The Glorious Feeling of Fixing Something Yourself

When I mended my lamp at one of Portland's repair cafes, it was no longer "just" a lamp to me; I felt a fierce sense of attachment to it.
Repair PDX volunteer Bryce Jacobson tries to twist the knob to my broken floor lamp. “We can’t just recycle our way out of overconsumption and resource issues,” Jacobson says. “We have to rethink our relationship with stuff.”  (Christina Cooke)

Along with his broken toaster, Steve Vegdahl brought a slice of bread with him to Portland's repair cafe one day last month. By the time he left, his toaster was working again—and the sweet smell of toasted wheat permeated the room.

“This is the highlight of my day,” Vegdahl said as he waited for the chrome Sunbeam, probably a 1950s model, to cool off so he could take it home. “I’m a software person; I don’t have a lot of mechanical aptitude. I’m not good at taking things apart.” 

Christina Cooke
Repair PDX volunteer Randy Greb (left) and participant Steve Vegdahl test Vegdahl’s art-deco toaster to make sure it functions properly. Though his neighbor gave him the device at a garage sale a few years ago, Vegdahl feels a special attachment because his parents had one just like it when he was growing up in the ’50s. (Christina Cooke)

Since a woman named Martine Postma established the first repair café in Amsterdam in 2009, the concept of free events at which volunteers with repair skills assist participants with broken furniture, appliances, bicycles, clothing and toys, has spread far and wide. 

More than 50 cafes operate throughout the Netherlands, France, Germany and the United Kingdom, and, in the U.S., people have begun convening regularly at coffee shops and event spaces in New York, Chicago, Palo Alto, Los Angeles, Seattle and—as of earlier this year—my hometown of Portland, Oregon, to fix busted items.

Repair PDX founder Lauren Gross, 33, says the Portland events attract people philosophically opposed to waste as well as those who simply want a favorite item to work again. Around 50 people attended the first gathering, held last May in a large, airy coffee shop, she said, and about 35 have shown up to the monthly gatherings since. 

Repair PDX volunteers and participants tackle fix-it projects across the floor of the historic Kenton Firehouse, a building dedicated in 1913 that now serves as an event space. (Christina Cooke)

“We’re going back to some of the old values our grandparents held and moving away from mainstream consumption,” said Cindy Correll, one of the café’s other organizers. “By reusing, we’re keeping things out of the waste stream and eliminating the need to make another product.” Plus, she said, reusing requires fewer resources than its more publicized counterpart recycling.

Correll attributes the success of fix-it ventures like Repair PDX in part to the recent economic downturn. When money was tight, she said, “people started looking at things differently.”

When I carried my broken floor lamp into Portland’s December gathering, held in a historic firehouse on the north side of town, numerous repairs were already underway. 

At one table, Stan Jones shaved rotten foam from around a stereo speaker with a thin blade, preparing the surface for a new foam cover. At another, Brett Stern tackled an electric stand mixer, eventually offering to take the contraption home for further inspection. Laurie Sugahbeare fixed a necklace a woman had snagged on her sweater earlier that day.

And Bryce Jacobson wrapped plumber tape around the center rod of a broken coffee grinder to compensate for the stripped threads. “We’re just buying a little time from the landfill,” he said, acknowledging the jankiness of the solution.

 “I just have to admire the fixing of something—I love it!” says a woman looking on as Repair PDX volunteers Bryce Jacobson (left) and Randy Greb (right) tackle a broken coffee grinder.  (Christina Cooke)

Jacobson, who works as a regional solid waste planner by day, said he’s always liked to tinker. Even as a kid, he would take home appliances he found in dumpsters, and he’d disassemble and rebuild them. As a Repair PDX volunteer, Jacobson wants to instill a repair ethic in participants—and teach them the practical skills to back up the ideal.

“One of the most powerful things to realize is that you can actually fix your stuff when it’s not working,” he said. “I like seeing people make that connection.”

Despite recent efforts by people like Repair PDX volunteers, repair culture stands counter to the dominant, disposable mentality. While products like disposable diapers, sanitary pads and paper plates are unabashedly designed for the dump, many other objects—radios, televisions, microwaves, etc.—are made to be tossed as well (though they’re slightly less blatant about it).

Last month when my washing machine began skipping the spin cycle, for example, my landlord’s first response was to have a brand new machine delivered to the house. Replacing the washer, he reasoned, would be cheaper and easier than diagnosing the problem, finding new parts and paying a handyman to install them.

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Christina Cooke is a writer based in North Carolina.

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