“…When fixing items is actively discouraged by manufacturers, repair becomes a political act.”
— Stuart Ward, repair café volunteer
My grandfather made his own electric lawn mower out of a pair of scrap metal blades and a washing machine motor that he pulled out of one of the machines at an apartment complex he owned, and repaired.
One of my childhood “jobs” was mowing my grandparents’ lawn. I have to admit, it was a pain in the ass to mow with Grandpa’s contraption; there was a method to it that had to be applied to efficiently work around the electrical extension cord. After I ran over the cord one too many times (Grandpa spliced and repaired it, of course) we compromised and he got me an old-school push lawn mower. I couldn’t do too much damage with that, and it turned mowing the lawn into a workout, which was kinda cool.
Ken Ginter was a rancher from North Dakota, the scion of thrifty, practical German stock. And he’d been through the Great Depression. With that background, the idea of throwing something out when it broke was almost obscene. You took care of your tools and equipment and if something broke, you fixed it. You salvaged “junk” and cannibalized working parts from one defunct machine to work in another. And if your lawnmower looked funky, well, it got the job done, didn’t it?
I had some appreciation for Grandpa’s way of doing things when he was alive — and a great deal more now. Planned obsolescence and a throwaway culture would have seemed unethical and grotesque to him. As they are.
I thought of Grandpa when I saw an article in The Guardian: “Can we fix it? The Repair Cafés Waging War On Throwaway Culture.”
A vacuum cleaner, a hair straightener, a laptop, Christmas lights, an e‑reader, a blender, a kettle, two bags, a pair of jeans, a remote-control helicopter, a spoon, a dining-room chair, a lamp and hair clippers. All broken.
It sounds like a pile of things that you’d stick in boxes and take to the tip. In fact, it’s a list of things mended in a single afternoon by British volunteers determined to get people to stop throwing stuff away.
Apparently, the first Repair Café was launched in 2009 by a Dutch woman named Marine Postuma in Amsterdam. She’s since created a foundation to help other outfits get going in other cities. The idea is not only to get your item — clothing, furniture, appliance, whatever — fixed, but to participate in the repair and learn something while you’re at it.
I love this.
I try hard not to get caught up in the throwaway culture. My boots can be resoled (if I can find a cobbler); both our vehicles are well over 10 years old. My guitar and my rifle are patinaed from the play of my hands on their finish. The guitar had to be repaired and revived at the hands of a luthier when its neck was broken in a sickening fall. There’s a visible crack repair at the base of the neck, but she plays just fine.
I’m temperamentally inclined to favor the old and the tried and true over the shiny and new. But plain old household items and appliances? I’m inclined to chuck ’em when they wear out (in short order, just like they’re supposed to). While I’m pretty good at field-expedient repairs and fixes, I’m not especially mechanically handy. I sure as hell couldn’t fix a vacuum cleaner — and wouldn’t take the time to do it if I could.
So the idea that there are folks who’ll do that sort of thing for fun — and as an act of cultural rebellion — delights me. And if I’m supposed to help and learn, it’d help me overcome my aversion to tinkering.
There’s gotta be a repair café in Central Oregon…