Popularized in the Netherlands and now gaining traction in the U.S., the repair cafe movement fosters and promotes community gatherings where experienced volunteers are on-hand to fix 'beloved but broken' consumer goods for no charge. (Photo: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images)
Ahhh, European café culture — where else but in cities like Vienna and Paris will you find charming caffeine dispensaries that serve as the default epicenters of social life? (Added bonus: world-class people watching from rattan chairs positioned along the sidewalk.)
And then there’s Amsterdam.
For the initiated, café culture in Amsterdam can be a touch bewildering. Establishments described as “coffee shops,” in actuality specialize in cannabis (not coffee), while Amsterdam’s famed "brown cafés" are cozy and boozy wood-paneled neighborhood institutions that function more like taverns than anything else. But repair cafés, a concept founded in Amsterdam in 2009 by Martine Postma, are exactly what they sounds like: a place where locals can sit back, relax and enjoy a coffee or tea while they have their toaster oven fixed by someone — a friend or neighbor, perhaps — who is skilled at working with small appliances.
Alternately, these community hubs function as friendly and supportive places for folks in possession of broken consumer goods to build confidence and try fixing the items themselves. After all, sometimes all a neophyte fixer needs is an encouraging environment and the right tools to tackle a repair project.
Whether passing off an in-need-of-repair item — be it a bicycle, a pair of boots or a beloved teddy bear — to more experienced hands or opting to go the fix-it-yourself route, the end goal of repair cafés is to curb waste by keeping mendable items out of landfills and in circulation for as long as possible.
It took time for Postma's throwaway culture-fighting concept to catch on outside of the famously pragmatic confines of the Netherlands. But as the New York Times reports, nearly a decade later, repair cafés can be found in great abundance. Today, there are roughly 1,100 repair cafés — some pop-up establishments, other more permanent — found in nearly 30 countries. The Amsterdam-based Repair Café Foundation, a grassroots nonprofit in which Postma is still actively involved, serves as a sort of resource-heavy mothership for the movement and works to promote and provide guidance to the nascent repair cafés popping up across the globe.
Some repair cafés are equipped with reading areas so that aspiring tinkerers and DIY technicians can brush up on new skills by perusing repair and home-improvement minded books and magazines. As the Repair Café Foundation notes, some folks even pop into repair cafés empty-handed; they’re content with sipping a hot beverage and watching the magic of community-supported revamping, refurbishing and rejuvenating unfold.
The popularity of the repair café movement, a movement that aims to “teach people to see their possessions in a new light,” has even inspired some governments to promote repairing in lieu of throwing out and buying new. Take Sweden, for example, which has proposed rewarding residents who fix instead of toss through lucrative tax breaks.
From the Netherlands to New York's Hudson Valley
In the United States, where, in 2013, Americans produced 254 million tons of potentially salvageable rubbish, the Times notes that repair cafés can be found in community centers, church basements, libraries and vacant storefronts in 11 different states, ranging from Nebraska to New Hampshire.
There’s a whole slew to be found in New York, most of them situated north of New York City in the Hudson Valley where eight repair cafés have been established with more on the way. This isn’t entirely surprising considering the Hudson Valley’s growing population of eco-conscious NYC expats who have fled the city for more pastoral trappings where specialized, for-profit repair shops are far and few between.
John Wackman, a Hudson Valley resident who launched a repair café in the Ulster County village of New Paltz, notes that his fellow Hudson Valley-ites have a “strong ethos of community.”
Wackman goes on note that lamps (go figure) are the most common items in need of fixing at the Hudson Valley’s growing network of repair cafés. Vacuum cleaners are a close second.
Wackman also explains that the types of repairs performed at individual cafés throughout the region depend largely on the availability of local volunteer talent. For example, the New Paltz café boasts a “repair person with a national reputation as a doll expert.” So someone with a Madame Alexander doll in need of mending living across the river in Rhinebeck, for example, will likely want to make the short trek to New Paltz instead of visiting the repair café in their own community. In addition to a doll repair specialist, the New Paltz repair café, hosted within the New Paltz United Method Church, also has enlisted a psychiatric nurse to man an in-house “Listening Corner” because, according to Wackman, “being listened to is a ‘reparative act.’”
Liz Pickett is one New Paltz resident who has taken advantage of the services offered by the volunteer “repair coaches” found at her local Repair Café, which to be clear, isn’t openly daily like an ordinary café but, instead, is held the third Saturday of every month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (Some repair cafés, particularly the more established European ones, function more like regular, volunteer-run businesses and less like special events.)
“It opened my eyes to the fact that this stuff is built to fail,” Pickett, a single mother of four children, says of her experience bringing in woefully busted items such as a laptop and headphones to the New Paltz Repair Café. “I would not be able to replace every single thing they break.”
“Many items carry deep meaning for the owner, and indeed there are laughter and tears of joy at Repair Café,” reads the New Paltz Repair Café’s profile page. “Feelings of gratitude are strong. And those of us who make the repairs feel equally gratified.”
The page goes on to note that this Hudson Valley fix-it hub’s “touchstone from the start” has been the Leonard Cohen song lyric: “There is a crack in everything. That is how the light gets in.”
Has a repair café been established in your neck of the woods?