10 Stories of Transition in the US: The Spread of Repair Cafes

The following story is the second installment in a new series we’re calling “10 Stories of Transition in the US.” Throughout 2018, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Transition Movement here in the United States, we will explore 10 diverse and resilient Transition projects from all over the country, in the hope that they will inspire you to take similar actions in your local community.

In the midst of America’s Great Depression, merchants and manufacturers were looking for ways to quickly reboot the national economy. To get more people working and factories operating again, so the story goes, two main things needed to happen:

First, people had to replace what that they already owned. Through a process that real estate broker Bernard London called “planned obsolescence,” products began to be designed so they would soon fail. Second, the American people, and eventually the rest of the world, would need to shift from being the thrifty citizens that were so celebrated towards the end of World War I to the voracious consumers we are today.

While this extreme wastefulness was once seen as our civic duty, there is now a growing movement of people throughout the United States and all over the world who are finding better ways to strengthen their local economies while helping to heal the planet. One of the most exciting new strategies for doing this is a repair cafe.

Even a few decades ago, shops that fixed shoes, televisions, and a number of other everyday products were still commonplace, but these institutions have been nearly wiped out in recent years. In their place, repair cafes are now providing people with opportunities to breathe new life into broken things while cultivating community at the same time.

 Transitioners of all ages participate in Transition Town Charlotte's first repair cafe in 2017. Photo courtesy of Ruah Swennerfelt.
Transitioners of all ages participate in Transition Town Charlotte’s first repair cafe in 2017. Photo courtesy of Ruah Swennerfelt.

The modern repair cafe movement was born in the Netherlands in 2009, and it is now estimated that there are more than 1,300 such cafes operating in over 30 countries.

When Therese Brummel of the Arroyo S.E.C.O. Network of Time Banks and Transition Pasadena first read about the concept in the New York Times in 2012, she saw it as an opportunity: “The idea of keeping stuff out of our landfills and raising awareness about decreasing consumerism was something that deeply appealed to us.”

The idea is quite simple, and fairly easy to replicate. At least partially building on Transition Pasadena’s early success, repair cafes have now spread to Transition Town Charlotte in Vermont, Transition Howard County in Maryland, Transition Houston in Texas, and Woodstock Transition in New York.

“I had been reading about repair cafes for a number of years before we actually hosted one,” says Ruah Swennerfelt, who helped spearhead the project for Transition Town Charlotte. “What finally got us going was bringing together a group of three people to oversee the project, do the research, and come up with our own ideas about how to follow-through and make it successful.”

In contrast, Ginko Lee, who helped Therese Brummel publicize Transition Pasadena’s Repair Cafe before becoming one of its most committed advocates, now has about a dozen volunteer organizers and 50 repair people who come out to each event.

“Our first challenge was finding people who knew how to fix things,” explains Margo Duesterhaus of Transition Howard County. “Fortunately, one of our steering committee members is a master fixer and he was able to recruit others. We also were able to recruit fixers through the Howard County Time Bank.”

Most repair cafes simply match repairs that are needed and with people who have the skills to complete them. “A poll conducted by our time bank showed that clothing repairs were the most needed as well as the most offered skill,” observes Brummel. “The following month we held our first repair cafe with seven sewing machines running for three hours! It was a huge success! The following month, we decided to focus on electronic appliances. Again, a huge success! 45 events later, we now offer just about anything you can think of.”

Mending not just fabric, but the fabric of community, during a Transition Howard County repair cafe. Photo courtesy of Margo Duesterhaus.
Mending not just fabric, but the fabric of community, during a Transition Howard County repair cafe. Photo courtesy of Margo Duesterhaus.

Fixers are not the only volunteers who are needed to support these events. In addition to planning, soliciting donations, and obtaining food, volunteers run registration tables, manage the flow of participants and broken items, and lend support to those making repairs.

“Partner with your local time bank if you have one,” advises Duesterhaus. “Partner with organizations that have large rooms that you can use for free, such as libraries, churches, senior centers, and community colleges. We have been extremely fortunate that A LOT of local organizations are very excited about our repair cafes and have contacted us asking if they can host one. Also, we have found that moving our cafes around to different venues has had several benefits, including making them more accessible to people and helping to get the word out to different parts of the community.”

The response to Transition Pasadena’s initiative has been so positive that two of their greatest challenges are having too many people attending and having so much fun that no-one wants to stop at the scheduled time. Many repair cafes also include other activities for people engage in while their items are being fixed. In addition to having stations available for knife-sharpening and a bring-something-take-something market, there are often seed-swaps, live music, haircuts, massage chairs, educational materials, and classes on worm composting, chicken-keeping, backyard gardening, and other resilience-building initiatives.

Although the benefits of these cafes include repaired clothes, furniture, electrical appliances, bicycles, crockery, toys, jewelry, and more, the greatest benefit may be the increase in community spirit that is generated by these events.

“You get to know the people who are fixing your items and feel more connected,” says Duesterhaus. “Everyone leaves the repair cafe very happy. This makes all of our volunteers happy, which then makes them want to continue volunteering. Making so many people happy and providing tangible benefits to people who might not otherwise think that Transition is for them has made this one of our best means for building connections.”

Lee says that one of the most exhilarating aspects of their repair cafes is that everybody is both a giver and receiver: “The most significant thing is that for three or four hours, you have an amazing operating system that runs on very little money, but just people who sincerely want to help each other. This is where I have heard many people say, ‘This is the kind of world I want to live in.'”

About the Author:

Steve McAllister is a writer, performer, film producer, and advocate for sustainability, resilience, and quality of life. Currently making audiences laugh and think through his one-person show Will Rogers Revived, based on the writings of American icon Will Rogers, Steve’s upcoming book is entitled Money, Sex, Power & Faith: The Convergence of Culture. Find out more at www.SteveMc.xyz.