hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues September 2016


At this cafe, repairs are on the menu

Pittsfield group counters throwaway society by fixing household items

Contributing writer



A volunteer helps to repair a broken picture frame at the Pittsfield Repair Cafe. Every month from March through October, the group gathers to fix household items that might otherwise wind up in landfills or remain stashed unused in attics and basements. Courtesy photo

The volunteers who gather most months in downtown Pittsfield are going against the grain of our disposable culture -- by joining forces to fix or mend household items that otherwise might wind up in the trash.

Since 2013, organizers of the Repair Café have been inviting the public to bring broken, torn or malfunctioning items – everything from clocks to clothing to vacuum cleaners – to a local church hall for diagnosis and repair.

The cafe, held on the third Saturday of the month from March through October, partly aims to foster the traditional values of neighborliness and community building. All repairs are performed free of charge, with no obligations or strings attached.

“It’s basically an organized version of the good Samaritan,” said Bruce R. Henry, a volunteer and founding member of the cafe. “The volunteers enjoy helping people out, and it’s useful for the clients. It makes everyone feel good.”

The Repair Café is an independent, informal group with a core of about 25 volunteers. It meets in the parish hall of St. Stephen’s Church, at Park Square in downtown Pittsfield. The monthly cafes are open from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. The final two cafes of this year are scheduled for Sept. 17 and Oct. 15.

One of the core principles of the Repair Café is that it is environmentally preferable to keep using household gadgets, small appliances, clothing and other items for as long as possible, rather than prematurely throwing them out and adding to landfills and the waste stream. Organizers say fixing old things reduces the use of resources and the pollution required to produce replacements.

“Anytime you can repair something instead of throwing it away, that’s a social gain,” Henry explained.

He noted that many of the people who bring broken items to the café feel it’s wasteful to throw things out if they could be fixed.

“We get a large cross-section of people,” Henry said. “There are people who are financially struggling and need this service. We also get people who can afford to buy something new, but they are ecologically conscious and believe it’s better to fix something than throw it out.”
At the cafes, volunteers set up worktables and equipment, such as sewing machines, along with other supplies and tools.

It’s a walk-in event, and no appointments are required. The café is equipped to handle a variety of items, including clothing, shoes, lamps, vacuum cleaners, clocks, radios, computers, kitchen utensils, small furniture, toys, dolls, bicycles, musical instruments and other objects.
Volunteers examine and diagnose the items that people bring in. They fix mechanical components, make electrical repairs, sew on buttons, mend clothes, refurbish furniture, and even help people solve computer issues. The volunteers also perform maintenance tasks, such as sharpening knives and garden tools.

The Repair Café is also a social event. The monthly meetings include a refreshment table with food and beverages prepared by volunteers. They cafes feature live music -- and a table with free items people can take.

“It’s not a charity,” said Rosemary Starace, a volunteer who coordinates the monthly food table. “It’s about neighbors helping neighbors, and building community, and having fun while doing it. It is also a way to respect objects and to keep them out of the waste stream.”


International movement
The Pittsfield Repair Café is an independent, local group in which volunteers handle all of the tasks involved in promoting and organizing the individual monthly gatherings.
But the café is also a local manifestation of an international movement that was started in the Netherlands by Martine Postma, the woman who organized the original Repair Café in Amsterdam in 2009.

Postma subsequently launched the Repair Café Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides informational material and other support to those starting local cafes internationally. The foundation currently lists 1,141 Repair Cafes around the world on its Web site (repaircafe.org).
The Pittsfield Repair Café has its roots in an informal local discussion group called the Resilience Circle.

The Resilience Circle was led by Tom Harter and Janet Henderson, a couple who lived in Pittsfield at the time. They invited others in the community to meet regularly to discuss issues related to sustainability and community self-reliance.

“Tom and Janet learned about the Repair Café and suggested it to the Resilience Circle as a project,” said Henry, who had been a member of the discussion group. “We decided to do it, and that basically replaced the Resilience Circle.”

Harter and Henderson initially handled many of the tasks involved in organizing the monthly cafes. They have since moved out of the area.

“It was an adjustment, because they had done so much of the work in organizing the cafes,” Starace said. “However, all of us who were involved wanted to keep it going after they left. So we reorganized and have spread out the responsibilities.”

