Forget the Age of Throwaway

Photo by Ann Kathrine Bopp on Unsplash

Do you despair when the coffeemaker goes on the fritz, your cellphone stops responding, or the garden shears prove too dull-witted for the job?  Do you feel a twinge of guilt for abandoning these ailing items or consigning them to the dump? Stay tuned and we’ll tell you how to nurse them back to health. But how did we get stuck with so many blinkered and stuttering appliances in the first place?

The New York Times links the Age of Throwaway to corporate marketing practices. “A giant John Deere tractor and a pocket-size Apple iPhone have something important in common: The cost of repairing either one is too high…The two companies, and many of their peers, use a variety of aggressive tactics, including electronic locks and restrictive warranties, to push customers with broken equipment to seek help from their authorized repair facilities — or to give up and buy a replacement.”

Yet here’s the rub. The habit of tossing things is bad for the landfill, bad for the pocketbook, and just plain bad for the soul. The other problem is that we humanize objects and grow attached to them. And yes, we mourn them when they are gone.

First Aid for Your Possessions

Thanks to Repair Cafe, the brainchild of Dutch journalist, Martine Postma, you can bring  your belongings back to life. Postma has assembled a group of volunteers as skilled and canny as MacGiver. These are the folks who live in their workshops and garages and for whom tinkering is an art. (‘Science Nerd’ should be emblazoned on their T-shirts.) They’re also hobbyists, darners, whittlers and gluers. Whether they have techno or retro skills, all are passionate about mending, re-jiggering and restoring stuff.

Since 2009, the Repair Café in Amsterdam has been matching people with broken objects with people who know how to fix them.  It has now grown to 1100 sites in 29 countries.  These pop-up cafes can be held anywhere—at a local business, church, or school.

The Today Show recently featured the Repair Café in the Hudson Valley, an hour and a half north of New York City.  “What we marveled at,” says NBC’s Harry Smith,  “was the meticulous repair.”  This is a place where people care for things—and in the process learn to care for their neighbors, too.

In Gloucester, England, one patron brought in an old glass lamp that had been on her mother’s bedside table for years. One of the few objects that the elderly woman, who suffers from Alzheimers disease, still recognizes. It’s a more than a fixture. It’s a source of comfort, the last stronghold of memory.

In Bend, Oregon, a man brought in a sturdy 1950s toaster given as a wedding present to his parents. “It worked for many years, and I repaired it once,” he said, “Now I want to see if I can fix it again.”

The Repair Café in Palo Alto, the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, takes care of electronics, home appliances and garden implements while others promise to mend everything from “clocks & dolls to chairs & lamps to necklaces & zippers to CD/DVD players & faded photographs.” At some Repair Cafes, you can even learn how to sew, crochet, knit—or darn a sock.

The Soul of Objects

As Leonard Cohen once sang, “There is a crack in everything, and that’s where the light gets in.” When the volunteers at Repair Café mend an old piece of jewelry, a forgotten heirloom, a much-loved bicycle, or a favorite lamp—magic happens. People come together for the task of restoration—and in the process, share what matters most to them. “It’s nice to be able to wear this watch that belonged to my father,” one man said. Others repair their own childhood toys and pass them on to grandchildren.

In these Cafes, there is a deep respect for conservation skills that belong to another time, another generation. The repairs are an artful collaboration, a kind of mini-apprenticeship—you watch and learn how your objects or devices work. If you check for ‘repair cafe videos’, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the range of services they perform. Or better yet, take the plunge and start one of your own.

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