What do you do when your toaster stops working? After jiggling the cable, maybe unplugging it and plugging it back in, or checking that the outlet it’s connected to is working, most people just get a new toaster. The old toaster, more likely than not, ends up in the trash.
A toaster is pretty simple, though, if you think about it: electricity runs through high-resistance circuits, creating heat. When enough heat is created for long enough (or someone pushes the cancel button), it stops that current and pops up the toast. There’s only so many things that can go wrong in a toaster, so it should be easy to repair. But where to do that?
Most people aren’t inclined to open up electrical devices and see if they can figure it out – and justifiably so. No one wants to get shocked or accidentally start a fire. But toasters, like all our devices, were made by people, and can be fixed by people who know what they’re doing. It’s not even that hard once you know how.
That’s the basic idea behind a repair café: put a bunch of people who know how to fix different sorts of things together with the appropriate tools, and let a bunch of other people with stuff that needs fixing show up looking for help.
The Ottawa Tool Library has been running very successful repair cafes for several months now, at Makerspace North in, well, Ottawa. Volunteer fixers set up with their basic tools and some basic supplies, and people line up to get stuff repaired. Organizers make note of who needs help with what repairs, and match up participants with the next available fixer. In the meantime, snacks, coffee, and family activities are available for people who are waiting their turn.
The repairs are done free of charge, but people are encouraged to bring their own replacement parts wherever possible, and donations are collected to offset costs. Fixers may either repair the item, help the owner repair the item themselves, or, if it’s not repairable with the resources available, advice on where to go for further advice or to get the missing parts. Owners understand there are no guarantees about the repair, but often come away with the skills needed to fix future issues should they arise.
The repair café is also great for building community connections: fixers chat with the people they’re helping as they work, people mingle around the snack table, and proudly tell their friends and family about the new skills they’ve learned afterwards. Items repaired range from furniture to electronics to clothing, and skills involved may include sewing, darning, welding, and a range of other techniques.
By keeping usable items out of landfill, repair cafes reduce waste and reduce consumerism – you don’t need to buy so many new things if you can fix them when they break. By combining these advantages with a community building, educational day, they empower people to try new things, make new friends,, and keep on learning new skills. It’s a good idea, but it’s more than that – it’s also a good time. For more information on the Ottawa Tool Library Repair Cafés, or to get in touch with someone who can give you some pointers about running one of your own, visit www.OttawaToolLibrary.com.
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