If it’s broke, try to fix it
Thanks to Joanne Priest, a regular organiser of Repair Cafes for this Months blog post. You can read Jo's Wordpress Blog
Question: What’s free, helps the environment, helps you to meet people and make new friends, skills you up, let’s you have interesting philosophical chats (or is that just me?), drink tea and eat biscuits, and saves you money?
Answer: The Repair Café.
I can’t remember when I first heard of the Repair Café phenomenon sweeping the globe, but I do remember the first time I went to one. It was held at the St Paul’s Learning Centre one Saturday morning in November, and I went along clutching a non-functioning blender and low expectations. I remember approaching the group of friendly volunteers, busily unscrewing things with screwdrivers, sewing things up and generally being industrious and convivial. I was encouraged to take my blender apart and given advice on what to look for, and then shown that my blender had worked all along, and it was just an attachment that was at fault. I remember my sense of wonderment. After all, this was happening in my ‘hood, for free, no charge, gratis, and with free tea, and plenty of smiles. Awesome. It seems that there IS such a thing as a free lunch, or at least, a free fix of a household appliance otherwise destined for landfill from a person who is just doing it for the love of it. It’s striking that in our modern society where everything has a price tag, that this is such an alien concept.
So when they told me that there was another one opening up in my local library, about 1 minute’s walk from where I live in Easton, I went along. More fixing successes followed; a vacuum cleaner unblocked and a zip replaced on a favourite dress. And because things happen organically in a totally cooperative organisation with no hierarchy and no constituted structure and absolutely no profit involved, I ended up being a co-host for my local café. Although I have no particular fixing expertise beyond sewing on the odd button, I am good at talking to people and organising and things, so I just let the very capable volunteer fixers do their own thing and hope to absorb some of their skills and knowhow by osmosis. I am woefully underskilled in practical matters, and the repairs café gives me a great opportunity to take things to bits (fun) and put them back together again (satisfying). I also learn about how things are made, what bits can be replaced, what can’t, and what to buy in future so that I don’t end up with an item that’s likely to go wrong, and end up in landfill within a year or two. And like so many others who end up volunteering at the Repair Café, I have a newfound confidence about my ability to solve simple household or gadgetry issues. Confidence – you can’t put a price on that!
There’s nothing quite like the buzz of a successful café, with lots of happy people taking their mended possessions home with them, or with tips and knowledge on how to fix their item, even if it hasn’t been successful on the day. I have really enjoyed being a part of it, not least because I have met lots of pleasant, interesting people who are as keen as I am to end the consumerist cycle of constantly replacing broken items with new. But more importantly, it reminds me that I am part of a wider community. That people, even complete strangers, are approachable and kind. And this is an incredibly valuable and potent thing to know, especially in a fractured society where we are separate and encouraged to remain so.
A society made up of the fearful and the un-trusting is a society that is easy to manipulate, either into spending more money on crap we don’t need, or into supporting suspect political causes that result in the election of governments which operate in the service of big business, banks and corporations rather than ordinary people like us, living in ordinary communities like ours.
The Repair Café phenomenon is just that. Started in Amsterdam in 2007 by Martine Postma and with over 1500 cafes globally, and currently four in Bristol (St Pauls, Fishponds, Bedminster, and Horfield) it is an idea that has captured the public imagination and taken off in ways that no one had imagined. But perhaps we should be less surprised. After all, it is a common sense solution to so many of our collective woes: it helps people save their money, helps to keep the environment clean and safe, helps to promote community and cohesion, and counter loneliness and isolation. It also encourages skill sharing, problem solving, team work and the sense of a good job well done. The importance of the ethos of the Repair Café cannot be overstated AND if everything operated along similar lines, we would have a more equal, happier society. We’d be living in a world where we are truly mindful of the consequences of unimpeded waste and environmental destruction. Essentially, this is one idea where we are sticking it squarely to ‘the man’ and having a jolly good time while we’re going about it.
Conversely, it seems that our institutions and governments are less taken with it. For example, while individual people within local government here in Bristol might see the merit in what we are doing, the machinery of our bureaucratic institutions are creating obstacles, and in some cases, there is suspicion and downright hostility from certain quarters. It seems that there is still some misunderstanding about what the Repair Café does and does not do. For example, we don’t take revenue from charity shops, since charity shops don’t sell broken goods or clothes. And we’re not a charity ourselves, and so we don’t take any money from anyone. We are not professional fixers, and so if you take something to a Repair Café and it subsequently breaks, we are not liable, but since no money has exchanged hands, nobody feels cheated. However, we do have an approximate success rate of 85%, in line with the international average of Repair Cafes, and that’s surely something to be proud of.
I think it’s important for us that we leave money out of the equation, since it turns something that is done out of a genuine desire for good - a purer motive - into something where somebody somewhere has a vested interest. Much has been made of ‘sustainability’ but I would argue that money does not necessarily equate to sustainability. In fact, it often stifles it. There are many among us who want to show that it’s possible to do something differently, without money and price tags muddying the waters. Perhaps this makes the Repair Café unique, but surely that’s the point. I fervently hope that in time it will prove to be a less unique model.
Sadly in Easton, we lost our place at the local library with a casual email sent with less than 24 hours’ notice of the commencement of the café. We only have one a month, so the timing really could have been better, particularly as we had made an effort to promote it locally. Posters up, flyers sent, social media invites out and…sorry, no café. I don’t want to be negative or turn this blog post into a rant about Bristol City Council, except to say that there are better, more courteous, ways to deal with the citizens of this fair city. Instead, I would extend an invitation outwards to any member of any government institution or political party, and ask them to come to a Repair Café themselves. Come along, have a cup of tea, get something fixed, see what we do, and then decide whether or not it’s a good thing for Bristol and what you can do to help us. Be part of the change we so desperately need to see.
In the meantime, after some further discussions with BCC who did offer an apology or two, we are on the lookout for another venue for Easton as it would be a shame not to have one here. We have had some initial offers and will be looking into these, but if anyone has any further suggestions, we would be grateful. Please check out our Facebook page for the Bristol Repair Café network to find out when and where they are happening.
If you’re reading this from further afield, perhaps there is one happening near you? I’d really like to hear from anyone who has a positive story to share about their local café, so please feel free to comment!