those skills, honoring them and their skills, and giving them an opportunity to share them and pass them on.” And he says, arguably the most important piece is community building and creating community resilience, “and having fun.”
Repair Cafes were started in Amsterdam in 2009 by Martine Postma. Now there are nearly 2000 worldwide in 33 countries. “The newest one is at the Philmont library tomorrow,” Wackman adds, grinning.
Wackman moved to the Hudson Valley in 2010, after retiring from a career in TV production. In May 2012, he read a New York Times “Amsterdam Journal” column about the Amsterdam Repair Cafes. The founders of the first four Repair Cafes in the US — in Palo Alto, Pittsfield, Pasadena, and Wackman in New Paltz — all read that column, Wackman said. “We all read it on the same day.”
“As a TV producer,” he said, “the skill set is pulling people together with a wide range of talents to work in a single project. It’s a similar skill set to organize a Repair Cafe. I walked around with that article in my back pocket and just started asking people: ‘Do you think this is a good idea?’ And after the tenth person said yes, I started asking, ‘What are your skills? Who do you know?’”
Now there are three or four Repair Cafes nearly every weekend throughout the Hudson Valley through most of the year. There are only two “rules”, Wackman says. It’s free, and it’s not a drop-off service. We really encourage people to engage in the repair, to help out and learn.
“In taking up repair, we initiate a conversation about the ethics of care.”
Wackman is now working on a book about the Repair Revolution. “In taking up repair,” he says, “We initiate a conversation about the ethics of care. Of our things, yes, but also of our communities.” He ties the repair movement to ancient spiritual notions of Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world, as well as the monastic tradition, and to contemporary notions of radical hospitality. “People come because they have something that’s broken,” he said. “It does not self-select for political party, view on climate change, religion, opinion about capitalism, or anything else, but there you all are together. And people get talking about all kinds of things.”
Andrea, who greeted me at the door of the Esopus Repair Cafe, calls it “a celebration of life.” She first came in earlier this year with her 1961 Electrolux vacuum cleaner. It still worked just fine, but the wheels had worn out so badly that it wouldn’t roll around the house anymore. The repair coach helped her rig an alternative, so she could continue using it. Now she volunteers every other month.
“I see people’s faces when they come in,” she says. “When they leave, they’re ecstatic.”