How to Start a Repair Café

If you've ever found yourself on the phone with a customer service representative telling you it would cost more to fix your electric tea kettle than to just buy a new one, you are well acquainted with the concept of "planned obsolescence." The good news is that people across the world are getting wise to the intentional design flaws hoisted upon us by clever manufacturers eager to sell more products, and are coming up with new and creative ways to salvage perfectly usable things.

Repair Cafés are not only great events to get your vacuum, waffle iron, or lawn mower fixed, but the very nature of their collaborative and community-oriented learning spirit contains the antidote to our modern day throw-away mentality. Conceived by Martine Postma, a Dutch journalist who was no longer willing to just accept that she had to throw things out that could easily be salvaged, the first Repair Café debuted three years ago in Amsterdam.

Since the launch of the Repair Café Foundation there has been a spawning of Repair Cafés across The Netherlands and Europe, and most recently to other parts of the world.

The first Repair Café to become operational in the United States, Repair Café Palo Alto attracted 100 people for their first event in October 2012. Their second event was so popular that the organizers had to turn away 100 of the 300 people who showed up.

Ready to launch a Repair Café in your community? Repair Café Palo Alto co-founder Peter Skinner shared with me some useful things to know before getting started...

1. Getting the Starter Kit

To keep with the Repair Café Foundation's vision to jointly build up a network of active Repair Cafés with all the information easily accessible in one place, the first step before getting started is to request an information package from the Repair Café site.

Once you've introduced yourself to the fine folks at the Repair Café mothership and familiarized yourself with their basic guidelines, it's time to test the waters in your own backyard.

2. Finding a Space

If you happen to own or have access to a place with tons of tools in it, good for you, you're ready to go. If this dream space doesn't (yet) exist, start as a small neighborhood event, perhaps in a driveway or a friend's garage, then grow organically from there.

Another good way to get started is to ask local non-profits, your city, schools, or churches if they have a space they could make available for an afternoon. You can also tap local businesses that make space available on weekends and get their employees involved all at once. Bonus points if you can make friends with the folks at your local hardware store (wink wink, they've got tools).

Repair Café Palo Alto scored big when their local museum not only provided the hosting venue, but staff and board members thought it was such a great idea that they helped launch the event.

3. Locating your Fixers and Equipment

It's impossible to repair toys, printers, or hair driers without the people who know how to do it. It's also challenging to do so without some vital pieces, like tables, power, and tools.

Usually one will lead to the other. If you can hook up with the fixers in your community, chances are they will have some of the tools needed and/or point you in the right direction to locate them. Inviting everyone to a potluck to brainstorm not only helps to figure out logistics but builds the camaraderie that defines the Repair Café spirit.

Peter Skinner feels lucky that his group scored on both ends — he was able to pull together a bunch of like-minded friends with repair skills, then found the perfect ally for the occasion: their local Ace Hardware store offered not only supplies, but an awesome staff enthusiastic about making the kick-off event a big success.

Teaching old puppets new tricks. Photo courtesy Repair Cafe Palo Alto.

4. Preparing for the Event

Now that you have enough skilled repair volunteers, pick a date (weekends are best) and start planning your first event.

Food provides not only the necessary energy for hard-working handy people and absorbent guests but it's the glue that binds the community together. Make sure you have tasty donated treats lined up from local businesses or potluck items from your core volunteers.

You'll also need to recruit volunteer organizers who will pick up donated food, manage the queue (if there is a wait list), sign in people, set up tables, and be there to deal with logistics and spread good repair vibes on the day of the event.

Depending on how large a space you have and how big of an event you are comfortable with, getting the word out can range from emails to your personal networks to contacting listservs, city services, or even your local newspaper or TV station. In Repair Café Palo Alto's case, they had planned a soft launch without PR or major press, but local media got wind of the event and started tooting its horn, which Peter Skinner says made planning a bit more unpredictable. "It doesn't hurt to plan for larger scale," he advises. Generally speaking, the ratio that's turned out to work best for them is 30 volunteers for every 100 visitors, with two thirds of volunteers fixers and one third organizers.

Make sure you publicize the kind of repairs you're prepared for. For example, if you have seamstresses with sewing machines, you can give the green light to visitors with clothes in need of stitching. Likewise, it's good to ask people not to bring products with a low fix rate, like microwaves or CD & DVD players. The more chunks that get repaired successfully, the better your repair crew and visitors alike will feel at the end of the day.

Seamstresses at work. Photo courtesy Repair Cafe Palo Alto.

5. Enjoy Repair Café Day

So you've done all you could to get your space, people, and tools lined up and the big day has arrived. Time to relax and just take it all in... just kidding. Or not.

From active participants eager to learn how to fix their own things all the way to folks who just want to get their toaster toasting again, expect to accommodate a whole spectrum of people. From blenders and jewelry to chairs, luggage and bicycles, there'll be a plethora of items, and more importantly, a whole bunch of neighbors to meet and stories to share. Think about it — repairing a meaningful object not only keeps the valuable materials it's made from out of landfill and prevents the purchase of another shiny new (and poorly designed) gadget, but it adds another chapter to an already illustrious history we have with our most cherished belongings.

One of the essential elements of a Repair Cafe is that people don't just come to drop off broken items to be picked up later like a traditional repair shop, but that everyone is matched up with a repair person to interact, learn, and build a relationship with the processes and materials that go into making our modern day conveniences possible. While some people maintain Repair Cafés are all about teaching people to fix their own stuff, Peter Skinner says his crew has decided to welcome everybody, even if they're just coming to get their lamps fixed. "When people sit side by side with a repair person they're participating just by being there," Skinner says. "We really want to leverage that part, just to educate people to think about repair first."

Sharing their fixer wisdom with the community, two gentlemen work on a lamp fixture at a Repair Cafe. Photo credit: Repair Cafe.

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