The small monthly rent paid to the church and the cost of supplies are either provided by the volunteers or covered by donations. Although repairs are free, clients often make voluntary contributions.

The Pittsfield group currently is the only Repair Café in the region. But there have been efforts to start Repair Cafes or informal variations of the concept in other communities, including in Williamstown, where a repair gathering was held earlier this year.

“There have been a number of people from other localities who are interested in doing this and have come to the Pittsfield Repair Café to see how we operate,” Henry said.

There has been interest in setting up similar groups in Lenox, Great Barrington and several communities across the New York state line.

Three years ago, volunteer John Wackman organized a Repair Café in New Paltz, N.Y. That in turn led to the formation of Hudson Valley Repair Café (www.repaircafehv.org), a network that also includes local cafes in Kingston, Rhinebeck, Poughkeepsie, Rosendale and Gardiner.


Specialized skills
In Pittsfield, the volunteers who do the repairs include people with skills and experience in mechanical and electrical work, carpentry and woodworking, sewing and other specialties, including musical instruments.

Among them are professionals in related fields who are retired -- or who are currently working and donate their time to the cafe.

“For example, we have a professional upholsterer who is really talented at heavy-duty sewing,” Henry said. “He brings in a sewing machine and does an expert job on fabric repairs and doing things like sewing on zippers.”

Others have different forms of technical knowledge.
“We have people with backgrounds in professions such as engineering,” said Henry, a retiree who was an energy analyst and mathematician at General Electric Co. in Pittsfield.

The volunteers also include amateurs and hobbyists with specialized knowledge and skills. There are also people who generally enjoy tinkering and are the equivalent of a helpful, jack-of-all-trades neighbor one might call for assistance.

“What the people who do the repairs have in common is that they’re people who are handy and not afraid to take things apart and look at them closely and figure things out,” Henry explained.
Others have contributed non-mechanical skills, including a lawyer who has provided free legal advice.

Some volunteers help in ways unrelated to the actual repair work, such as by preparing the snacks and drinks at the refreshment table or by handling publicity, checking in guests, setting up the church hall and carrying out all manner of other support tasks.


Many objects, many stories
The café attracts a wide range of people who bring in items for diverse reasons.
“The number of people who come in with items goes up and down from month to month,” Henry said. “We work on an average of between 20 to 35 items each month, but we’ve done as many as 50 items or more. At the most recent one, I sharpened about a dozen knives and garden shears, for example.”

The opportunity to have important possessions fixed at no charge is financially important for people with modest incomes and is a key aspect of the café’s mission.

But the project is designed for the entire community, and people participate and use the café’s services for a mix of philosophical, practical and sentimental motivations.
Starace noted that people often have highly individual reasons for attending.

“A person might have a beloved heirloom they inherited from their grandmother, and they bring it in because they’d like to see it operating again,” she said. “Someone else might be older and can’t do things they used to do, like sewing on buttons, and need some help.”

She said she recently had a zither repaired by a couple of volunteers who were experts in musical instruments.

Whenever possible, volunteers perform the needed repairs on the spot. When additional parts or more extensive professional work is needed, they explain what specifically is wrong and the type of repair that’s needed.

“We keep a good supply of things that are needed on hand,” Henry said. “But if it requires something we don’t have, we’ll tell them what they need to buy. Often they’ll bring it back with the replacement part, and we can do the repair.”

In some cases the volunteers must simply deliver the news that an item is beyond repair.
“Sometimes we’re like a gatekeeper, to ease people’s concerns about ditching an item they don’t want to get rid of,” Henry said. “They might bring in something that they suspect is not fixable, but they want to know that for sure. After we look it over and give them a verdict, it gives them permission to throw it out.”

The volunteers also offer technical assistance and advice about the proper use of some products.

“Sometimes we see bicycles which have been damaged because the riders didn’t use the gears correctly,” Henry said. “In addition to fixing it, we’ll instruct them on how to use the gears properly to prevent the problem from happening again.”

Although many of the items people bring to the café are familiar, the volunteers have dealt with some unusual requests.

“One person brought in a huge stuffed dog doll that was the size of a human that needed mending,” Starace said. “It looked like a hospital operating room, with the dog laid out on the table surrounded by volunteers who were studying it and working on it.”