A little more than a decade ago, Martine Postma, a journalist in the Netherlands, noticed something had changed since her childhood in the 1970s. When a household item — a clock, a vacuum cleaner, a chair — broke, people used to try to fix it. Now, their first impulse was to throw it away.
As a writer focused on sustainability issues, she was disturbed by that.
“Why do we make so much waste on a daily basis?” she recalls asking herself. “Because we no longer do repairs. So I had this idea to reintroduce repairs as a normal and attractive activity in daily life.”
She came up with a solution that led to a career change and inspired an international grass-roots movement: a regular gathering at which people with broken items can bring them to a place where other people can try to fix them. In 2009, she did a trial run in Amsterdam — and it drew many more people than she expected. Word spread, and soon a network of what became known as Repair Cafés began to spread across the Netherlands and beyond.
Turning her attention to it full time, Postma started the Repair Café International Foundation. She wrote a manual on how to organize the cafes and put together a starter kit. There are now nearly 1,700 cafes in 35 countries, including 75 in the United States, 30 in Canada and 450 in the Netherlands.
Most are in Western Europe and North America, “where people have more money to spend and little time to focus on repairs, and where new items are cheaply available, and it’s cheaper to buy a new product than to get the old one fixed,” Postma said. The United States is among the top five municipal waste generators per capita among developed countries, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (Repair culture is still alive and well in underdeveloped countries, Postma said, although she did hear from someone in India who wanted to start a cafe.)
The repairs do more than extend the life of the items: They also create community. “You get to know your neighbors, to see that the person you pass on the street that you never talk to has some valuable knowledge and is not just a strange old guy,” Postma said.
Repairers tend to skew older (“old people still have the skills, and also the time to spend”), but Postma, 48, is trying to contact younger generations and has started holding demonstrations at schools so children can become familiar with the concept.
Repair Cafés are not fully predictable. Repairers can be presented with almost any kind of item, from a pocket watch to a piano organ to a pinball machine. And the exchanges that take place would be hard to find at a Best Buy. To understand the significance of an item, repairers might ask, “How long have you had this item? What does it mean to you?”
“There are stories of people being attached to a thing because their father left it for them, or they had it from long ago,” Postma said. "People are so grateful and happy, so that created a very special atmosphere. That really moves me.”
Margo Duesterhaus, 52, who has organized eight or nine cafes in Maryland’s Howard County over the past couple of years, agreed. “It builds community because they sit with the fixer while their item is being fixed. The goal is to teach the person … to get people to be more self-sufficient, so when something breaks they can fix it themselves.”
The cafes in Howard County take place in libraries and churches and last about three hours, during which 100 items might be fixed.
Charlie Goedeke, 68, a retired electrical engineer who lives in North Laurel, Md., helps organize them and is also a repairer. “I’m kind of a jack of all trades,” he said. “I think of broken things as being wonderful puzzles … I love looking at it, figuring out what it is and how it’s supposed to work and what might be wrong with it."
The Howard County cafes have started offering workshops for people to learn how to fix certain items, such as electric lamps. Like the cafes themselves, they are free but accept donations.
Older items tend to be easier to fix, especially those manufactured before 1980. “The more modern items are more complicated and less visible,” Postma said. “The old one might have a few wires that need to be connected, but the modern products have chips, technology, and the casing is often sealed or melted together, or have special screws that nobody has a screwdriver for.”
They are also designed to last less long. “That’s unfortunately part of the planned obsolescence of our society,” Duesterhaus said, adding that the cafes she organizes do not fix certain items, such as smartphones, tablets and laptops.
As interest grows, organizers are contacted by people who want to start cafes themselves. And they are not all old. Tyler Bernotas, 16, of Phoenixville, Pa., attended one of the Howard County cafes with his grandfather, Ray Pfau, 73, of Bolton, Mass. Pfau, a retired schoolteacher and computer programmer, had helped organize several repair cafes in Massachusetts, and Tyler plans to start one next month in his own town.
Growing up, Tyler spent a lot of time with another grandfather in Tennessee who was handy around the house. “We’d end up making what we needed,” he said. “It really sort of inspired me to learn how things worked better, and rely on myself to fix things.”
That gives Pfau hope that the know-how won’t die with his generation. “We’re going to be gone not that long in the future, so to have other people, especially young people, is great.”