The Repair Café: reduce, reuse, connect

Fixer Blair was able to fix a beloved toaster for author Sarah Young and family. Photo: Mary Paquet

By Sarah Young

One Saturday morning in September, my kids and I headed to the Repair Café to try to save our beloved toaster from landfill. The experience was memorable and transformative. The Repair Café concept originated in Amsterdam and is now international. It came to Ottawa in 2017 as an initiative of the Ottawa Tool Library with the goal of reducing landfill waste, teaching new skills and building community. The library now offers a Repair Café every couple of months.

When we arrived, we were warmly greeted by a handful of eager volunteers who signed us up and indicated at which “fixer’s table” to wait. Each of the 15 or so tables was humming with activity, fixers on one side and eager participants on the other. During our short wait, we were offered coffee and snacks. As we waited, I saw lamps, small pieces of furniture, textiles and eyewear being mended as volunteers signed up the increasing flow of new arrivals. There was a buzz of community engagement and social responsibility.

When our turn came, we were greeted by a very friendly fixer named Blair who spent a solid 45 minutes on our four-slice toaster. The original makers do not want you to fix it; they want you to throw it out and buy a new one.  Blair painstakingly took it apart, removing all 50 screws, fixing the levers inside and finally putting it all back together. He breathed new life into the beloved machine that is used daily in our kitchen.

The Ottawa Tool Library’s Repair Café is a chance to save broken stuff from the landfill, learn something and be part of a shared experience. Photo: Mary Paquet

Why try out the Repair Café?

Reduce waste: I am on a quest to reduce and work towards a zero-waste mentality, so I was thrilled to save another item from the dump. The Ottawa Repair Café and Tool Library emerged because people wanted to pool resources in a way that would benefit the environment. The fixers are specialists of all sorts, so bring along your cracked eyeglass frames, the toaster oven with the broken levels, that sentimental necklace with the missing link in the chain, the flute with a sticky key, the torn duvet cover or the footstool missing a leg. Don’t forget to bring the missing piece or a replacement. You’ll feel so good about diverting from landfill!

Teach new skills and save money: My kids are 13 and 15 and they delighted in being Blair’s helpers, learning the basics of mechanics, from levers and springs to keeping track of the 50 screws. I was just as delighted to save money by not having to buy another toaster.

Build community: Being a fixer allows someone like Blair to use his skills as he always has, even now that he’s retired, and it gets him out into his community, teaching others and building a sense of resilience. Everyone at the Repair Café was jazzed up, young and old working together to fix things, energized by a shared experience. When we got home, my kids and I immediately started looking at a couple of old lamps and other electrical items sitting in our basement and felt inspired to try to fix a few things ourselves. All in all, it was a great community and family-bonding experience.

Upon further reflection, I see this as a way to create connection to your personal values, to the community, to the planet. It is also a way to feel joy – the joy of working with one’s hands, of teaching the younger generation and of being involved in a resurgence of skilled labour and community engagement. My teenagers gained hands-on experience and knowledge from an individual whose trade was taken over by the big-box stores and a throw-away consumer economy. This communal sharing of knowledge reminded me of how it must have been when our ancestors passed down their know-how to their children, strengthening their independence and their respect for the wise ones in the community.

The Ottawa Tool Library in Makerspace North is located at 250 City Centre Avenue, Bay 216, which is up the ramp on the second level. Upcoming Repair Café dates are November 9 and December 7, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Register at: 792-838-1883.

Sarah Young is a member of the Glebe Community Association’s Environment Committee and leads its subcommittee on single-use plastics.

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