At Repair Cafes, ‘Beloved but Broken’ Possessions Find New Life


The Repair Cafe concept has its roots in Amsterdam, where Martine Postma, a former journalist, came up with the idea after the birth of her second child prompted her to think more about ways to reduce the waste going into landfills. Repair Cafe started in 2009 and spread across the Netherlands. Today, it has more than 1,100 sites in almost 30 countries.


Helen Karsten with a stuffed animal in need of mending.

John Wackman

Clothes, books, dolls, stuffed animals, bicycles, appliances, chairs, jewelry, electronics — if they are broken, ripped or inoperable and you can carry it in, repair coaches will try to fix it. (But no gas engines, please.)

“One of the things that makes it challenging and interesting is that we don’t know what people are going to bring,” Ray Pfau, an organizer of a Repair Cafe in Bolton, Mass., said in an email.

Lamps top the list of items brought in to be repaired, followed by vacuum cleaners, Mr. Wackman said. The types of repairs offered vary by location and reflect the particular talent in a community, he said.

New Paltz has a repair person with a national reputation as a doll expert. It also has a “Listening Corner” with a psychiatric nurse “because being listened to is a ‘reparative act,’ ” he said.

The cafes invite people to bring their “beloved but broken” possessions to the gatherings, which are hosted in church basements, libraries, town halls and senior centers. The cafes make no guarantees that items will be fixed.

“All we can guarantee is that you will have an interesting time,” Mr. Wackman said.

The gatherings tend to draw professionals, retirees and hobbyists who volunteer as repair coaches.


The New Paltz United Methodist Church in New Paltz, N.Y., hosting a Repair Cafe.

“It’s a truism of human nature that people like to show off what they know,” Mr. Wackman said. “That said, there is a lot of gratification on both sides of the table.”

The gatherings generally last about four hours. No preregistration is required, and those with broken items frequently travel from afar to attend. While there is no charge for the repairs, donations are accepted. The Repair Cafe Foundation provides groups with information to help get started, including lists of tools, tips for raising money and marketing materials.

For Liz Pickett of New Paltz, the Repair Cafe is a chance to fight a consumer culture driven by buying new products instead of fixing old ones. “It opened my eyes to the fact that this stuff is built to fail,” she said.

Products today are manufactured in a way that make their parts inaccessible, so that if they break, it’s just easier to buy a new one, she said.

Ms. Pickett, a single mother of four — two boys, ages 17 and 14; and twin girls, 11 — said the cafe helped extend the life of headphones and a laptop for her children.

“I would not be able to replace every single thing they break,” she said. “Are you kidding me?”

Elizabeth Knight, a cafe organizer who lived in Hoboken, N.J., for more than 20 years, said she often found “great trash picking” there. When she moved to Warwick, about 60 miles northwest of New York City, she learned that the village hosted a spring cleanup during which residents discarded furnishings and other bulk items that did not get picked up with the ordinary trash.

“I was stunned at what I saw,” she said, referring to the kinds of discarded materials that could gain a second life if repaired. She said the Repair Cafe “is all part of the jigsaw puzzle of what do we do with our stuff.”

The gatherings engender a sense of camaraderie as volunteers learn the stories of the items they repair. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, a woman went to a cafe in Warwick as it was winding down, Ms. Knight recalled. She had a silver cylinder on a necklace with a broken clasp.

When Ms. Knight told her that repairs were finishing for the day, the woman began to cry. The cylinder held the ashes of her grandson, who died when he was 22. She had worn the necklace every day since.

Suzanne O’Brien, a cafe volunteer, sat back down and worked on the necklace. The woman smiled through her tears when Ms. Knight hooked the repaired chain around her neck.

“It’s not just about fixing things,” Ms. Knight said. “It’s about the community, also.”

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