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Fix-it culture thriving in Amsterdam repair cafes.

Posted in Models, Movements by Jessica Bird on May 18th, 2012

Source: NY Times


Photo from 1010uk via flickr CC

From “An Effort to Bury a Throwaway Culture One Repair at a Time” by Sally McGrane

AMSTERDAM — An unemployed man, a retired pharmacist and an upholsterer took their stations, behind tables covered in red gingham. Screwdrivers and sewing machines stood at the ready. Coffee, tea and cookies circulated. Hilij Held, a neighbor, wheeled in a zebra-striped suitcase and extracted a well-used iron. “It doesn’t work anymore,” she said. “No steam.” Ms. Held had come to the right place. At Amsterdam’s first Repair Cafe, an event originally held in a theater’s foyer, then in a rented room in a former hotel and now in a community center a couple of times a month, people can bring in whatever they want to have repaired, at no cost, by volunteers who just like to fix things.

Conceived of as a way to help people reduce waste, the Repair Cafe concept has taken off since its debut two and a half years ago. The Repair Cafe Foundation has raised about $525,000 through a grant from the Dutch government, support from foundations and small donations, all of which pay for staffing, marketing and even a Repair Cafe bus. Thirty groups have started Repair Cafes across the Netherlands, where neighbors pool their skills and labor for a few hours a month to mend holey clothing and revivify old coffee makers, broken lamps, vacuum cleaners and toasters, as well as at least one electric organ, a washing machine and an orange juice press.

“In Europe, we throw out so many things,” said Martine Postma, a former journalist who came up with the concept after the birth of her second child led her to think more about the environment. “It’s a shame, because the things we throw away are usually not that broken. There are more and more people in the world, and we can’t keep handling things the way we do. I had the feeling I wanted to do something, not just write about it,” she said. […] “I think it’s a great idea,” said Han van Kasteren, a professor at the Eindhoven University of Technology who works on waste issues. “The social effect alone is important. When you get people together to do something for the environment, you raise consciousness. And repairing a vacuum cleaner is a good feeling.” […]

Ms. Tellegen added that older people in particular find a niche at the Repair Cafe. “They have skills that have been lost,” she said. “We used to have a lot of people who worked with their hands, but our whole society has developed into something service-based.” Evelien H. Tonkens, a sociology professor at the University of Amsterdam, agreed. “It’s very much a sign of the times,” said Dr. Tonkens, who noted that the Repair Cafe’s anti-consumerist, anti-market, do-it-ourselves ethos is part of a more general movement in the Netherlands to improve everyday conditions through grass-roots social activism.

“It’s definitely not a business model,” Ms. Postma said. She added that because the Repair Cafe caters to people who find it too expensive to have their items fixed, it should not compete with existing repair shops. The Repair Cafe Foundation provides interested groups with information to help get them started, including lists of tools, tips for raising money and marketing materials. Ms. Postma has received inquiries from France, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, South Africa and Australia. […]

Theo van den Akker, an accountant by day, had taken on the case of the nonsteaming iron. Wearing a T-shirt that read “Mr. Repair Café,” Mr. van den Akker removed the plastic casing, exposing a nest of multicolored wires. As he did, Ms. Held and Ms. van der Rhee discussed the traditional Surinamese head scarves that Ms. Held, who was born in Suriname, makes for a living. When Mr. van den Akker put the iron back together, two parts were left over — no matter, he said, they were probably not that important. He plugged the frayed cord into a socket. A green light went on. Rusty water poured out. Finally, it began to steam.

Read the full article by Sally McGrane.

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