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In The Most Yankee of Traditions, A 'Repair Café' Launches in Peterborough

Todd Bookman/NHPR

New Englanders, broadly speaking, are a thrifty bunch. Between garage sales, dump malls and Market Basket, we understand the value of a dollar. That makes the launch of a new Repair Café in Peterborough a natural fit.

Jeff Powell is trying to fix a floor lamp that’s gone limp. The threads are worn and it won’t stand up straight anymore. He figures a few carefully placed screws should solve the problem.

“The challenge of course is not to drill through the wire. That would be bad,” he says. “Step number one: unplug the lamp. Yeah, safety first.”

Powell is a volunteer at the Repair Café in Peterborough. It’s a monthly event held inside the MAxT Makerspace, a kind of gym but with tools and machinery. The concept of the Repair Café simple: if you’ve got a broken item, bring it in, and folks like Powell will try to get it working again. That’s how Anita Mendes ended up here with her sad, crooked lamp.

“I was trained to be a social worker. I can only talk,” jokes Mendes, explaining her lack of handywoman skills.

Within 30 minutes, Powell has the lamp back in good working order. He’s saving Anita Mendes a little money, and, in his eyes, doing what’s only natural.

“I grew up in Pennsylvania, but I’ve always had a very strong Yankee streak. Reduce, reuse, recycle, blah blah blah blah blah blah, the whole thing,” he says. “But to me, it was just normal. You didn’t throw things away, you fix things. The concept of a disposable society was just a horror.”

Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR
Jeff Powell of Dublin donates his time and handyman skills at the Repair Cafe.

The Repair Café is equal parts an environmental movement and an economic one. The first one took place in 2009 in Amsterdam. Martine Postma was a journalist writing about sustainability issues when she came up with the idea: a place where people could get together and mend their broken stuff. And, have a decent time.

“It makes you feel good to get something working again instead of just replacing it,” she says.

That good feeling is contagious. There are now more than 1,200 Repair Cafés held around the globe. Each one is free, open to everyone, and even the unskilled among us are encouraged to lend a hand. Or, at the very least, strike up a conversation while you watch.

“And this is what the Repair Café does: it brings together people who elsewhere might not have met, might never have talked to each other,” says Postma. “Well, that connects people.”

There are different workbenches set up around the room, including a table for jewelry repairs, one for small appliances and electronics, and a bicycle station. Chase Wilson Roper is sifting through a collection of broken earrings and necklaces. Some are family heirlooms, others just items she doesn’t want to see end up in a landfill.

'You didn't throw things away, you fix things. The concept of a disposable society was just a horror.'

“I know that things can be made to last for decades, and they’re just not,” she says. “Because it is not good for the economy they think.”

Today, though, even simple items are packed with technology. Jeff Powell says it requires a fair bit of confidence to take on that kind of project.

“Used to be that a toaster had a plug and a heating element and a switch and that was it,” he says. “And now, guy came in with a toaster, it’s got a computer inside of it. It’s a computerized toaster, for Pete’s sake. But the guy who is usually here, he fixed it. It was pretty amazing, actually.”

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University. He can be reached at tbookman@nhpr.org.
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