Repair Cafes: More Than Just Repairs

Daylesford Repair Cafe’s manifesto. Illustration by Brenna Quinlan

Imagine a world where we know and care for the life story of things and care about how items are used and re-used. The Repair Cafe movement is working to create such a world.

Just over 12 months ago, Daylesford’s Repair Cafe started with a community meeting to bring together local repairers and supporters, people who could volunteer their time and skills every month. The breadth of skills uncovered included sewing, soldering, welding, mechanical and electrical work, knife and tool sharpening, bicycle maintenance, metal and woodwork, cooking, cake making, financial management and general support.

The Cafe is open the third Sunday of every month, from 1–4 pm, at Hepburn Shire’s Victoria Park Pavilion. Support from the regional waste management group enabled promotional material to be produced. Before long, the new Cafe was registered on the International Repair Cafe Foundation worldwide map.

Victoria is leading the way in Australia with 33 repair cafes operating, 21 in rural areas and 12 in metropolitan Melbourne. The Repair Cafe movement recently celebrated 10 years since it began in the Netherlands. Repair Cafes are popping up like mushrooms around the world. Like a network of mycelium, established Cafes generously share resources and know-how to support the emergence of new ones.

During this past year, more than one tonne of household and garden items around Daylesford have been repaired and kept out of landfill. As important as waste reduction is, Daylesford’s Repair Cafe Manifesto places equal emphasis on six other system-change values: making things last; learning, sharing and retrieving skills; community building; diverse economies; community education; and accessibility for all.

dress
A dress mended and ready for summer, thanks to Jane. Photo by Mara Ripani

The Joy Of Fixing

There is a joy in fixing things as Jane, who mends clothes, explains: ‘It’s a soothing thing to repair things, it’s meditative. There’s a rhythm to fixing things and it’s satisfying to see a job well done.’ Julian, a ‘self-taught tinkerer’, speaks of the pleasure in improvising, ‘enjoying the challenge of fixing things, of seeing the joy on people’s faces when something is fixed.’

Everything Has A Story

Zen teacher and writer, Susan Murphy, reminds us that ‘in the end, the only objects that truly continue to matter to us are … the scuffed, bent, thumb-marked ones whose story we know and have shared for generations.’

Marianna from Castlemaine mended a picture frame: ‘It was a simple repair and when it was completed, the woman burst into tears and told me the photo in the frame was her son who died. The frame and photo belonged together and their sentimental value was more important than anything else.’

Local Daylesford ceramicist Petrus tells a story about repairing a broken ceramic bowl, brought to him by six-yearold Woody. There was a small shard missing. Petrus made the missing piece and glued it together with the other shards. He wrote a note to Woody: ‘I learned the art of restoration from the Japanese tradition. When a bowl gets broken and is restored it’s not less because it has broken, but more because it has been fixed. The bowl has a richer history. So your bowl is now a bit more special. I feel special that you allowed me to fix such a precious bowl. I hope you like it, (re)made with love.’

Sharing And Passing On Skills

Repair Cafes value the skills of fixers, encouraging them to teach other people. If we don’t pass on skills then, like languages, we run the risk of losing them. Like languages, skills need to be used to remain alive. For Susan, a sound engineer with experience in electronics, ‘it’s frustrating having a skill that nobody wants, especially when most of what goes into landfill can easily be fixed.’

Raia, who was inspired by her mother’s ability to replace elements in the toaster and kettle, says ‘we need to see a turnaround in the complications of modern things, in the culture of throwing out, a turnaround in the perceptions of people who think items are not repairable when in fact they are.’

Being Inquisitive And Inventive

Inventiveness is an essential tool in the repairer’s kit. When Dora brought her blender to the Cafe, Julian identified the problem and made a new piece. Then Dora brought her sewing machine, which had a plastic piece broken. Julian again used his inventiveness and made a new metal piece: ‘and now the machine works like a dream.’

