Is it subversive to repair things?


I had the pleasure of stopping by a “repair cafe” this past weekend. A repair cafe is an event that matches up people who can repair things with people who need things repaired. Organized by RepairPDX, a local organization that hosts these types of events, anyone was welcome to bring broken objects, with no charge to have them fixed, or at least attempted to be fixed.

Doesn’t sound very radical, does it? Or does it?

Our stuff

I’ve talked about the pointlessness of everyone owning the same thing, but more rarely do I express my opinion that so much of our world is built to be disposable, from electric fans to buildings.

The Story of Stuff was a big influence on me this way, showing me how the our materials life-cycle is set up to encourage waste.

I’ve tried to be a better citizen of the planet when I can, by reducing the amount of disposable stuff I buy and keeping things I buy as long as humanly possible. Anything that is made made obsolete by fashion (which includes a worrying amount of technology) I specifically try to avoid. My last car was 20 years old when it died (and 10 years old when I bought it).

But I had never directly encountered a community group whose purpose is to encourage and facilitate reuse.

The life of a fan

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I walked into the event. The place was in a church event room, in the same place that houses the venerable SE Portland Tool Library. I had expected to see a few people able to sew torn clothes, and perhaps a handyman with a box of hammers and nails.

Instead, what I found was a hive of activity, a dozen or more “repairers” working on a range of objects that included bikes, small appliances, and even electronics.

A woman had brought an electric fan in to be repaired. Apparently it had seized up, and would only make a frustrated noise when turned on. I noted the logo on the fan, and deduced that it was from Target.

The fan, give or take.

As the repair person donned his headlamp and got to work taking the chassis apart, I thought about this fan. Being from Target’s house brand, it was clearly a low-cost, high-volume item. It was probably purchased for no more than $20, and no more than a few years ago.

So right away, I was impressed that someone would take the time to even bother repairing such an item. Though, in point of fact, given the price of the original object, the sweet spot for repair would need to be effectively $0. Happily, this was how much that was charged here.

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I predict that no one at Target Corporation expected this fan to ever be repaired. The implication was that the purchaser would purchase another fan, and that this would necessarily be disposed of (into a landfill). This is, of course, the byproduct of massively inexpensive goods. If the fan had retailed for $200 and not $20, as I’m sure they used to be at one point, you can be sure that people would get their fans repaired.

So there is a definite sense of subversion in repairing a disposable item today. Repairing feels like we’re doing something we’re not supposed to, like we’re “doing it wrong”, but in the best possible way. We’re denying another pointless purchase, and removing waste from our already over-filled landfills.

The man used some kind of lubricant on the motor, and eventually was able to get the fan spinning again. The whole thing had taken less than a half hour, but everyone at that table (myself included) had a lovely time chatting with each other. Which itself felt vaguely subversive, since community-building seems also faintly discouraged by our commerce-obsessed society.

The spinning platter

Not everything can be repaired, of course.

While I watched another person have success getting a dehydrator to work again, the 5-disc CD changer stumped everyone. When plugged in, the platter would spin endlessly, never letting any CDs load into position. I watched as people poked and prodded the connections, but such an issue seemed more likely an problem with a circuit board, which I daresay even the most determined repair person would have difficultly teasing out. Some things may just be beyond us.

But many things are not. And this reminder that not only can things be repaired, but that there exist people and organizations and communities where such repairs can be made to happen, filled me with pride for my adopted home. If there was any evidence that we have the tools available to thrive as a community, this was it.

Our turn

Now I want you to look around your home at all the things you own. Many of these things you have will break, rip, or otherwise eventually become non-functional. What are you going to do when that happens? Will you throw it away and send it to a landfill? Or will you give it a second life?

I know that I’m already looking differently at objects in my possession. And that’s a good thing.

But enough about me. Have you ever gotten something repaired that was meant for disposal?

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