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What are repair cafés?

Blog | By Sonia Zhuravlyova | Jan 09, 2019


This morning, the Today programme featured repair cafés. Meanwhile, the EU is encouraging us to repair things rather than throw them away. What are they?

The idea of repair cafés was born in Amsterdam in 2007 and swiftly spread across the world. The premise is simple enough: instead of throwing away your rusty toaster, faulty vacuum cleaner or knackered kettle, you take it to a café or social space, where knowledgeable volunteers help you understand what’s gone wrong and then show you how to mend it.

It’s a skill – and a mindset – that’s been eroded by rampant consumerism and in-built obsolescence, says Alison Winfield-Chislett, who runs frequent repair cafés at the Goodlife Centre, near London’s Borough Market.

‘You can really sense the frustration: people don’t want to throw things away but don’t know how to fix them either,’ she says. ‘And we are all now much less familiar with the idea that a stitch in time saves nine.’

What’s more, she says, manufacturers often make it tricky for us to fix things, by either making the innards of our white goods hard to access, or frequently changing components so that it’s impossible to replace parts.

‘We don’t have a relationship with much of our stuff; we just use it without understanding how it works,’ she says. ‘But the more knowledge you have, the more investment you can have in an item, and fixing it gives you a sense of ownership as well.’

There are now more than 1,500 such cafés worldwide – and their ranks are swelling. Initiatives such as the Restart Project, which runs regular Restart Parties, have found an enthusiastic audience since launching in 2012. Here people teach each other how to repair their broken and slow electronic devices. Even the tiniest of objects – so easy to toss into a bin and replace – are fixed by ‘restarters’. No job is too small, from tablets and toasters to iPhones and headphones. The Restart Project’s logo is a spanner in the middle of a circle, and its motto proclaims encouragingly, ‘Don’t despair, just repair.’

Attendees range from people who can’t afford to buy new things to those who don’t like the idea of throwing stuff away, and those who simply love tinkering. And while they’re sweating over circuit boards, there is time for a chat, too: where that cake-mixer came from; how much this TV cost; where this camera was used last. The events are a labour of love for the fixers, for whom no problem goes unexamined or unprodded. It’s also heartening to know that, on average, the repairers will divert 55lb of waste from going to landfill after each such gathering.

These repair events aren’t the preserve of people who can remember living through the actual era of ‘make do and mend’. The Library of Things, started by a group of twentysomethings in south London, is an enterprise where useful items – be they tents, drills or wetsuits – can be borrowed at knockdown prices, meaning these items are not left to gather cobwebs in sheds or attics after just one use. The library also runs repair parties and skill-sharing workshops.

Make do and mend? Sounds like a fine idea for our times.