Phil at Castlemaine has always fixed things: ‘If you’re going to chuck it in the bin, why not pull it apart, try and fix it and see how it works? It can’t break any more.’ For John, it’s the lateral thinking he uses when repairing: ‘It’s about having a go. It’s about being inquisitive and inventive enough to want to know how some things work.’

Repairing The Fabric Of Community

There’s a connection between the way society treats material objects, people and the Earth. Repair is a way to care about ourselves, our community and our Earth. The Right to Repair movement observes ‘relationships between people and material things tend to be reciprocal. When we restore material things, they restore us.’ Returning to an economy of repair has the capacity to create a ‘kinder, more inclusive society.’

Repair Cafes are places where everyone can contribute, belong and be valued for what they offer. Connections are formed across generations. Skills are shared and celebrated. Veronica welcomes people on arrival and links them with the most suitable fixers. She knows ‘there’s a place and job for everyone’.

Django talks about electrical items with Susan. ‘He’s fixing fairy lights at the moment,’ his mother, Maya, says. ‘He likes the environment of people doing stuff, he likes to come into a hub of activity.’

Dallas, who looks after coffee and tea and cakes, appreciates the ‘warmth and inclusiveness of caring people, passionate about community and the earth, getting together to make a difference.’

The spirit of generosity engendered by volunteer fixers and supporters is infectious.

Local artist, Brenna, illustrated Daylesford Repair Cafe’s manifesto and another artist, Jonno, sketched the logo. Tools and materials, cakes and more are gifted. Along with the community, Hepburn Shire, the regional waste and resource recovery group and Neighbourhood Centre contribute in different ways to the project.

Clockwise from above: Mending clothes together and sharing a cuppa is much more than just the repairs; A sentimental antique clock is fixed; Karen repairing clothes for another happy recipient; Mark shows Julian, and young son Axel, how to sharpen draw knives. Photos by Mara Ripani

Diverse Economies

Repair economies don’t regard material things as expendable. Based entirely on gift and sharing economies, Repair Cafes allow consumers to become contributors. In Christina’s words, ‘individually and collectively we can do small things for the planet.’ Veronica doesn’t feel powerless: ‘anything that keeps things out of landfill, that re-uses instead of buying, is a little way of contributing to the environment.’

Knowledge And Skills

Skills and tools at the Cafe are available for anyone to learn and use, irrespective of income level or ability. Conversations around repair tables include and go beyond the challenges and joys of repair. Listen in and you might hear tales about machines, tools and even buildings created and re-purposed from thrown-away materials with examples of living simply, creatively and richly.

You might discover ingredients for fermented sauerkraut or what’s fruiting in the community garden. You might learn about retrofitting a vehicle to run on used vegetable oil. Invariably, stories are about the little ways each and every one of us cares for one another and for the earth.

Local And Accessible

‘Essential to every local community,’ Meg says, delighted with Jane’s repair work on her jacket, ‘is a Repair Cafe, a community garden and a seed library.’ Dora acknowledges the convenience of having repairers nearby. She also values the social aspect: ‘bumping into people I know, or meeting people whose face I might have seen … having a cuppa, a chat, some food while at the same time getting things repaired.’

Elke helps those who may know how to repair but are impeded by factors such as arthritic hands or declining eyesight. Other people need help with learning new skills: ‘we showed two men how to use a sewing machine. By the end of that Cafe those men were using the machine with confidence and had repaired a number of clothing items.’

Thinking Seven Generations Deep

The North American Hopi approach any big communal decision by asking, ‘what will this mean for the next seven generations?’ It’s an attitude that shares a responsibility to future generations, against the theft and vandalism inherent in planned obsolescence.

As welcoming places for children, Meg says Cafes ‘encourage a repair ethic, as opposed to a disposable one, and this ensures that mending becomes habituated.’ Dallas reminds us that ‘fixing things not only reduces waste, it also reduces potential trips to the tip or transfer station to dispose of broken items. It saves on replacement costs. It reduces the quantity of new goods manufactured and resources required to make them, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.’

Repair Cafes are a growing community movement around the world. In Christina’s words, Repair Cafes ‘help make things have a second life … or even more lives.’

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